By JENN ADAMS
Though Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West usually jumps to mind when we think of iconic witches, many children of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond grew up watching a different kind of occult practitioner. Ursula the Sea Witch (voiced by Pat Carroll) may be the villain of the 1989 Disney film THE LITTLE MERMAID, but she swam her way into many of our hearts with her voluptuous glamor and her gorgeous contralto voice. Ursula is arguably one of the most enduring characters on Disney‘s long list of animated villains, but she’s seldom mentioned in conversations about cinematic witches. Though she lives under the sea, this half-human half-octopus magician embodies many classic traits of a witch, some dating back to the origins of Western folklore. Ursula practices her magic over a bubbling cauldron, she survives by trading with people desperate for help and she’s vilified for failing to conform to the traditional gender norms of a patriarchal society.
Based on the 1837 story by Hans Christian Anderson, Disney’s animated film follows a mermaid named Ariel (Jodi Benson) who develops an obsession with humanity and dreams of living on land. She deliberately disobeys orders from her father, King Triton (Kenneth Mars), and makes a habit of swimming to the surface. Watching a passing ship, Ariel instantly falls in love with the dashing Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) and pulls him from the sea when his ship sinks in a storm. Furious with her father and desperate to join Eric on land, Ariel turns to Ursula for help. The young mermaid trades her voice for a potion that will turn her into a human for three days while she tries to win her prince’s heart. If she fails to receive the kiss of true love before the sun sets on the third day, she will descend into Ursula’s hellish garden of poor and unfortunate souls. Unbeknownst to Ariel, Ursula has an ulterior motive. She plans to use the little mermaid as a bargaining chip to steal Triton’s throne and become queen of the ocean.
So many of us have grown up with Ursula as a part of our lives that it’s difficult to imagine the story going any other way. However, Hans Christian Anderson’s original version is much darker. The potion Ariel buys (by trading her tongue rather than her voice) causes her excruciating pain with every step she takes on land. She has all the time in the world to win her prince’s heart, but if he marries another, she will turn to seafoam and evaporate on the crashing waves. When the prince falls in love with a princess from a neighboring town, the Little Mermaid has the chance to save her own life by killing the man she loves. Should his blood run over her feet, she will turn back into a mermaid and return to her home. Unable to murder her beloved, the Little Mermaid turns to seafoam. Because of her selflessness, she becomes a daughter of the air, destined to spend the next 300 years trying to earn a human soul.
The unnamed sea witch plays only a minor part in the original story. Rather than an evil would-be queen, she’s simply an unconventional and solitary merwoman who supports herself by selling spells and potions. She warns the Little Mermaid that this potion will cause pain and then exits the story after the Little Mermaid’s transition. Though the sea witch predicts failure, she does nothing to sabotage the Little Mermaid. The prince simply falls in love with someone else and never knows what his silent friend has given up in her attempt to win his heart.
As with many of its iconic titles, Disney takes this rather dark story and filters it through a patriarchal lens. The magical tale becomes a lesson for little girls about how they should act and who they should be to thrive in a male-dominated society. The conventionally attractive Ariel is urged to cement her place in either world by securing the love of a husband who will protect her in the place of her father. Ursula stands in opposition to all of that with her inky black tentacles and solitary lifestyle. Inspired by legendary drag queen Divine and voiced by actress and comedienne Pat Carroll, Ursula thrives in her own little corner of the ocean and seems determined to live life on her own terms. Though she has become a fan favorite, what message does the sea witch’s ostracization and vilification send to little children still trying to find their own places in the world? Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID is a parable about restoring male control and using femininity to gain limited power. Ursula just happens to know how to play the game.
It’s difficult to pick a favorite song from the incredible soundtrack by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, but the ballad Part of Your World is arguably the film’s most enduring hit. Ariel sings this musical wish to be human while swimming around her secret treasure trove full of humanalia, painstakingly collected from shipwrecks littering the sea floor. The plot revolves around Ariel’s quest to become part of the human world, but to get there, she turns to a woman who is not part of any world. Ursula lives in her cavernous lair far away from the other mermaids, with only her pet eels for company. We don’t know why she’s been banished from King Triton’s territory, but the sea witch’s name is whispered in hushed tones by merpeople who fear her powerful magic. The only clue to her crimes is the musical line in which she confesses that in the past she’s been “a nasty.” Her witchcraft is vilified while King Triton, who also possesses the ability to practice magic, is presented as a benevolent ruler.
