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The Problems With Ursula’s Recasting Have Me Nostalgic For the Original Actress

Ursula smiles and holds her hands up in the little mermaid.

Earlier this week, Disney released a time lapse video of Melissa McCarthy transforming into the sea witch Ursula for Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. I love McCarthy’s work, and so far reviews for the movie are positive, but I have to agree with our Britt Haye’s analysis of the casting choice:

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?

I watched the Tituss Burgess video, and I agree that he would have absolutely killed it as Ursula. However, this whole debate just makes me nostalgic for the Ursula I grew up with: Pat Carroll.

Carroll voiced Ursula in the original The Little Mermaid, which came out in 1989. There have been a lot of memorable Disney villains over the years, but a large of the reason Ursula ranks so high among them is Carroll’s acting. The character design, based on the drag queen Divine, is unparalleled, but it was Carroll’s unbridled energy and soul who took the character to the next level. What I would give to have been in the room when she recorded “Poor Unfortunate Souls!”

Carroll had range, too. An Emmy and Grammy winner and Tony nominee, Carroll also had roles in Laverne & Shirley and ER. I watched My Neighbor Totoro a zillion times before realizing that the warm and gentle Granny was voiced by the same actress who cackled and belted out incantations as the sea witch.

I can’t help but feel that Carroll’s work is a casualty of Disney’s remake frenzy. 1989’s The Little Mermaid is a great movie, and it holds up. Why mess with a good thing? I’m glad Disney is finally casting more actors of color, but why not let actors and filmmakers tell new stories? Why not honor Carroll’s work by letting it stand on its own, instead of hiring McCarthy to do a Pat Carroll impression?

The reason McCarthy already seems to be falling flat in the role of Ursula is because Ursula is iconic. I wish we could let McCarthy bring her boundless wit to her own roles, instead of having her rehash the work of such a legendary actor.

(featured image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

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Julia Glassman (she/they) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at