The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney's Animated Characters: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules
Character Description of Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" (1989)
The Emmy-winning Pat Carroll, who voiced the part of the sea-witch (spelt with a b
), is a very experienced actress on both stage and screen. Carroll envisioned the role as "part Shakespearean actress, with all the flair, flamboyance and theatricality, and part used-car salesman with a touch of con artist". She deliberately deepend her own voice, especially for the singing (she's naturally a contralto); in an interview with Lou Cedrone she added: "I'm not really a singer, and I would rather have talked-sang the role, but they wanted me to sing it, so I did... The producers sharpened and heightened all of it, particularly the singing." The first stanza or so of "Poor Unfortunate Souls", before she hits her triumphant stride, shows the necessity of this.
Ursula is a marvellous villainess, one of the Disney classics of her malicious genre. She has the gross oleaginous unsubtlety of The Great Mouse Detective
's villain Ratigan but substantially more brio. Although facially somewhat similar to The Rescuer's
Madame Medusa, her screen impact dwarfs that of her predecssor. Bejewelled and lip-pouting like an overweight, overrich, overpampered, over-the-top society hostess from whose ghastly parties we've all fled at one time or another, her human upper part squats with loathsome bulk on top of her octopoid nether regions - it is a measure of the success of her animators that those nether regions seem positively humane by comparison with the rest of her. Except when her wrath - the only genuine emotion she seems capable of expressing - bursts through, her every movement is a deceitful artifice, so that even her evilly chuckling gloating seems mannered, as if performed for an audience. Her vile hobby of collecting souls so that they can suffer humiliation in her repellent garden is utterly in keeping with her society-hostess persona - for the kind of person whom Ursula is a caricature is nothing if not a collector of and would-be destroyer of souls.
As noted, though, anger brings out true emotion in Ursula, and the effects are quite staggering when it does. We are treated to our first real dose of it when Ursula is still in her human guise as Vanessa and Scuttle and his friends have successfully disrupted her marrige to Eric. Knocked away from her, Ariel's quasi-lictly pilfered voice falls across the deck of the ship and to the quondam mermaid's feet. As the voice psychically osmoses up and into Ariel, Vanessa/Ursula sees that this aspect of the game is up. Her look of stark hatred, even while her face is still human, must certainly have brought some small children in the audiences awake with a start on subsequent nights.
Then, of course, there is almost immediately the eruptive transformation back to her natural shape. As if that were not enough, soon afterwards she adopts a genuinely giant form, towering up through the waves and above the puny mortals - Ariel and Eric - who would dare still to thwart her. The feeling of bulk, of mass, conveyed by the animators in this rendition of her embodied fury is quite breathtaking - and oddly, it gives her a certain degree of repugnant grandeur. For the first time we begin to see that she would indeed be capable of cccupying Triton's abandoned throne. We may loathe her, seeing in her the embodiment of Evil, but we have to concede that it is not solely in the physical sense that she has attained a new stature. Earlier we might have found ourselves chuckling at her villainy; there's no chuckling now.
This makes her eventual deflation, on being stabbed by the bowsprit of the wreck that Eric has commandeered, all the more affecting. For just a moment, as her broad face turns in a mixture of incredulity and something like greif, we actually feel sorry for her. The moment dosen't last, of course, but it's very impressive that the moviemakers managed to create it at all:
they succeeded in making Ursula, for all the breadth of the strokes with which her character was caricatured, in some way come across to us as a real personality.