I know a lot of people shit on The Little Mermaid, and it’s easy to see why. The movie promotes the grossly outdated idea that it’s great to give up your home and family in pursuit of your ~one true love.~ The film is the true embodiment of the saying, “love conquers all.” And, perhaps worst of all, the protagonist is able to land her dream man without saying a single word to him. He literally only falls for her because she’s hot. What kind of a message is that promoting to little girls watching the movie? Modern-day princesses are supposed to make it in the world by being clever and witty, like Rapunzel in Tangled or Ana in Frozen. What redeeming qualities does Ariel have? She can sing, but even that she’s willing to give up for Prince Charming. Her voice is an integral part of her identity, and she’s willing to sell it away to an evil sea-witch for the slim hope of getting a guy to fall in love with her. The same guy, mind you, that she’s never actually spoken to and knows nothing about. That at least redeems the movie somewhat; Prince Eric doesn’t give a shit about her personality, but then again, she doesn’t really care about his, either. Both of them make their judgments completely superficially.
But despite all of these glaring flaws, The Little Mermaid is still one of my favorite Disney movies. Why?
Because it’s willing to make fun of itself. Ursula’s infamous song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” is probably on my Top 5 Disney song list. It’s a great song for so many reasons.
First of all, the character of Ursula herself is fantastic. Despite appearing obese and unattractive, she takes the time to put on makeup and just radiates confidence. It’s clear she thinks she’s hot shit, based on her body movements and vocal inflections. For a movie that embodies so many outdated gender notions, it’s really refreshing to see a character completely comfortable in her own skin, no matter how far she deviates from conventional beauty standards.
Secondly, the song.
My favorite lyric: “It’s she who holds her tongue who gets a man.”
The best part is, Ursula leers at Ariel with it, actually throws what looks like a human tongue into the fire as she says it. She knows exactly what’s happening here, and uses Ariel to get what she wants. She’s the one character in this movie who actually shows wit and intelligence. It’s a pity she’s the villain.
The one thing I don’t like about Ursula’s character is that she thinks she needs Ariel’s voice to get Prince Eric to fall for her. It makes sense once you realize that she only used Ariel’s voice because Eric recognized it, but I feel like the movie wants you to think Ursula coveted Ariel’s voice for it’s inherent value. The fetishization of Ariel’s singing voice is, to me, one of Disney’s biggest mysteries. Why is Ariel’s voice supposed to be so good? It’s a light soprano; pretty enough on a superficial level but lacking any substance or depth (which, admittedly, is perfect for Ariel’s character). Ursula, on the other hand, has a beautiful resonant contralto. Her voice is powerful and mesmerizing. Why in hell would she ever want to have Ariel’s voice?? Her voice is worth ten of Ariel’s. Good for her manipulative schemes, yes. But not much else.
Overall, 9/10 for Ursula’s character. She’s absolutely brilliant, and saves the movie from becoming an outdated ode to sexism. Her mere presence in the film is a form of satire. She’s by far one of my favorite Disney villains, and if nothing else convinces you to revisit The Little Mermaid, I hope that she will.