In her book Lights, Camera, Witchcraft, A Critical History of Witches in American Film and Television, Heather Greene points out that Ursula deviates from Disney’s flock of evil queens and female villains. She does not gaze into a magic mirror dreaming of possessing eternal youth and surpassing beauty. Ursula simply wants power. She seems completely comfortable with her body, one dramatically different from any other mermaid. Rather than scales and fins, her lower half resembles an octopus and is much larger than those of King Triton and his daughters. With her short hair and low voice, she embodies a look that is gender fluid and free, defying the conventional standards of beauty prized by a patriarchal society. Greene writes, “Ursula exists as the foremost evil for the conservative establishment. She is an empowered female character, embracing a gender construction often seen as abhorrent.” By shunning Ursula without explanation, it’s logical to assume that her only sins are a non-conventional persona and the willingness to support herself through magic.
We do learn that Ursula is Triton’s sister and thus part of a royal family. Could it be that she’s been banished for trying to wrestle power from her brother? This is probably not the first time she’s tried to steal his throne. Or perhaps she’s just been kicked out for the same reason millions of women find themselves shunned and rejected: She is not willing to submit to the standards he sets. The question then becomes, did Ursula become “a nasty” before or after her brother rejected her? We know that she preys on the poor unfortunate souls of the ocean, but were she to live in the palace with her family, she would have no need to support herself by selling spells. With no context for Ursula’s backstory, she seems to have been damned by the mere appearance of evil and falls into a long line of women cast out of society for refusing to demure to the men in their lives.
Ursula may not care much about conforming to patriarchal guidelines, but she knows how to make them work for her. When advising Ariel on how to land Prince Eric, she sings, “The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber.” She suggests Ariel use her “body language” and hands her the tools of the patriarchy to use in seducing her man. To maintain control, Ursula keeps tabs on Ariel while she tries to win the heart of the prince. After a near miss, she follows Ariel to land disguised as a beautiful woman named Vanessa and pretends to be the one who pulled Eric from the sea. To secure her throne, Ursula transforms herself into the pinnacle of female power: a young and conventionally attractive woman. Using Ariel’s voice as a siren song, she immediately traps Eric in her spell.
Once she has claimed victory, Ursula returns to her true form and drags Ariel back into the ocean depths. She now has Triton right where she wants him. Preying on the sea king’s love for his youngest daughter, she convinces him to take Ariel’s place in the Garden of Lost Souls. As Triton’s crown falls, Ursula grabs it and claims her place as ruler. Mad with power, Ursual swells to magnificent heights and rises above the waves, causing a deadly whirlpool that spins the wreckage of massive ships rotting up from the ocean floor. With Ariel’s primary protector laid low, another man comes to her rescue. Eric steers one of the crumbling ships and impales Ursula with its bowsprit. Having taken out the father, she’s killed by the phallic object of the new husband on behalf of their virgin prize. The 2023 live-action remake gives this action to Ariel herself, increasing the young princess’s agency, but both versions of the story see Ursula undone by a symbol of masculine power.
Rob Marshall’s remake updates the story in an attempt to reconcile some of the original film’s problematic messaging. Ariel (Halle Bailey) and Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) fall in love based on shared interests rather than the fact that they both happen to be attractive and exist near each other. What’s more, a nefarious element of Ursula’s spell causes Ariel to forget her mission, freeing her to explore her new environment without constantly fretting about how to manipulate a man. However, this new version of the story does little to alter Ursula’s character. Brilliantly brought to life by Melissa McCarthy, she essentially recreates Carroll’s iconic performance with bits of additional humor thrown in along the way.
The animated film ends on the happy couple’s wedding day. Ariel has convinced her father to transform her into a human after all, and the entire point of the movie is resolved with a simple wave of his staff. He’s letting his daughter go, but only into the arms of another man. Patriarchal norms have been reestablished, the non-conforming villain has been killed and all is well. Greene notes that Ariel, “now aware of her sexuality and its power, is safely contained by a prince husband, becoming ‘part of his world.’” We’re left to wonder if Ariel will regret her choice. Will she live happily ever after, or will she eventually be cast out of Eric’s world if she dares to again challenge the established order? The moral of the story seems to be that Ariel gets to choose what world she belongs to so long as she plays by the rules and aligns herself with the right men. Ursula attempts to break free of these restrictive norms and reclaim her own autonomy. Unfortunately, there is no place for poor Ursula in King Triton’s ocean, and she is ostracized for attempting to create a world of her own.