In Hans Christian Andersen's original tale of "The Little Mermaid," first published in 1837, the titular mermaid longs to swim to the surface and explore the world of humans after falling in love with a human man. She visits a sea witch who has a potion that can give her legs in exchange for her voice; she will become human but won't be able to speak. In Andersen's world, mermaids don't have souls and, when they die, transform into sea foam rather than ascending into heaven.

In order to survive, the little mermaid will have to marry a human man before a certain amount of time elapses. It seems that the mermaid will not be successful in wooing the prince and is destined to become sea foam. At the last minute, the mermaid's sisters rally, giving their hair to the sea witch in exchange for a magical dagger. If the mermaid stabs the prince and rubs his blood on her legs, she'll become a mermaid again. Unable to commit murder, she chooses to become sea foam instead.

The dagger part wasn't part of the 1989 animated feature version of "The Little Mermaid," nor its 2023 remake, but the basic setup from Andersen's tale was, however, kept mostly intact for both. In the 1989 film, the sea witch was named Ursula, and was voiced by Pat Carroll. Like in Andersen's tale, the sea witch was merely an imp, an agent of chaos who enjoyed discord and black magic. She had no motivations other than wickedness and a lust for power. She was a shadowy outsider.

In the 2023 movie, Ursula is played by Melissa McCarthy, and the script has given her a motivation beyond mere evil. It seems she was, like Hamlet, once overlooked for the throne.

Ursula's Right To The Throne

This detail is, if you'll forgive me, a little tiresome.

Yes, it seems that Ursula and King Triton (Javier Bardem) are siblings and that he ascended to the throne instead of Ursula in some sort of unseen vying for the crown. Part of being the ruler of the seas is access to a magical trident that allows its possessor access to a great deal of power. Ursula feels she was cheated out of that power, and has retired to a cave to sulk and to practice black magic. When she finds out that Triton's daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey) has fallen in love with a human man, she sees it as an opportunity. If she can put the little mermaid deliberately at risk, then she'll have a bargaining chip with Triton. The real plot of the film has more to do with Triton and Ursula, actually, than with Ariel.

One might be able to see the movie's screenwriter, David Magee ("Lady Chatterly's Lover," "Finding Neverland"), straining to add to the fable. In that quest, he might have looked to the 1989 feature, where she had been Triton's sister in earlier drafts of the film's script. The connection, however, was ultimately written out, though it survived in the novelization and in the play adaptation. Magee bringing this connection back in was also repeating a common trope seen throughout the recent spate of Disney remakes, in that the villain characters are constructed to be as sympathetic as possible. Gaston from "Beauty and the Beast," for instance, was now a victim of PTSD.

While the motivation does undoubtedly enrich the character and makes her villainy more understandable, it does, perhaps unfortunately, rob Ursula of her central appeal. We don't want to feel sympathy for the sea witch. She's more fun to watch when she's just plain evil.

Poor Unfortunate Soul

To be fair, the 1989 version of Ursula did have something of a motivation. Even though she was no longer identified as Triton's sibling, she does note that she once lived in the royal palace and enjoyed the parties and feasts that once went on there. At some point, however, she was banished and exiled. We never learn why Ursula lived in the palace or what she did to get exiled. When Ursula sees that King Triton was enjoying celebrations and parties, it merely fills her with resentment. The only reason she wants to hurt Ariel (Jodi Benson) is to cause pain for Triton.

Her motivations, then, are spite and resentment. Are those things justified? No, and that's the point. Ursula has allowed spite to get the better of her, and now she merely enjoys causing harm, snaring mermaids in her ironic traps, and keeping kelp-like humanoid prisoners in her cave. Evil is what makes her fun. She's scary and powerful and charismatic. Beyond that, one might not care what her motivations are, nor her goals in life.

While giving Ursula a backstory does indeed enrich her character, it not only misunderstands what makes her interesting but also casts a shadow on Ariel and Triton who, it seems, may only be royalty because of an unnamed past deceit. "The Little Mermaid," however, doesn't explore that notion at all. Was Triton an illegitimate king? Perhaps, but we'll never know. The new "The Little Mermaid" tries to have its cake and eat it too. Ursula is meant to be both excitingly evil and justifiably mad. I don't think we can have it both ways.

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