By Elaina Patton - NBC News
More than three decades after Ursula, the busty witch of the Atlantic kingdom, first slipped onto the big screen, the queen of chaos is back to tempt the seas in a remake of Disney's classic The Little Mermaid.
To celebrate her return, everyone from actress Melissa McCarthy, who plays the enemy of King Triton, to film historians, have taken the opportunity to pay tribute to Divine, the legendary drag queen who inspired the movie villain.
There's a lot of mythology surrounding how the animated villain came about in the 1989 film The Little Mermaid, written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. According to some stories, the animators who were working on the film were struggling to find the appropriate image for the antagonist, who was initially modeled after a matron. But all the anecdotes include the moment when Rob Minkoff, a young illustrator, came up with the idea of being inspired by the vampiresque and made-up figure of Divine.
"The way the character was described in the script was like a character from Joan Collins [the British writer and actress]. Most of the designs that were being made were those of a thin woman with a very long forehead, broad cheekbones and very black hair," Minkoff told NBC News. "So, I suggested this different idea based on Divine, from a John Waters film."
Divine, the well-known drag queen, who inspired the character Ursula from Disney's film 'The Little Mermaid.Getty Images
Minkoff, who was one of the directors of the 1994 film The Lion King and other Disney films, said he incorporated Divine into at least one of the drawings that ended up being used. And when Howard Ashman, a brilliant songwriter credited with the "Disney renaissance" of the 1980s, saw the designs, it was Divine's that caught his eye.
"Howard saw all the designs and focused on that one," Minkoff recalled Musker telling him at the time. "John came back and said, 'Howard saw all the drawings and we're going to go with that one.'"
[Largest LGBTQ Organization in the U.S. Issues Travel Warning to Those Looking to Visit Florida]
Ashman, along with his creative partner, composer Alan Menken, had been recruited by Disney in hopes that they would bring the studio much-needed success.
Once Ashman arrived in Los Angeles, as detailed in Don Hanh's documentary Howard, he moved into the studio's animated operation, where he saw an opportunity to link his experience in musical theater with the more experimental and unconventional work of illustrators. And that's what he did with The Little Mermaid, the first in a string of Disney hits.
Actress Melissa McCarthy, who plays Ursula in Disney's "The Little Mermaid," appears next to a poster of the film accompanied by Disney Executive Vice President Tony Chambers in Las Vegas, April 26, 2023.Getty Images
Looking back at that era of the studio, Minkoff commented that people have forgotten that Walt Disney, the man, was an "innovator who had broken all the rules in his career."
"There are a lot of avant-garde things in the early animated films that people have already forgotten, the biggest of which was not killing Bambi's mother, but Disney had become conservative in choosing the stories and films it was making at the time," Minkoff said of the company before Ashman's arrival. "I think all the people in animation during that period in the 1980s were fans of early Disney classics and wanted modern films to reach those heights. The only way to do that, we knew, was to violate the boundaries of what seemed acceptable."
Minkoff's idea of modeling Ursula—an approximation of the sea witch in Han Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid—based on a drag queen who personified the extravagant and grotesque, certainly broke barriers.
"The most beautiful woman in the world, almost"
During her illustrious career, Divine, whose name was Harris Gleen Milstead, was the avant-garde muse of director John Waters, who lovingly referred to the drag queen as "the most beautiful woman in the world, almost." As Waters' favorite lady lead, Divine helped the director pioneer the "trash cinema" genre: low-cost productions that exaggerated and satirized sensationalist and controversial films.
Disney Initiates New Wave of Layoffs and First Republic Bank Announces Downsizing
April 25, 202300:30
The long friendship and collaboration began when the two, born in Baltimore, met as teenagers in the mid-1960s. Their first film together, Roman Candles, a tribute to Andy Warhol's The Chelsea Girls, included a scaled-down version of Divine. But as they continued to work together, the drag queen, with Waters' help, morphed into an infamous overkill person: a drag queen with homicidal tendencies, hair shaved back and eyebrows raised.
[Disney scraps project to create new campus in Florida with thousands of employees following dispute with DeSantis]
It was Divine that shook audiences and upset film censors everywhere for, among other things, eating dog feces on the big screen, in Waters' baffling 1972 film Pink Flamingos, a "junk movie" classic.
Unlike the 1988 film Hairspray, in which Divine stars as Tracy Turnblad, Ricki Lake's mother, during her only brush with fame, Pink Flamingos challenges audiences to keep watching as a deranged group of outcasts commit more and more depraved acts, to earn the title of "dirtiest person alive."
From left to right, Jonah Hauer-King, Jacob Tremblay, Melissa McCarthy, Halle Bailey, Rob Marshall, Javier Bardem and Daveed Diggs attend the UK premiere of 'The Little Mermaid' at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square, on May 15, 2023 in London, UK.Getty Images
This was the movie in Minkoff's head when he made the design that caught Ashman's attention. Because, as the former illustrator recalls, Pink Flamingos was shooting indefinitely in the theater of the California Institute of the Arts, founded by Walt Disney, where Minkoff was once a student.
"It wasn't the most obvious place to get inspiration, certainly," Minkoff said. "But when you have a character, and especially a villain, you want to find an interesting angle. I think Disney villains can be the most interesting characters in movies, so you want to create something big, that has a lot of personality."
[Disney sues DeSantis, accuses him of using his power as Florida governor in a campaign of "retaliation"]
It seems that Ashman, who was born in Baltimore and recognized Minkoff's inspiration immediately, agreed that the film needed a villain of monstrous proportions.
The idea of an Ursula inspired by Divine was finally greenlit, and Ashman, along with the directors and a group of animators, began working with real models to bring their characters to life, a method the studio has used since its first animated film in 1937: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Disney World Reaches Agreement with Union Workers to Raise Minimum Wage to $18 An Hour
March 24, 202300:30
Minkoff said he suggested Max Kirby, his roommate at the Art Institute of California, be hired to be Ursula's real-life reference. Ashman and the directors accepted the suggestion and, Minkoff said, Kirby sang Ursula's signature theme song Poor Unfortunate Souls for the group, "basically dressed as a drag queen."
A queer antihero
Finally, it took years and many illustrators before the unforgettable villain of The Little Mermaid, voiced by Pat Carroll, appeared in theaters around the world.
The final product was a queer-style antihero reminiscent of the complex queens and witches of Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and 1959's Sleeping Beauty, whose exaggerated style, body language and overall immorality serve to highlight the purity of the film's heroine and hero.
The character Ursula, at a Halloween party at Disneyland, Anaheim, California, on Sept. 9, 2021.Getty Images
The Little Mermaid was a huge success for Disney and received two Oscars, for best original song and best original score. The film marked a turning point for Disney's animated division, which hadn't had a resounding success in decades, and set the studio on the path to other achievements, including 1990s favorites such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, which included lyrics and compositions by Ashman and Menken.
[DeSantis fulminates Florida's Disney autonomous district in punishment for opposing 'Don't Say Gay' law]
Sadly, Ashman, who died of AIDS in 1991, did not live to see the full impact of the new style of animated musical films he created. Divine died a year before the premiere of The Little Mermaid.
However, one can imagine that the drag queen would have savored the legacy and shared the sentiments of Waters, who in 2016 was quoted as saying, "When I was young, all I wanted to be was a Disney villain."