Everybody loves the striking redhead with the singular voice and the studasaurus prince on her arm. We’re talking, of course, about The Little Mermaid, the visually stunning and subtext-laden 1989 Disney animated version of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. Let me kick off the proceedings by saying that this brotherman loves, loves, loves The Little Mermaid. I love the colours, characters, the ’choons and the heightened gayness of the whole ting. In case you weren’t hip to the hop, The Little Mermaid is quite possibly the most queer-centric animation in Disney’s canon (and, no, Frozen doesn’t come close). Everything about it smacks of a gay allegory. The pretty mermaid who silently engages with the forbidden world in order to get with her man has been seen as a representation of Anderson’s doomed romance with a young duke in the 1830s. But even though the film is about Ariel and her besotted blandishments, the real scene stealer is Ursula the sea witch. Inspired by Divine, John Waters’ shocking drag queen du jour, Ursula’s characterisations, quips and putdowns are priceless. Every time I see her on screen, I am aglow with glee.
Ursula is devious but she’s charming with it. Even when she’s making her most impressive chess move – convincing the dithering Ariel to sign the most iron-clad, pernicious contract – she does so with flavour and oodles of finesse. Consider these lyrics in the film’s standout cabaret number courtesy of Ursula (Pat Carroll) and lyricists Howard Ashman and Alan Menken:
‘I admit that in the past I've been a nasty/ They weren't kidding when they called me, well, a witch/ But you'll find that nowadays/ I've mended all my ways/ Repented, seen the light, and made a switch/ To this/ And I fortunately know a little magic/ It's a talent that I always have possessed/ And dear lady, please don't laugh/ I use it on behalf/ Of the miserable, the lonely, and depressed (Pathetic).’
When Ursula breaks it down to my gyal Ariel that she has to give up her voice in order to gallivant with her prince, Ursula makes her case like so:
‘The men up there don't like a lot of blabber/ They think a girl who gossips is a bore/ Yet on land it's much preferred for ladies not to say a word/ And after all dear, what is idle babble for? / Come on, they're not all that impressed with conversation/ True gentlemen avoid it when they can/ But they dote and swoon and fawn/ On a lady who's withdrawn/ It's she who holds her tongue who gets a man.’
Legend has it that the late Howard Ashman, Disney’s gay former exec and the visionary behind The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, wanted to cram as many queer associations into both films as he could, with Ursula the crown jewel of Disney’s renaissance era. When Ursula, who is the best thing about the film, meets her grisly end, I couldn’t help but sniff a little. In the intervening decades, films like Megamind and Despicable Me have recalibrated our understanding and appreciation for camp animated villains. But none of them are as camp or as deliciously loco as Ursula. I imagine she’s having a blast hanging with Hades, Jafar and Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove, tormenting poor unfortunate souls in Disney purgatory.