Disney villains have come in many different varieties over the years. Some have been downright scary (The Horned King from The Black Cauldron (1985) comes to mind), some have been rather funny (Captain Hook from Peter Pan (1953) is one of those) and then there’s Ursula from The Little Mermaid (1989): she has moments of humor combined with moments of extreme scariness and pure evil. All of which is showcased in her song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” This song was created by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
The setup is simple: After seeing her precious grotto destroyed by her father, King Triton, Ariel is persuaded to visit “the sea witch” Ursula, because (according to her eel minions Flotsam and Jetsam), she can give Ariel what she wants: the ability to get to Prince Eric. Extremely bitter for what her father did, Ariel agrees to go (much to the horror of Sebastian and Flounder, who follow along to see what will happen).
Ursula lives far away from the city of Atlantica in a cave/reef that looks reminiscent of dinosaur bones. The sea witch herself is not, as many believe, half octopus. If you count her tentacles, you’ll see she has only six, which would make her half-squid (it was done this way on purpose because six tentacles were easier to animate than eight).
The witch assures Ariel that she can give the little mermaid exactly what she wants…for a price of course. As the song begins, she explains that the only way Ariel can get Prince Eric is to become a human herself.
I really love “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Pat Carroll (the voice of Ursula) delivers a thrilling performance as the villain-disguised-as-helper to “those poor unfortunate souls.” As Ursula tells it, she USED to be a bad person, but now she’s turned her life around and spends all her time helping less fortunate merfolk by giving them their heart’s desires. Of course, “once or twice” these poor merpeople couldn’t pay her price so she “had to rake ’em cross the coals” (i.e. she turned them into those seaweed creatures trapped at the entrance of her home) but other than that she’s this great do-gooder. (Actually, I think Ursula can’t possibly have cheated EVERYONE she’s helped, because if everyone who went to see her disappeared, people still wouldn’t be going).
what IS it with Disney villains and the scary eyes!!??
Ariel is very tempted by all of this, and her lingering concerns over never seeing her family again are quickly brushed over by Ursula because in return she says “you’ll have your man.” Of course, there’s still the matter of payment to be worked out, and Ursula really isn’t asking all that much. All she wants from Ariel is…her voice! Now, that doesn’t sound like too much, but keep in mind part of what made Prince Eric fall in love with Ariel at first sight was that song she was singing to him. Without her voice, how is Eric going to know it’s really her? Ariel is wondering the same thing, but Ursula again brushes this off, saying that all Ariel needs is some “body language” and she’ll be fine, because women aren’t expected to talk on the surface anyways (it’s a total lie, but Ariel doesn’t know that).
Oh yes, there is one other detail. Once Ariel is made human, she will have three days to get Prince Eric to give her “the kiss of true love.” If this happens, the transformation will be permanent, but if not, then Ariel will turn back into a mermaid and belong to Ursula forever! (Talk about killer fine print!)
A contract magically appears, wherein Ariel would grant Ursula her voice “for all eternity.” To Ursula’s delight, Ariel signs the contract and the deal is done! Now comes my favorite part, the transformation! Ursula sings/chants this powerful spell that sends chills down my spine every time. As she finishes, a pair of ghostly hands appears and she commands Ariel to sing. And as the little mermaid sings, the hands come closer, and closer and finally ease Ariel’s voice out of her and into Ursula’s magical shell. With payment granted, Ariel is seized and given a pair of human legs (all the while Ursula laughs maniacally, because in her mind Ariel is as good as hers, you know she has no intention of letting that “kiss of true love” happen). Of course, now that she’s human, Ariel can’t breathe underwater anymore, so it’s up to Sebastian and Flounder to race her to the surface.
Ursula herself was based on the appearance of a drag queen named Divine (1945-1988).
There were originally a few lines inserted to insinuate that Ursula was King Triton’s sister (and therefore Ariel’s aunt) but this was deemed one subplot too many and the lines were removed.
During the recording, Pat Carroll adlibbed a few words throughout the song (I know her use of “pathetic” early on is a definite adlib), and Menken and Ashman liked her rendition so much that they kept it as is.
And that’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” definitely my favorite song from The Little Mermaid. I hope you enjoyed reading about it and listening to it, have a good Wednesday! Don’t forget that the Remembering James Horner Blogathon starts in two days!! -Bex
*all images are the property of Walt Disney Studios
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