During planning for the film, Ursula was not originally designed as a Cecaelia. It was thought that she would be another sea creature, such as a rockfish. The production team then saw a documentary about octopuses, and decided that their multiple arms and overall imposing appearance would be perfect for the character they were creating. Ursula is only drawn with six tentacles, due to the studio's budget and difficulty in coordinating eight tentacles. Her basic look was based on the Drag performer Divine.
Pat Carroll, who was cast to voice Ursula, envisioned the character as "part Shakespearean actress, with all the flair, flamboyance and theatricality, and part used-car salesman with a touch of con artist". Carroll, who is a contralto, deliberately deepened her voice for the role.
Ursula is a very dark and sinister villain. Aside from this, she has a large sense a humor. Ursula is very manipulative and has a talent of making great sense and making great points when trying to strike a deal. Unlike many Disney Villains, Ursula puts her henchman Flotsam and Jetsam before anything and everyone else. Ursula treats the eels like children and refer to them as the babies or poopsies. When the eels are killed accidentally by Ursula because of Ariel, she mourns and takes all of her anger and sadness on Ariel and attempts to kill her once and for all.
When Ursula first appears in the film, she states through monologue that she once lived in the royal palace of King Triton, the king of the underwater city of Atlantica. She was banished from Atlantica and made her home in the remains of a leviathan where she waits the chance to get her revenge on Triton and become Queen of Atlantica.
The entrance to Ursula's leviathan home is lined with a garden of writhing polyps which were merfolk who had been previously gone to Ursula for help, but found themselves unable to fulfill their side of the bargain, leading Ursula to claim them as her own and added them to her collection. The garden of polyps are part of the original fairytale, but are simply guards of the way to the sea witch's home, and not condemned merfolk.
Ursula commands her minions, moray eels Flotsam and Jetsam, to watch Triton's youngest daughter Ariel, whom might be "the key to Triton's undoing". Opportunity arises when Ursula learns that Ariel has fallen in love with a human, against Triton's explicit rules. Flotsam and Jetsam lure Ariel to Ursula's lair, claiming that only Ursula can help her.
Ursula proposes via the song Poor Unfortunate Souls an agreement where Ursula will transform Ariel into a human, and she has three days to get the "kiss of true love" from Eric. If Ariel fails, she will be turned back into a mermaid and bound to Ursula for eternity. The price for the transformation is Ariel's voice. Ariel agrees and signs a magical contract, so her voice is magically pulled into Ursula's Nautilus shell necklace causing Ursula to laugh gleefully as her plans begin to unfold. Ariel's tail is split into legs. In comparison, the original fairytale involves the sea witch taking the little mermaid's voice by cutting off her tongue, and her tail was transformed into legs by a magic potion which the mermaid was to drink on the beach surface.
When Ariel comes "too close" to succeeding in her task, Ursula takes the form of a beautiful human female with Ariel's voice in order to sabotage her relationship with Eric. Ursula adopts the name of "Vanessa", and when in this form, her voice is provided by Jodi Benson, who also voices Ariel. The concept of the beautiful dark-haired rival for the prince's affections is another plot point adapted and modified from the original fairytale.
As Vanessa, Ursula bewitches Eric to marry her, but the wedding is disrupted at the last minute and the Nautilus shell containing Ariel's voice is broken, breaking the enchantment and returning Ariel's voice back to its owner. However, the sun sets before Ariel and Eric can kiss. Ursula, restored to her normal form, is confronted by King Triton. She reveals her true goal, and forces Triton to choose between his freedom and his daughter's. Triton agrees to take Ariel's place, and Ursula takes the crown and magical trident, making her the Queen of the Seven Seas. Ursula grows large and creates a storm and whirlpool. The Sea Witch then imprisons Ariel at the bottom of the whirlpool. Ursula decides to test her new powers by killing the princess. Ursula fires multiple destructive blasts at Ariel. The princess just barely manages to avoid her own them. Ursula laughs and prepares to get the princess. Right when she's about to get Ariel, Eric impales Ursula. When Ursula is destroyed, all the merfolk that had been under her power, including Triton, are released from their bonds.
Ursula appears as a recurring villain on the The Little Mermaid prequel television series. The episodes she appears in are "Against the Tide", "Tail of Two Crabs", "Heroes" and "Ariel's Treasures". In all of these episodes, she executes various plans to antagonize King Triton and take over Atlantica.
Ursula doesn't appear in this direct-to-DVD film, but she is mentioned various times, mostly by her sister Morgana, also a Cecelia. She is seen as a picture in Morgana's lair. This picture sinks with Morgana when she is turned into a block of ice by King Triton at the end of the movie.
Ursula made numerous cameos in the series often seen alone or with Ariel. In "Ask Von Drake" she was seen popping out of Ariel's giant shell during the Ludwig Von Drake Song. In "Pete's House of Villains" she replaced Daisy at her desk after Pete took over. In "Jiminy Cricket" Jiminy gives Ariel advice resulting into taking her voice back from Ursula. She was one of the lead villains in Mickey's House of Villains and seen in Mickey's Magical Christmas telling Mickey she wants his voice for Christmas. Her mode of transportation was seen as a wave vehicle.
Other materials were released as part of Disney's The Little Mermaid franchise, including books and comics, though these materials are arguably part of the animated canon.
In the first two issues of the official "The Little Mermaid" comic, Ursula appears briefly to negotiate with a race of eel-men for the carcass of a Leviathan which she would convert into the home seen in the 1989 film. Ursula frequently appears in Ariel's comics in the Disney Princess magazines, often in a villainous role. In the Disney Press book "The Villain Files", it is implied that Ursula is Ariel's aunt, a concept that is based on the abandoned story concept of the 1989 film.
Hercules and the BacchannalEdit
Ursula (or at least a character based on her) appears in the Hercules: Animated series as she tries to sell perfume to Hercules and Hermes.
Role in the Series
Ursula continues to serve the Villain League as one of their spell-casters. She also is one of the few villains to not have the ability to wield a keyblade, much likely due to her weak dark heart. Ursula is an enigmatic prescence towards the other villains. Some believe Ursula is actually a Dark Spawn Lord sent by Malefor to watch over the Villain League and make sure it does it job properly, but it can be discouraged by the fact Ursula was the pawn of the Heartless, the allies of the Darkspawn. In any case, Ursula has been known to strike out on her own and pursue her goals independent of the League.