Disney Erases Ursula’s Drag Queen-Inspired History By Casting Melissa McCarthy in ‘The Little Mermaid’

The news is out: Melissa McCarthy has been pegged to portray Ursula in Disney’s live-action reimagining of The Little Mermaid. While Melissa McCarthy may carry the star power needed to draw enthusiasts back to the theatre for yet another live-action retelling, is she the perfect fit? 

Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy | Photo by: Mike Smith/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Will Melissa McCarthy be able to pay homage to Pat Carroll’s original take, while bringing her own comedic flair to the character? Or, will McCarthy’s sheer presence, Hollywood image, and dialogic tendencies trample over Ursula’s gorgeously menacing tentacles? 

For those of you who do not know, Ursula’s image was inspired by none other than the famous 1970s drag queen Divine. And, with Pat Carroll – a woman whose vocal range was so low she played men on stage – behind the vocals, Ursula became the sabotaging, sexy, and guttural-sounding Queen we adored. Ursula may have been the villain, but that didn’t stop her from becoming the icon. Ariel who?

The problem: Melissa McCarthy has built a public persona – and boasts a vocal range – that doesn’t quite align with the Ursula we remember. To hear Melissa McCarthy sing, you can listen to her duet with Barbra Streisand below, as they cover “Anything You Can Do.” 

By casting Melissa McCarthy, Disney has virtually chosen to abandon Ursula’s original shtick, in favor of a more feminized rendition. While all remains to be seen, it’s unlikely that McCarthy will develop a male-sounding voice overnight.

Why would Disney wish to remove Ursula’s drag queen roots from ‘The Little Mermaid?’

There are two possible explanations for this choice: one favors Disney, while the other rakes the mega-successful franchise through the coals (pun intended). Let’s begin with the argument that gives Disney the benefit of the doubt.

Disney has faced backlash, especially in recent years, for assigning stereotypically gay qualities to its villains; thus, implying that gay and bad go hand-in-hand. As Rowan Ellis explains, Disney villains are often queer-coded; villains like Scar and Hades are frequently depicted as “flamboyant” or “prim” and “vain.” 

Ellis goes on to explain that, in Hollywood’s primitive years, portraying LGBTQ+ individuals in a positive light was an unacceptable move; thus, the “sissy villain” formed as a response to “homophobia” and the “demonization of femininity.” 

Working with the above explanation, you could argue that Disney wants to avoid cementing such a dated and unacceptable Hollywood trend even further. By removing the drag queen slant, Disney removes the potential for backlash. This could also explain why Scar seems to have changed drastically in the upcoming The Lion King

Is Disney “sanitiz[ing]” Ursula to make her more palpable to all demographics? 

While the above theory favors Disney, it’s not the full story. Disney’s brand image smells of non-partisan behavior and “safe” choices. Could it be that placing a drag queen in the role would simply be too much for the conglomerate likely unwilling to lose support from those who would not favor the choice? Is Melissa McCarthy simply the safest bet? 

In response to Melissa McCarthy’s casting, one fan stated:

“I always felt like that character had such an overt drag vibe, would McCarthy really bring that? Or does Disney want that aspect of the character sanitized, I wonder.”

Is Disney simply sanitizing this film? Disney has learned to walk the tightrope of inclusion perfectly, but never pushes the envelope “too far –” whatever that means – for Disney cannot be the mover and shaker; Disney thrives on running with earthquakes it would never dare to start. 

With equal parts poise, pretension, and pizazz,  many would argue that the original Ursula does not need sanitizing, or reinventing. Instead, she merely needs a live-action makeover that would adequately encompass her original animated form.

The overarching question is: is Disney trying to remove an aspect of Ursula that is morally questionable or trying to place her perfectly on their tightrope of non-controversy?