How an obnoxious drag queen found stardom in ‘The Little Mermaid’

For more than three decades, Ursula, Atlanta’s buxom sea witch, takes to the big screen for the first time, as the underwater lady of chaos returns to tempt the seas in the new live-action version of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” To celebrate her return, everyone from comedian Melissa McCarthy, who plays King Triton’s talkative heartthrob, to film historians are taking the opportunity to pay tribute to the legendary drag queen who inspired Ursula’s Unhealthy Way: Divinity.

There are many legends surrounding how the 1989 animated villain The Little Mermaid, written and directed by Ron Clements and John Mucker, came to be. By some accounts, the animators working on the film had a particularly difficult time getting the right look for her antagonist, who was originally portrayed as a “dynastic” matron with some sharp language. But all accounts include a flashback moment when a young illustrator, Rob Minkoff, arrives with a vampy, masquerade matron.

“The way the character is portrayed in the script is like a Joan Collins-esque character. So the pattern most people were working on was a very slender woman with a high forehead, broad cheekbones and very dark hair,” Minkoff told NBC News. “Then I suggested this alternative method, based on the films of Devin and John Waters.” In the year Minkoff, who went on to co-direct “The Lion King” and other Disney films in 1994, said he included the divinity in at least one storyboard. And that’s what caught the eye of Howard Ashman—a prolific lyricist widely credited with the “Disney renaissance” of the late ’80s—when he saw the designs.

“Howard looked at all the designs and focused on that,” Minkoff recalled Musker telling him at the time. “So John came back to me and said, ‘Howard likes your picture, and this is the way we want to take it.’

Ashman, along with his creative partner, composer Alan Menken, was hired by Disney after the success of their off-Broadway play, Little Shop of Horrors, hoping to give the studio a much-needed hit.

Once Ashman arrived in Los Angeles — as detailed in Don Hahn’s documentary “Howard” — he visited the studio’s animation arm, seeing an opportunity to marry his musical theater background with a more gritty, experimental artists’ approach. And that’s exactly what he did with “The Little Mermaid,” the first of Disney’s hit animated musicals.

Looking back on that studio era, Minkoff says people forget that Walt Disney, the man “was an innovator who broke the rules throughout his career.”

Howard Ashman, left, and Alan Menken.Disney+

There are a lot of really cool things in the first animated movies that people forget, not the least of which was killing off Bambi’s mother, but Disney played it safe with the stories and movies they were making at the time. ” Minkoff said of the company before Ashman arrived. I think everyone who was in animation at that time in the 80s was a big fan of the old Disney classics and wanted to make the modern movies reach the same heights – and the only way to do that, we all know, is to push the boundaries of what seems acceptable.

Minkoff’s idea of ​​modeling Ursula — a stint on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” sea witch — certainly pushed the boundaries on a drag queen who embraces the quirky and eccentric.

During her illustrious career, Divine, born Harris Glen Milstead, was the muse of avant-garde director John Waters, who affectionately called the drag queen “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” As Waters’ popular female lead, she helped the director pioneer the genre of “trash cinema”: low-budget productions that satiate overblown, exploitation films.

The pair’s lifelong friendship and storied collaboration began when the Baltimore natives met as teenagers in the mid-1960s. Their first film, 1966’s “Roman Candles,” featured a dialed-back version of Divine, an homage to Andy Warhol’s “The Chelsea Girls.” But as they continue to work together, the drag queen, with the help of water, transforms into an unrecognizable superhuman: a shapely queen with killer tendencies, a shaved hairline and extreme, arched brows.

It was this divine that shocked audiences and infuriated film censors everywhere — for, among other things, eating dog poop on screen — in the water-sucking 1972 classic of trash cinema, “Pink Flamingos.” The director’s Get the title of “Living Foul Man”.

Divine in the 1972 film “Pink Flamingos”.Courtesy Everett Collection

This film stuck in Moff’s mind as he made the design that caught Ashman’s attention. Because, as the former character’s narrator recalls, “Pink Flamingos” was playing on a loop in a theater at the Walt Disney Institute of the Arts, where Minkoff had once been a student.

“There really wasn’t a very obvious place to find inspiration,” Minkoff said. But when you have a character, and especially a villain, you want to have a really interesting angle. I think Disney villains can be the most interesting characters in the movies, and so they want to create something larger than life – with a lot of personality.

A native of Baltimore, Ashman, who immediately saw Minkoff’s inspiration, seemed to agree that the film needed a super-sized director. With divine inspiration, Ursula’s idea was finally greenlit, and Ashman, along with directors and a small team of animators, began working with live-action reference models to bring the characters to life, using the process the studio relied on. Starting with the first feature-length animated film, 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Minkoff suggested hiring his former CalArts roommate Max Kirby as Ursula’s live-action reference. Ashman and the directors took the idea and, Minkoff told him, Kirby gave the group a rendition of Ursula’s signature number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” — literally, “basically dressed in drag.”

Ursula in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”Walt Disney Studios

Finally, it took years and many narrators before the memorable villain of “The Little Mermaid” narrated by Pat Carroll appeared on movie theater screens around the country.

The end product was a throwback anti-hero to the complex evil queens and witches of Disney films such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the over-the-top style, competent body language, and all-around vulgarity of the film’s heteronormative hero and heroine. It works to emphasize cleanliness.

Thanks to this decadent, sinister appeal and the sly Cecalia interpretation-laden, signature musical number “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “The Little Mermaid” turned out to be a big win for Disney. The film’s box office success and two Oscar wins — for best original song and best original score — marked a turnaround for Disney’s animation arm that hadn’t been popular in decades and set the studio on course. A collection of future hits including early ’90s favorites “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” featuring Ashman and Menken’s lyrics and compositions.

Tragically, Ashman, who died of AIDS in 1991, never saw the effects of the new animation and music scene he pioneered. And the deity, who died a year before “The Little Mermaid” came out, didn’t see himself ruling over the kingdom of a mentally deranged polyp to the delight of children everywhere.

Although one might assume that a larger-than-life drag queen would enjoy her legacy and share her passion for water, in 2010 “When I was young, all I wanted to be was a Disney villain,” he was quoted as saying in 2016.



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