Ursula’s Makeup in ‘The Little Mermaid’ Is a Poor, Unfortunate Choice
When Disney announced the casting of Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, the iconique sea witch in The Little Mermaid, it felt particularly uninspired—even for a live-action cash-in from a studio that relies heavily on recycling and over-extending its IP. This week, Disney released a time-lapse video of McCarthy’s “transformation” into Ursula that not only proves those concerns were justified, but underlines the problem with this particular casting choice.
Earlier in the week, Walt Disney Studios shared the video of McCarthy’s mediocre makeover on its official Twitter account with the caption “Melissa McCarthy becomes … Ursula”:
The video immediately drew backlash from a wide swath of social media users, from drag queens (including former Drag Race contestant Kerri Colby) to makeup aficionados and Diet Prada—which highlighted a few of the more hilarious and pointed reactions. The problem with McCarthy’s Ursula isn’t the actor herself—though we’ll return to her casting in a moment—nor is it a lack of faithfulness to the character’s appearance in the 1989 animated film. The problem is that it looks bad. It’s wildly monotone and asymmetrical, to say nothing of the bizarrely uneven eyebrows.
All of which feels especially egregious considering the fact that Ursula was famously based on Divine, the raunchy, radical drag icon and John Waters cohort who died in 1988. Howard Ashman, who collaborated with Alan Menken on The Little Mermaid‘s indelible music and dialogue, was a gay playwright and lyricist, and—like Divine—hailed from Baltimore. The two ran in the same circles. According to co-director John Musker, Ursula’s final design was based on an initial rendering by animator Rob Minkoff, whose depiction of the sea witch was directly inspired by Divine. They even dressed a male actor in drag for reference footage.
McCarthy’s Ursula makeup certainly wouldn’t pass muster with the judges on RuPaul’s Drag Race, let alone a crowd of mimosa-drunk drag brunch attendees. If you told me a five-year-old painted McCarthy’s face with a cheap tray of Halloween DIY grease paint from Party City, I’d believe it.
Casting a drag queen as Ursula was the bare minimum Disney could’ve done. (I still think they f—ed up by not casting Tituss Burgess, who already had an immaculate audition reel.) Instead, they chose someone extremely heteronormative and obvious: the most famous, likable fat woman in America. Okay, fine. You cast a fat lady as a fat lady. But could you queer it up in the makeup department and at least gesture at honoring the origins of Ursula and her creators?
Not only is McCarthy’s casting emblematic of Disney’s refusal to enthusiastically embrace queer culture, but it’s disrespectful to the gay and queer men who birthed Ursula into existence—the same artists who made some of Disney’s most successful animated films during the studio’s golden age. Like the casting of McCarthy in The Little Mermaid, Ursula’s live-action aesthetic is uninspired, lazy, and weirdly two-dimensional. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since those words also describe the majority of Disney’s live-action remakes.
(featured image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
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