Is Ursula a squid or an octopus in ‘The Little Mermaid?’
This article contains spoilers for Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid.
Ariel and the rest of the characters from Disney’s The Little Mermaid have officially made their voyage into theaters, and fans can’t stop talking about the magnificent portrayals of some of the most iconic characters in fairytale history. From Ariel herself and her sea creature besties, to the charming Prince Eric and the mysterious Ursula.
Melissa McCarthy breathes life into the sea witch in the latest adaptation of The Little Mermaid, and she does so with pizazz, intrigue, and a new storyline — or rather, a reconfirmed/reintroduced one. The crux of Ursula’s story in this version of the story is familial vengeance, and while you think through what that means, there’s another question fans have been left asking — is Ursula an octopus or a squid? Okay, so maybe that’s not the most pressing question you had while walking out of the theater, but let’s be honest; it has crossed your mind.
As she works magic under the sea, holds Ariel’s voice hostage, and attempts to manipulate a situation by giving the mermaid everything she could ever hope for — a chance at life above the sea. Ursula knows the implications of what Ariel is doing when she signs her voice away, but she lures her in nonetheless; her selfish nature and need for control comes from a deep-seated sense of feeling less than, and what better way to get to the top than to take everyone in your path down a few notches?
With a sea witch that wicked, it’s no surprise that every aspect of her being is a curiosity to fans; so just who is Ursula, is she a squid or an octopus, and what is the inspiration behind the larger-than-life villain?
Is Ursula a squid or an octopus?
The answer to this one might surprise you unless you take the time to count her tentacles, but Ursula is a squid — not an octopus. Many people have considered her an octopus since the film’s first debut in 1989, but the original bad girl herself, Pat Caroll, would be the first to tell you that attention to detail counts.
“Many people call her an octopus, and I’m so knowledgeable, I have to correct. She is not an octopus; she is a squid. And they ask what that means. She has six tentacles instead of eight, which makes it less expensive to draw.”
Less expensive, maybe, but no less fierce! Ursula is a powerhouse within Ariel’s realm and Disney as a whole, and there are a few other differences between octopus and squid that might explain some of the sea witches’ traits! Squids have less flexibility in their arms, have a different shape to their heads, and expel clouds of ink in their wake if they feel preyed upon as they swim around the ocean. Squids also live longer, so that’s a definite perk for the sea witch with a vendetta so intense she’ll need years to seek vengeance.
All things considered, Ursula being a squid certainly has its advantages as far as the storyline goes, and as McCarthy brings the latest version of the villain to life, we are even more in awe of her.
Who is Ursula inspired by?
Every impactful evil comes from a great inspiration, and as far as Ursula goes — it’s Harris Glenn Milstead, who you might recognize better by the stage name Divine. Divine was a drag queen of epic proportions; renowned, beloved, and all-captivating.
John Waters spoke with TIME Magazine about how the story of Ursula walked hand in hand with that of Divine — both intense, beautiful in their own right, and happy to exist within the outsider realm of society.
“Ursula was an outsider. She was magic. She had a style that some people might not understand, but she was proud of herself. She was confident. She never questioned her look. She never felt—as other people might have—that she looked weird or anything. She looked beautiful on her own terms.”
Beautiful on her own terms, powerful and insidious — Ursula is the epitome of a villain, and her ties to Divine are just that — totally, unequivocally…divine. While Milstead passed away a year before The Little Mermaid hit theaters, we know that in some beautiful afterlife, he realized the impact he had on a character that became something so wholly phenomenal for so many reasons, from the makeup look, the eyebrows, eyeshadow, jewelry, and mannerisms — Ursula knows how to drift, waltz around with confidence and intensity, and leave quite the impact in her wake.
McCarthy acknowledging Ursula’s origins is a big step
So why is the discussion behind Ursula’s inspiration and being so important now? There are many reasons for it, one of which is when a conversation about a drag queen inspiring a Disney character is happening. Everyone knows about DeSantis vs. Disney, and it is a big deal for these talks to take place in an open space — not just a big deal, but an important one.
TIME shared the following quote from McCarthy, who knew the character was based upon Divine — it was one of those proof-in-the-pudding moments.
“I’ve watched The Little Mermaid more times than any other movie. I was a nanny, and we used to watch it every night. And I always was like, I know for a fact—but I couldn’t prove it—that she had to be based on Divine. She just had to be. I was like, ‘the makeup, the look, the attitude.’ And now we know that yes, she was of course based on Divine.”
It was essential to McCarthy to do right by Divine, and she spoke at the May premiere about how important it was for her to make Ursula a well-rounded character, powerful in her own right and intensely herself. She also hoped to share that same attitude with film fans, those who need to see a powerhouse like Ursula giving the world her all.
“I just hope to do every incredible drag queen proud, and Divine proud. Just to give it that same—to give it your all, to throw it out there, no apologies, do it your way. Do no harm, but back up a little. I wanted to give her everything that she was due.”
Divine didn’t just inspire Ursula; many characters within the pop culture realm have ties to the intense and powerful drag queen who changed the game. Thanks to the bond between John Walters and Milstead, traits of Divine can be seen across the entertainment industry in many ways.
Jeffrey Schwarz brings up an excellent point with TIME regarding Ursula’s importance to the Disney family, primarily because of many Drag bans that have become more common as of late — and credits McCarthy with her openly speaking about her origins.
“We’re in such a fraught moment surrounding these issues about drag, which is an all-American art form, so the fact that she’s out there promoting a Disney movie and acknowledging the influence of one of the great drag queens of all time, I really have a lot of respect for that.”
The Little Mermaid is in theaters now, and you won’t want to miss a moment of the journey, especially where Ursula the squid is concerned.