Gather ’round, FashionEarstas! The kids are back to school, the summer heat is fading (except in Florida) and the Pumpkin Spice Latte is back… it must be September! And as the official start of spooky season, we’ve decided to celebrate in FashionEarsta style with Sinister September, a celebration of the most fashionable and fabulous Disney dark-siders!
Stay tuned throughout the month for villainous ear reviews, special looks at sinister Disney events, and (my favorite) spotlights on the fashion of fabulous fables that have made their way into the Disney canon.
So today, join me for a deep dive (pun intended) under the sea as we take a look at Disney’s tentacled temptress, Ursula!
I’ve had Ursula on the brain ever since I heard that Disney+ was releasing the documentary feature Howard, “the untold story of Howard Ashman, the brilliant lyricist behind Disney classics like “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and creator of musicals including “Little Shop of Horrors.”
I highly recommend Howard for many reasons, not the least of which is the behind-the-scenes look at the process of developing the storyline and characters of The Little Mermaid. For instance, did you know that the Disney studio head really wanted to cut Ariel’s ballad “Part of Your World” from the movie because he thought it would be too boring for children? We have Howard Ashman to thank for insisting that this glorious song was integral to the film and refusing to release The Little Mermaid without it!
Howard also showed off some of the original concept art for The Little Mermaid, and especially Ursula! As the Disney animation team was developing the “look” for the mermaid characters, they experimented with all different sorts of fish-based designs for the “sea witch” character.
There are some truly amazing Ursulas here, and it’s cool to see her inspired by Manta Rays, Moray Eels, and even the TV show I Dream of Jeannie!
But one drawing by Rob Minkoff caught Howard Ashman’s eye: the sketch below in which the sea witch looks like “A Miami Beach Matron”
The team continued to develop this version of Ursula and was further inspired by Drag Queen Divine. Co-director John Musker remembers: “Some of the early development art that Rob was doing and others were doing, was really trying to get some of Divine’s big, campy, overweight diva, get that into the witch. And so there are still vestiges of it in the witch.”
It’s easy to see elements of Divine’s features, movements, and mannerisms in the final rendering of Ursula in The Little Mermaid. And with Disney’s new Live Action film having cast Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, I really hope that they keep her spirit alive in this new portrayal of the sea witch!
For a detailed history of Ursula’s design, check out this Insider article
“They weren’t kidding when they called me, well, a witch!”
Did you notice that when Howard Ashman and the other designers were talking about Ursula, they only referred to her as “the sea witch?” That’s because the name Ursula was invented by Disney!
Something you might not know about the Fancy Floridian: I moonlight as a college literature instructor, and one of my favorite classes to teach is Children’s Literature and Folktales! So, of course, I’ve read, studied, and taught Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 short story, “The Little Mermaid” (which you can read for free at Project Gutenberg).
Disney made a ton of creative changes to their source material for The Little Mermaid, removing things like Andersen’s long sermons on purgatory and his weird thing for feet. (If you think I’m kidding, check out what happens to girls’ feet in “The Red Shoes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Girl who Trod on the Loaf,” “The Little Mermaid” and more!)
But one distinct choice made by Ashman, Musker, Clements and the creative team behind the Disney film was to tone down some of the “sea witch’s” scariness. While the witch herself is actually not evil in Andersen’s story (and certainly doesn’t try to steal Ariel’s man) this is how her lair is described:
“Right through those tearing whirls [the little mermaid] must go to enter the Sea Witch’s domain, and here for a long way the only path ran over hot bubbling mire which the Witch called her peat moss. Behind it lay her house, in the middle of a hideous wood. All the trees and bushes of it were polypi, half animal and half plant, which looked like hundred-headed snakes growing out of the ground. All their branches were long slimy arms with fingers like pliant worms, and joint after joint they kept in motion from the root till the outermost tip. Everything in the sea that they could grasp they twined themselves about, and never let it go again… Men who had been lost at sea and had sunk deep down there, looked out, white skeletons, from among the arms of the polypi. Rudders of ships and chests they held fast; skeletons of land beasts, and even a little mermaid, which they had caught and killed. That, to her, was almost the most frightful thing of all.
Now she came to a great slimy clearing in the wood, where large fat water-snakes wallowed, showing their ugly whitey-yellow coils. In the centre of the clearing was a house built of the white bones of men: there the Sea Witch sat, making a toad feed out of her mouth, as we make a little canary bird eat sugar.Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid”
Compared to this, Ursula’s “poor unfortunate souls” (who all get transformed back into mer-people at the end of the film) seem downright cute and cuddly!
You’ll be happy to know, though, that the best line in ANY Disney film is actually straight from the Andersen short story, just Divine-ified!
[Ursula] “You’ll have your looks! Your pretty face! And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”
[Andersen’s Sea-Witch] “Your beautiful form,” said the witch, “and your floating gait, and your speaking eyes: with them you can easily delude a human heart. What, have you lost courage? Put out your little tongue, and I’ll cut it off for the price, and you shall have the potent drink.”
And, yes… the little mermaid originally had her tongue cut out. That’s not so Disney, though!
“If you wanna be a [sea witch] the first thing you gotta do is dress like one!”
If you’re like me, all this talk of tongues and tentacles is just even more inspiration to find your Ursula style! No worries: there are tons of Ursula ears and outfits out there!
If you’re on the hunt for “official” Disney Ursula ears, it might cost you an arm or a leg (or a tongue!). There has only been one design released and it has been a collector’s item for years. Expect to pay upwards of $100 on eBay or Mercari (if you can find a pair at all!)
Fortunately, some of our favorite Etsy shops have Ursula ears so good that you’d be ok trading your voice for them!
I love MouseTiara and have several pairs of their ears! Keep your eyes peeled for my review of their Yzma Cat ears next week as part of Sinister September!
Another favorite shop, To NeverNeverland, has gorgeous Ursula ears!
And, of course, there are so many ways to DisneyBound Ursula!
So have fun! Play with items you already own and don’t be afraid to get fancy!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into our divine diva, Ursula! If you ever want to chat about children’s literature or the villains of the Disney Renaissance, I’m just a comment away! Let me know in the comments below, or on our Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram pages!
Pixie dust and glamour!
The Fancy Floridian