Apr 24, 2015
Disney’s next revisionist villain: Ursula
It’s fun to be bad. That’s just a fundamental part of human nature we’ve learned to roll with. We’re attracted to our dark sides, and we long to act on those impulses. That’s why villains often appeal to us so much more than the heroes. We want to be them on some level, and the more a villain appears to relish in their own awfulness, the more relatable they are to an audience.
And no one does the “villain having waaaaay too much fun” archetype better and more frequently than Disney. That’s rather surprising when you think about it, considering their fiercely-guarded reputation for family-friendly entertainment, but it’s nonetheless an undeniable fact. Scar is more fun than Simba. Cruella is more fun than the Dalmatians. Jafar is more fun than Aladdin. Disney movies are chock full of colorful, campy, charismatic villains who always outshine their more righteous counterparts.
And yet, somehow it’s only very recently that it’s dawned on Disney that the Wicked formula of “What if the villain was really the good guy all along?” could work for a number of characters in their classic rogues gallery. Maleficent, a revisionist retelling of Sleeping Beauty with its fan favorite villainess recast as a heroine, is officially a hit, so it’s safe to say that more popular Disney villains could be getting a similar treatment in the near future.
There’s definitely a conversation to be had about how self-defeating this whole endeavor could turn out to be, since making these beloved baddies into good guys arguably strips them of what made them appealing in the first place. But for now, I’m more interested in speculating about which character Disney execs might have in mind for the next go-round. And from my point of view, there’s really only one choice:
Going down the list of Disney villains, no one else comes anywhere near being perfect for this kind of treatment. Cruella is a lost cause, since you’re never going to get the audience to root against a litter of adorable puppies. Gaston is a no-go, since the fact that his archetype would normally be the hero of the story is the whole point. Queen Grimhilde (yes, she has a name) has kind of already been done. Ditto with Lady Tremaine in Ever After. Jafar might work, but Team StarKid already sort of beat Disney to the punch. And Captain Hook… would totally fit, but I’m guessing the concept of a revisionist take on the character has been forever tainted by Spielberg’s lackluster attempt.
In my opinion, Ursula isn’t just one of Disney’s best villains, she’s one of their best characters, period. For one thing, her design is striking and memorable in all the best ways. Originally based on Divine, she’s like if Cthulhu became a ‘30s nightclub singer. I don’t know what it is about tentacles that make any character design immediately compelling (yes, yes, go ahead and get your hentai jokes out of your system), but it works. Combine that with Pat Carroll’s exuberant vocals, and you have an instantly unforgettable villain. She’s glamorous, theatrical, creepy, and just plain fun.
Not only that, but she’s a character with layers, and far more subtle than your average Disney villain. On the surface, she’s merely a classic Mephistophelian figure, essentially offering something magical in exchange for Ariel’s soul. But a few seemingly throwaway lines here and there hint at something more.
We know Ursula once lived in the palace, but we don’t know in what capacity, or why she was exiled. And if you listen to the lyrics of “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, Ursula speaks of courtship by men with almost sarcastic contempt. She speaks of how “it’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man”, and tells Ariel that all she needs is a “pretty face” because men “don’t like a lot of blabber”. She sounds a lot like someone cynical about the forced role of women in royal society as mere eye candy to be seen and not heard.
A lot of this is mostly inference, but it makes her an intriguing figure to contemplate. More importantly, it’s fertile ground to expand upon. The details we’re given about Ursula’s history are begging to be explored. Who was she before she was banished? A palace courtier? A sorceress in the king’s employ? Perhaps even Triton’s sister, as she was in the original draft of The Little Mermaid? And what did she do to be banished?
I see an Ursula movie as a great opportunity to make some of the subtext of The Little Mermaid more explicit. The film gets a lot of flak for its perceived sexism. Ariel is considered a weak Disney princess because her entire arc revolves around her desire for a man. But honestly, I think Ariel deserves more credit than that. She’s about more than just Eric. It’s not just him she’s in love with. It’s his world, and the freedom and new experiences it offers.
Ariel is no weaker or less determined than her more respected contemporaries, such as Jasmine and Belle. She too is rebelling against isolation and against parental figures attempting to plan her life for her. Her deal with Ursula isn’t about changing herself to please a man she doesn’t know. It’s about her chance to become part of a world she’s admired from afar since she was a child, and to decide who she is and where she belongs.
Now imagine if Ursula’s life was a tragic reflection of Ariel’s. Imagine if she too was a woman whose life was being dictated by the controlling King Triton, and instead of being rewarded with success and freedom, she was punished for it, and banished from the kingdom for daring to think for herself. Imagine if her entire scheme wasn’t about using Ariel to get to the king, but instead giving Ariel a chance at something she herself never had.
Ursula could make for a compelling protagonist, and it’s not hard to see Triton as a potential villain. If Disney does intend to follow up on the success of Maleficent, then this is definitely how they should go about it.