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Aug. 7, 2022

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‘Mermaid’ part of Disney’s renaissance

1989 film reflects studio’s complicated LGBTQ canon

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You could describe “The Little Mermaid’s” Ursula as an ambitious, villainous, octopus-like sea witch, but Pat Carroll would disagree with you on at least one point.

Carroll, who died Saturday at 95, long maintained that the spellbinding Disney icon she first voiced in the 1989 animated feature is a squid.

“Many people call her an octopus, and I’m so knowledgable I have to correct them,” Carroll explained in the documentary “Treasures Untold: The Making of ‘The Little Mermaid.’” “She’s not an octopus; she’s a squid. … She has six tentacles instead of eight.”

The cephalopod that Ursula embodies may be debatable, but her legacy is undeniable. The larger-than-life character is a key piece of the magic that propelled “The Little Mermaid’s” success and its ascent into the pantheon of Disney animated classics. A commercial and critical hit, “The Little Mermaid” changed the trajectory of animation at the studio and ushered in a new golden age of animated features now known as the Disney renaissance.

Beyond that, “The Little Mermaid” and the beloved, campy Ursula are also a reflection of Disney’s complicated queer canon. It’s a history of films with themes and villains coded queer through subtext and (often troubling) stereotypes on the one hand, and the contributions of (often unsung) LGBTQ creatives on the other.

Disney’s storied history is rooted in animation. The studio’s first foray into feature-length films was 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which broke new ground for animated storytelling. For decades, the studio released animated films that are now considered classics, including “Pinocchio” (1940), “Cinderella” (1950), “Peter Pan” (1953), “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) and “The Jungle Book” (1967).

But by the 1980s, when writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements began work on “The Little Mermaid,” the success and cultural footprint of Disney’s feature animation had begun to wane — so much so that the animation department had been moved off the studio’s Burbank lot into trailers and warehouses in nearby Glendale.

Among the stars that aligned for “The Little Mermaid” is the involvement of producer Howard Ashman. The gay playwright and lyricist envisioned the fairy-tale adaptation akin to a Broadway musical and tapped his collaborator Alan Menken to help write songs and compose the score of the film.

The most direct reading of “The Little Mermaid” — about a 16-year-old princess who gives up everything, including her voice, for a chance at happily ever after with a prince she falls for at first sight — has long been recognized as painfully heteronormative and plenty problematic: She’s 16 and doesn’t actually know the prince.

But the story about a teen who feels like an outsider in her home falling in love with someone she isn’t supposed to while she longs to feel accepted has also resonated with generations of queer fans. That subtext feels particularly poignant knowing that LGBTQ artists like Ashman had a hand in bringing Ariel’s story to life.

Then there’s Ursula, who is not only flashy and flamboyant, but also funny. She oozes confidence and, in her own way, plots against the traditions of the establishment. She’s easily one of the movie’s most charismatic characters, even if she is evil. And while the tendency to use queer stereotypes to project otherness onto a villain has long been a problematic feature of Hollywood movies, Ursula rings a bit different.

Her design is modeled after Divine, the drag performer best known for working with queer filmmaker John Waters. Carroll has mentioned in interviews that she matched her performance of Ursula to Ashman’s after watching his rendition of the sea witch’s song “ Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Ursula is a reminder that LGBTQ influences have long been a part of Disney’s history, even when the queer representation wasn’t visible.

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