On Nov. 17, 1989, Disney's animated feature The Little Mermaid premiered in theaters, today marks the movie's 25th anniversary. The movie became one of Disney's most iconic, largely credited with helping to revitalize the studio, kickstarting a decade of successful animated movie-musicals. It helped make Disney the company that it is today, beloved by millions of people around the world.
In addition to the Broadway-style musical numbers, which included songs that still worm their way into our heads, The Little Mermaid's characters had a lot to do with its success with audiences. Little girls of course wanted to be the beautiful and optimistic Ariel. Sebastian was a lovable sidekick, and Prince Eric was a handsome and strong hero.
But if you asked me which character from the movie (and probably from the entire Disney canon) had the biggest influence on my life, I would say Ursula without any hesitation. I wasn't alive when The Little Mermaid first came out, so I couldn't even tell you how old I was when I first watched the movie, but from the moment I first met Ursula, she terrified me like no one else I had ever seen on screen.
That sickly purple skin, those slithering tentacles, that maniacal grin outlined in blood-red lipstick, Pat Carroll's devilish voice. Ursula just looked terrifying. Plus, she crept around in her deep, dark ocean layer where who knows what could be lurking. The woman seemed psychotic, so inherently evil and like she wanted to destroy the life of Ariel, a young girl. As a young girl myself, albeit a much younger one, how could I not find Ursula truly horrifying?
Clearly, the styling of Ursula and her behavior was intended to illicit such a reaction, but I took it to an extreme. My fear of Ursula completely clouded my judgment of The Little Mermaid. The version I watched originally was taped from a showing on TV, and it became one of the few animated Disney films I didn't own on VHS as a child. While I watched The Lion King and Aladdin and Hercules over and over again, I could barely even remember what The Little Mermaid was about. Except for Ursula. She haunted me.
This all came to a head when I went to see a rendition of Disney on Ice when I was a wee tyke. I remember the experience was pretty normal, that is until a gigantic inflatable Ursula appeared on the ice. I immediately started crying and wailing "Get me out of here!" to my parents as my fellow audience members were visibly annoyed by my disturbance. Ursula was right there in front of me, and I can only imagine that I thought she was going to somehow fly off the rink and into the audience to get me. One of my parents took me out of the arena, and we waited until it was safe and Ursula-free to return.
Looking back on it now, I think what made Ursula so terrifying was the fact that although she was an octopus, she really did seem human-like, as if she could just pop out of my TV screen and start walking — or floating — around my living room. Sure, there are plenty of Disney villains who are actually human, but for some reason, they just seemed so cartoonish to me, or I disliked them, but they didn't really strike fear into my soul the way Ursula did. Aladdin's Jafar was kind of goofy-looking, Pocahontas' Gov. Ratcliffe just made me angry and Beauty and the Beast's Gaston was so over-the-top, how could anyone take him seriously? But to me, Ursula just seemed like someone you could meet in real life.
In 2006 when I was in high school, Disney released a special two-disc DVD of The Little Mermaid. Since I never owned the film as a child, I asked for the DVD as a gift, partly because I wanted to complete my collection of Disney films, partly because I wanted to see what the movie was like after all these years. Watching the movie as a teen, The Little Mermaid was still an enjoyable movie. The animation was vibrant and the songs were great. I still think "Poor Unfortunate Souls," Ursula's big number, is one of the best Disney songs of all time. I remember not liking Ariel very much now because of how wide-eyed and naive she seemed.
But once Ursula came onto the screen, I really had a visceral reaction. Though I didn't feel the need to cry or scream now, I got chills. I didn't like watching her on screen. She made me feel uneasy.
I haven't seen the movie since then.