When it comes to Disney villains, no one can hold a candle to Ursula. But, what makes the Sea Witch so special? How has she escaped the shackles of villainy to become more of a cultural icon than a basic baddie?
With Melissa McCarthy taking on the iconic Sea Witch in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, Ursula is once again in the spotlight, receiving her well-deserved flowers. Though Disney has created several villains of notoriety over the years — from Jafar and Gaston to Maleficent and Captain Hook — Ursula reigns supreme. And yes, we are accounting for the ostentatious and conniving Scar (who undoubtedly takes second place).
But what about Ursula makes her so special? How does she remain timeless — relevant with each passing decade — becoming less of a villain and more of a beloved champion with new generations?
Ursula is unapologetically herself
Ursula can choose any appearance she desires with a little magic. Make a potion in a cauldron and, boom, she becomes Vanessa — with an hourglass shape, long luscious locks, and seductive eyes. Yet, Ursula chooses to rock eight octopus tentacles and hyper-expressive makeup akin to the late drag queen Divine.
She chooses a full-bodied figure, which she proudly sashays across her evil lair with an air of condescending superiority. It’s delicious. Unlike many Disney villains, who boast angular bone structure and size zero waists (we’re looking at you Maleficent), Ursula’s body, in and of itself, proves that one need not be skinny to be sinister.
One need not be thin to prove power. Frailty (*cough *cough Scar), should not be synonymous with a conniving mind, as if to be thin is to hunger for domination. Such visual attestations of desires and characteristics had grown stale when Ursula stepped up to the plate, or should we say swam up to the reef? Ursula proves that, while Ariel may have the look and demure of a princess, she has the presence and disposition of a Queen.
Ursula is quite fair in her bargaining
She’s not trying to kill to attain power or steal someone else’s greatest love. She’s simply trying to bargain her way to what she desires. She makes a deal with Ariel: her voice for a pair of legs.
She watches Ariel sign a contract, and Ariel knows what she’s getting into. The princess may be young — and a bit fed up with a controlling and domineering father – but she is no fool. So, when Ariel tries to back out of the deal, and Ursula comes for what’s rightfully hers, who’s truly in the wrong?
As far as legality is concerned, Ursula is in the right. As far as evil plots, it’s not very ruthless, nor is it unfair. How many villains approach their scheming from such a righteous (too strong a word?) angle? Yes, she’s trying to get to Triton, but her approach is savvy and somewhat civilized for an evildoer.
She was supposed to share the throne with her brother, King Triton, following their father’s death
As we know, Ursula was a little nasty (which she fesses up to) in the past, but there’s more to her backstory. Triton (her brother) banished her after some maniacal misbehaving with black magic. Their father wished for the siblings to rule the seas together, but Triton took full control over the kingdom they were meant to share. As Screen Rant notes, she tried to use magic to usurp the throne, so her banishment could be considered well-deserved.
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Though Ursula tried to take the throne for herself, Triton responded to her rebellion in like, becoming the sole ruler of the sea. If Triton was a full-fledged Disney hero — a kind and empathetic ruler as the “good guys” are supposed to be — he should have been the bigger person. He should have found a way to punish her while following through on his father’s wishes. Instead, he left his sister to conceive of a scheme to get back what’s (partially) rightfully hers.
You don’t get a better villain anthem than “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from ‘The Little Mermaid’
It’s masterful and conniving. It’s poised and playful. It’s got everything you could want in a Disney tune. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” places Ursula in a position of power. It’s the beginning of her scheme, and the sharp-tongued delivery and facetious mannerisms give this song a feisty flair we can’t help but love.
We all have a little bit of darkness in us. A little bit of pettiness. A little desire for revenge. Ursula taps into this crevice of human nature we’re told to sequester, and she celebrates it with vivacious enthusiasm.
How can you not admire a woman unafraid to own — with musical magnificence — the scrumptious human attributes that exasperating do-gooders have oh-so-forcefully forsworn? Being the hero all the time gets old. It’s only a matter of time until the good guy loses to the sneak. Ursula lives in the real world, where gray reins supreme and black-and-white morality is for fairytales.