Animated Ursula serving body-ody-ody.

What Happened to ‘The Little Mermaid’s Thick Icon?

Don't underestimate the importance of body language.

The highly anticipated (and absurdly controversial) live-action remake of The Little Mermaid finally hit theaters this weekend. The original animated version was the first movie I saw in the theaters as a kid. Since then, I have been fully obsessed with mermaids and other sea creatures (both natural and mythical), so yes, like many other fans, I was excited about the updated version of the classic.

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For the most part, I enjoyed the remake. Halle Bailey embodied the spirit of Ariel. Every time she sang a song I have heard a million times, I got chills like it was the first time hearing it. My two biggest problems centered on two characters. Sadly, Chef Louis didn’t make an appearance to sing about how he prepares fish to eat. I still sing that song when I cook anything, so this was heartbreaking. More importantly, there was how they made our Lady Ursula look. Why the hell did they cover up the curvy queen’s body?

BBW: Big Beautiful Witch

Since the original The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, Ursula has gone from villain to cultural icon. Ursula was the only female villain to come out of the animated Disney films of the late-1980s and 1990s. Something about her hit differently than other female villains before her. She was a sea witch who knew exactly who she was and exuded confidence. Her large, curvy body glided around the screen with her wonderful tentacles. She shimmied and shook her ample butt while singing about body language and knowing what men wanted.

Unlike Ariel, Ursula was perfectly happy with herself. It was everyone else that needed to realize how amazing she was. Ursula had an attitude and sensuality that other villains lacked. Being one of the very few fat female characters in Disney animation history, she showed the most skin and was happy with her body. In the movie, she shapeshifted into Vanessa, a human woman that looked like the wicked version of Ariel, so we know she could look any way she wanted to. Ursula wanted to be big and beautiful with a top that showed off everything. Yas, queen.

We deserved more, and she needed less.

Obviously, Ursula has found a place of honor in the body-positive community. People of all sizes dress up as her for Halloween or buy bathing suits that resemble her look. Many of us want to have her confidence when living in our large bodies. I felt the live-action version of her character would add to Ursula’s status as an icon. However, Melissa McCarthy’s costume was much more conservative than I was expecting.

It showed cleavage, I’ll give it that, but only her chest and face were really visible. They covered her arms and back with black that often faded into the background. Her shape was lost, and the shimmy didn’t have much wiggle. They also took out the infamous line about body language from “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” so she had no reason to turn her backside to the camera. They could have changed the rest of that stanza’s lyrics and kept the line we all love.

I understand that showing skin in a children’s movie translates differently from animation to real people. The problem was that almost all the rest of the merpeople showed just as much of their bodies as their animated counterparts. The only one slightly more covered was King Triton (Javier Bardem), who wore an armored chest plate. That change almost makes sense because he is the king, but why would they cover Ursula so much when all the other iterations wore revealing clothes?

Most recently, Queen Latifah played Ursula during a live version of the film on ABC. She entered wearing a giant costume with huge tentacles. Then, she unzipped it to show a more revealing and slinky dress to walk around in. She shook her butt and twerked toward the camera. This is the kind of representation we need. Sexy at whatever size you want to be! While watching the new movie, I kept thinking about the outstanding poem “Dear Ursula” by Melissa May.

The poem is a direct response to Disney making an Ursula doll that reduced her to a size 0. May passionately hits every point of why people (especially fat girls and women) love Ursula and how marketing executives don’t understand that. Every time I saw McCarthy’s Ursula silhouette disappear into the dark waters around her, I thought of May saying, “I don’t want you cut down into, Bite-sized little pieces. You weren’t easy to swallow, For a reason.”

I wanted this Ursula to be sexy and over the top. What we got was a flat comedic take on a character that I worship. I know McCarthy could have delivered more and was probably constrained by the chain of command at Disney. They left Ursula without much of a voice, but she deserved the wield the power of body language.

(featured image: Disney)

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D.R. Medlen
D.R. Medlen (she/her) is a pop culture staff writer at The Mary Sue. After finishing her BA in History, she finally pursued her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer in 2019. She expertly fangirls over Marvel, Star Wars, and historical fantasy novels (the spicier the better). When she's not writing or reading, she lives that hobbit-core life in California with her spouse, offspring, and animal familiars.