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How a Scandalous Drag Queen Found Mainstream Stardom in ‘The Little Mermaid’

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

“Howard looked at all the designs and focused on this one,” Minkoff recalled, telling Musker 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 hopes that they could provide the studio with some much-needed success.

Once Ashman arrived in Los Angeles – as Don Hanh’s documentary “Howard” details – he turned to the studio’s animation arm, seeing it as an opportunity to marry his background in musical theater with the more quirky and experimental approach of illustrators. And that’s exactly what he did with “The Little Mermaid,” which became the first in a string of animated hits for Disney.

Looking back on that time at the studio, Minkoff said people had forgotten that Walt Disney, the man, was an “innovator who broke all the rules throughout his career.”

Howard Ashman, left, and Alan Menken.Disney+

“There’s a lot of really annoying stuff in the early animated movies that people had forgotten about, including the murder of Bambi’s mom, but Disney had become very sure with the kind of stories and movies they were making. at that time,” Minkoff said of the business before Ashman joined. “I think everyone in animation during that ’80s era was big fans of early Disney classics and wanted that modern movies reach those same heights – and the only way to do that, we all knew, was to push the boundaries of what felt acceptable.

Minkoff’s idea of ​​modeling Ursula – a version of the sea witch in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” – on a drag queen who embraced the bizarre and the 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 called the drag queen “almost the most beautiful woman in the world.” As Waters’ favorite protagonist, Divine helped the director pioneer the “trash movie” genre: low-budget productions that exaggerated and satirized exploitation films.

The couple’s longtime friendship and historic collaboration began when the Baltimore natives met as teenagers in the mid-1960s. Their first film together, 1966’s ‘Roman Candles’, a tribute 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 the help of Waters, transformed into an infamously over-the-top character: a shapely queen with murderous tendencies, a shaved hairline and extreme, arched eyebrows. .

It was this Divine who shocked audiences and angered censors everywhere — for, among other things, eating dog feces onscreen — in Waters’ disturbing 1972 trash-cinema classic, “Pink Flamingos.” . Unlike the director’s 1988 film “Hairspray,” which starred Divine as the mother of Ricki Lake’s Tracy Turnblad in her first taste of mainstream fame, “Pink Flamingos” challenges audiences to keep watching then. that a deranged group of outcasts commit more and more depraved acts to earn the title of “the dirtiest person in the world”.

divine in "Pink flamingos," in 1972.
Divine in the 1972 film “Pink Flamingos”.Courtesy of Everett Collection

It was the movie stuck in Minkoff’s mind when he made the sketch that caught Ashman’s eye. Because, as the former character illustrator remembers, “Pink Flamingos” played on repeat in a theater at the California Institute of the Arts founded by Walt Disney, where Minkoff had once been a student.

“It definitely wasn’t the most obvious place to get inspiration,” 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, and so you want to create something bigger than nature, something that really has a lot of personality.

It seems Ashman, a Baltimore native who immediately spotted Minkoff’s inspiration, agreed that what the film needed was a supervillain of monstrous proportions. The idea of ​​a divinely inspired Ursula was finally greenlit, and Ashman, along with the directors and a small group of animators, began working with live reference models to bring the characters to life, using a process on which the studio depended. since his first animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” from 1937.

Minkoff said he suggested his former CalArts roommate Max Kirby be hired as a live-action reference for Ursula. Ashman and the directors took his suggestion and, as Minkoff puts it, Kirby did a rendition of Ursula’s signature number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” for the band – fittingly, “dressed mostly in drag.”

Ursula in Disney "The little Mermaid."
Ursula in Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’.Walt Disney Studios

In the end, it took years and many illustrators before the unforgettable villain of “The Little Mermaid,” voiced by Pat Carroll, hit theater screens across the country.

The end product was a queer-coded antihero reminiscent of complex evil queens and witches from Disney films like 1959’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty,” whose exaggerated style, body language performative and outright immorality works to highlight the purity of the film’s heteronormative heroine and hero.

Thanks in large part to this subversive, sinister appeal and the wicked Cecaelia’s meaningful musical number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, “The Little Mermaid” became a major win for Disney. The film’s box office popularity and its two Oscars – for Best Original Song and Best Original Score – marked a turnaround for Disney’s animation arm, which hadn’t had a huge hit in decades. and it set the studio on the path to a string of future hits, including early ’90s favorites “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” which feature lyrics and songwriting by Ashman and Menken.

Sadly, Ashman, who tragically died of AIDS in 1991, didn’t live to see the full impact of the new style of animated and musical feature film he pioneered. And Divine, who died a year before ‘The Little Mermaid’ was released, never saw herself reigning over a kingdom of demented polyps, much to the delight of children everywhere.

Though one can imagine the larger-than-life drag queen would have savored the legacy and shared the sentiments of Waters, who in 2016 reportedly said, “When I was young, all I wanted to be was a Disney villain.”

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