How a scandalous drag queen rose to fame in ‘The Little Mermaid’


“The way the character was portrayed in the script was as a Joan Collins-esque character. So most of the designs that people were doing were of a very skinny woman with a high forehead, wide cheekbones, and very dark hair,» Minkoff told NBC News. «And then I suggested this alternate approach based on Divine from the John Waters movies.» Minkoff, who went on to co-direct 1994’s «The Lion King» and other Disney films, said he incorporated Divine in at least one drawing that ended up being shown on a storyboard. And when Howard Ashman, the brilliant lyricist widely credited with a «Disney Renaissance» that began in the late ’80s, looked at the designs, that was the one that caught his eye.

“Howard went through all the designs and zeroed in on that one,” Minkoff recalled Musker telling him at the time. «So John came back to me and said, ‘Howard liked your drawing, and that’s how we want to do it.'»

Ashman, along with his creative partner, composer Alan Menken, had been recruited by Disney after the success of their Off-Broadway play «Little Shop of Horrors,» in the hope that they could give the studio some much-needed success.

Once Ashman arrived in Los Angeles, as detailed in the Don Hanh documentary «Howard,» he gravitated toward the studio’s animation arm, seeing an opportunity to marry his background in musical theater with the more unconventional experimental approach of illustrators. And that’s precisely what he did with «The Little Mermaid,» which became the first in a string of Disney animated hits.

Looking back at that era of the studio, Minkoff said that people had forgotten that Walt Disney the man was an «innovator who had broken all the rules throughout his career.»

Howard Ashman, left, and Alan Menken.Disney+

“There are a lot of really risqué things in the early animated movies that people had forgotten about, one of which was killing Bambi’s mom, but Disney had gotten very confident with the kind of stories and movies they were 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 ’80s were huge fans of the earlier Disney classics and they wanted the modern movies to reach those same heights, and the only way to do that, we all knew, was to push the boundaries.» limits of what seemed acceptable.

Minkoff’s idea to model Ursula, a version of the sea witch in Hans Christian Andersen’s «The Little Mermaid,» on a drag queen who embraced the bizarre and grotesque certainly pushed the envelope.

During her illustrious career, Divine, born Harris Glenn Milstead, was the muse of avant-garde director John Waters, who affectionately referred to the drag queen as «the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.» As Waters’s favorite leading lady, Divine helped the director pioneer the genre of «trash movies»: low-budget productions that exaggerated and satirized exploitation films.

The couple’s lifelong friendship and storied collaboration began when the Baltimore natives met as teenagers in the mid-1960s. Their first film together, 1966’s «Roman Candles,» an homage to «The Chelsea Girls» by Andy Warhol, featured a scaled-down version of Divine. But as they continued to work together, the drag queen, with Waters’ help, morphed into a notorious exaggerated persona: a shapely queen with homicidal tendencies, shaved-back hair and extremely arched eyebrows.

It was this Divino who shocked audiences and angered film censors everywhere, by, among other things, eating dog feces on screen, in Waters’ haunting 1972 trash-film classic «Pink Flamingos.» Unlike the director’s 1988 film «Hairspray,» which starred Divine as the mother of Ricki Lake’s Tracy Turnblad in her only brush with mainstream fame, «Pink Flamingos» challenges audiences to continue watching a deranged group of Outcasts commit increasingly depraved acts to earn the title of «the world’s dirtiest person.»

divine in "pink flamingos," in 1972.
Divine in the 1972 film «Pink Flamingos.»Courtesy of the Everett Collection

This was the film that stuck in Minkoff’s mind when he did the sketch that caught Ashman’s eye. Because, as the former character illustrator recalls, «Pink Flamingos» played on loop in a theater at the Walt Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts, where Minkoff had been a student.

“It certainly wasn’t the most obvious place to be inspired,” Minkoff said. “But when you have a character, and especially a villain, you really want to find an interesting angle. I think Disney villains can be the most interesting characters in movies, so you want to create something that’s larger than life, something that really has a lot of personality.»

It seems that Ashman, a Baltimore native who saw Minkoff’s inspiration immediately, agreed that what the film needed was a supervillain of monstrous proportions. The idea of ​​a Divine-inspired Ursula was eventually given the green light, and Ashman, along with the directors and a small group of animators, began working with live-action reference models to bring the characters to life, using a process from which the studio had depended on. since his first animated feature, 1937’s «Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.»

Minkoff said that he suggested that his former CalArts roommate, Max Kirby, be brought on as a live-action reference for Ursula. Ashman and the directors took his suggestion, and as Minkoff puts it, Kirby performed Ursula’s signature number, «Poor Unfortunate Souls,» for the group, appropriately, «basically dressed as a woman.»

Ursula at Disney "The little Mermaid."
Ursula in Disney’s «The Little Mermaid.»Walt Disney Studios

Ultimately, it took years and many illustrators before the unforgettable villain from «The Little Mermaid,» voiced by Pat Carroll, graced movie screens across the country.

The end product was a code-queer antihero reminiscent of the complex queens and wicked witches of Disney films like 1959’s «Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs» and «Sleeping Beauty,» whose exaggerated style, performative body language, and general immorality it works to highlight the purity of the film’s heteronormative heroine and hero.

Thanks in no small part to its sinister, subversive appeal and the villainous cecaelia’s signature meaningful musical number, «Poor Unfortunate Souls,» «The Little Mermaid» went on to be a major win for Disney. The film’s popularity at the box office and two Oscar wins (for best original song and best original score) marked a sea change for Disney’s animation division, which hadn’t been a big hit in decades, placing to the studio on the way to a string of future hits, including early ’90s favorites «Beauty and the Beast» and «Aladdin,» which feature lyrics and composition by Ashman and Menken.

Sadly, Ashman, who tragically died of AIDS in 1991, did not live to see the full impact of the new style of musical animation he pioneered. And Divine, who died a year before the release of «The Little Mermaid,» never saw himself dominating a kingdom of insane polyps, much to the delight of children everywhere.

Although one can imagine that the larger-than-life drag queen would have enjoyed the legacy and shared the sentiments of Waters, who in 2016 was aforementioned as if to say, «When I was young, all I wanted to be was a Disney villain.»

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