Tough, crass and jaded, Ursula is trying to find a way to get back from King Triton the power that once was hers.
While the animation department was busily trying to complete Oliver & Company
by the imminent deadline, Ron Clements and John Musker, the two directors of The Great Mouse Detective
were working on an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's beloved story "The Little Mermaid." There had been astounding growth in every branch of the department from computer-generated images to the finest character animation. There was also a villain in this new picture that would take her place alongside the greatest villains the studio had ever created. In the polls that showed Cruella De Vil as the most popular villainess of all our pictures, Ursula came in a close second.
Ursula had an unusual visual advantage over the most other villains; she was an octopus. A creature of the sea, swimming, floating, moving in a sensuous fashion, ideal for an ominous, hypnotic type of schemer. When supervising animator Ruben Aquino started work on this character, he found that the extensive story sketches concentrated more on facial expressions than actions. Ruben said, "Actually it was Roy [Disney] who pushed for us to get more of that octopus feeling."
Roy had directed several of the nature films that followed the True-Life Adventures
when he worked on production at the studio, one of his first being Mysteries of the Deep
. He recalled: "It had a lot of octopus footage in it that I remembered, so when Ruben started doing this I said, 'You really need to study how they move, because the muscles aren't where you think they are. The muscles are way up in the body of the thing and that's why the tentacles move.' So he and I had a lot of fun trying to make it work."
There was some feeling that Pat Carroll's strong, no-nonsense delivery of the lines in Ursula's song would not fit the undulating, gliding movement of the real octopus, so they tried a simple test. Alongside the sound track of Pat's singing they ran a section of their live-action film of the octopus. To everyone's delight, it worked well and was both surprising and entertaining. With this assurance, all the animators working on the character used more of the realistic actions, which added much to the sinister personality and her fascinating movements.
Ursula is tough, crass, jaded, hard, and always looking for an advantage. When we first see her in the film, we are appalled at her appearance, and realize that here is someone to be reckoned with, but have no idea what she might do. Actually, she is brooding about the fact that King Triton has the power and the fame while all she has is a handful of victims transformed into helpless polyps. This is a very intriuing beginning - somewhat like a spider waiting for some unsuspecting fly to wander into her web.
The little mermaid, Ariel, is the ideal victim for this domineering female, who can soothe, cajole, feign sympathy, be helpful. Ursula also has magic at her disposal, potions one can drink, visions of the future one can see, and her song of the wonderful things that can happen for Ariel is more than this girl had ever hoped for. Who could resist this seasoned salesperson who knows every angle to pursue, every approach to spinning a cruel web about her victim.
Ariel is vulnerable and the viewers agonize over every step as they see their heroine gradually succumb to the tantalizing proposals. The crafty Ursula offers the sad girl three days to live on land and win Prince Eric's love; if she fails, she will return to the sea and be under Ursula's power forever. The price is small, nothing really, only her voice! Ursula knows that the girl's father will do anything to save his daughter from such a fate, even to giving up his kingdom. Ursula will win, and the audience knows she will. This villain is a professional.
In the end, the audience has thrilled to a stirring presentation of heart tugs and heroics. Moreover, the animator has had the greatest opportunity for acting and personality development he will possibly ever have. As Ruben said, "A plum assignment fell into my lap!" (Three other animators shared in that plum, but Ruben had the responsibility and about half the footage.) He recognized that the voice of Pat Carroll was a very inspiring part of the task. "I didn't have to work hard to try to figure out what kind of acting to do."
Roy Disney compared her to Cruella: "Ursula was the same way in that she was a villain but she had that humorous kind of underpinning to where there was entertainment as well as the villainy. So it wasn't just all evil like Maleficent, where's there no redeeming, anything, or the Queen in Snow White
Ursula's henchmen, the two eels, were particularly good because they reflected the slimy kind of sleaziness that we never actually saw with their boss. No one would ever trust that kind of scoundrel, which made them play well with the lovely, lonely mermaid. She looked so innocent and pure next to them that the audience understood immediately how distraught she was even to talk to these creatures. A strong bond with the audience came from the warmth generated by the girl's trying so hard to get what she wanted. Our hearts went out to her and we were deeply involved with everything she did. It was a prime example of how the villain and the victim help build the personality of each other, making both richer and stronger.
With her magic, Ursula has transformed herself into a lovely maiden complete with Ariel's voice, but her reflection in the mirror will not change. It is still the same ugly Ursula.