This post has two parts. Part I extols Ursula as a classic Disney villain, and argues that Ursula’s machinations cannot be confined to a simplistic hero-villain dichtomy. Part II replies to an Article, and argues that the contract between Ursula and Ariel is legally enforceable.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) was one of those movies that my siblings and I watched on laser disc almost once a year (if not more) when we were young, along with classics like Aladdin (1992) and Beauty and the Beast (1991). Back then, Ursula creeped me out quite a bit, with how her visage lingered for too long in a Wes-Anderson-esque shot, how she burgeoned out of Vanessa, how she transformed in the end into a gargantuan tranny-voiced kraken, inter alia.
Elevated to the same immoral pedestal together with Disney Villains1 like Scar and Jafar, Ursula is a tour de force of an antagonist. Her antics — “my little poopsies”, “bawwwwwdy language” (as she shakes a sizeable butt), “puuuh-theh-tick” (ugh this is too good) — are iconic; and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is one of those genre-defining numbers2 (see also Scar’s “Be Prepared“), establishing character and motivation, increasing dramatic tension, and moving the plot forward, all at once in a single song. Even after death, Ursula’s superior magic drives the main antagonist, Morgana, throughout The Little Mermaid II (2000).3 Till today (and even after reading A Wizard of Earthsea),4 I can never quite dissociate the name ‘Ursula’ from bouncing purple tentacles.
But as Disney grapples with the rise of feminism, Ursula’s machinations are thrown into the spotlight. There are two points here.
First: Ursula prizes Ariel’s voice. Ursula knows that the freedom of expression, the right to have one’s opinion heard, and the power of communication are valuable things. On the other hand, Ariel is willing to be silenced in exchange for physical alteration, societal conformity, and ultimately, to “get her man”. As this writer puts it, “Ursula knows what Ariel only learns by the film’s end: Her voice is more important than her body. Her ability to express herself will bring her more power than her ability to conform to societal pressures.” One could argue that Ariel deserves to reap the full consequences of her bad bargain.
That brings us to the second point: Ursula obtains her power legally. Unlike Disney’s other villains whose plans involved illegitimate means (e.g. Maleficent cursed Aurora, Jafar stole the lamp, Queen Granhilde poisons Snow White), Ursula received the Trident as consideration pursuant to a contract. When I realised this in law school, I felt indignant for Ursula: she had played by the rules, and in return, she was impaled in her Cecaelian gut by an emasculated and character-less prince!
Even for Disney (who has distorted fairy tales into their own happily-ever-after genre), this is perverse. In fairy tales, power is usually overcome by wit (e.g. Hansel and Gretel), innocence (e.g. The Emperor’s New Clothes), fortune (e.g. Cinderella), sheer goodness of heart (e.g. Stardust), etc. But in The Little Mermaid, Disney inverts this relationship – Machiavellian scheming of the purest kind is violated by the brute force of a shipwreck. What a tragedy.
So I re-imagined Ursula as the underdog (or squid, if you prefer). And I wanted to write a short story from her point of view; the story may or may not have included a fully drafted Ursula-Ariel contract (the “Contract“) and a Triton-Ursula-Ariel novation agreement.
1.The Disney Villains are as franchised and as trademarked as the Disney Princesses.
2.I’ve struck “Perform in a musical” off my bucket list, but if I could have one more wish, I would wish to perform one of these villainous numbers in character.
3.Yes, The Little Mermaid II exists. It is about Ariel’s daughter, Melody, who wants to become a mermaid (sighs Disney). The main antagonist is Ursula’s scrawnier and noobier sister, Morgana, who suffers from an inferiority complex (to Ursula). The songs (except maybe for “For a Moment“, and that’s a big ‘maybe’), the characters, the plot, and actually the entire movie, pales in comparison to the first film, which explains why this sequel never hit the big screens.
4.Written by Ursula K. Le Guin. She is 86 years old, and quite brilliant.