To be completely honest, I never was the biggest fan of Ariel as a kid. Now, was it in any way caused somehow by Ariel’s character or a distaste towards merfolk in general? Not at all. It was because Vanessa, in all her entrancing evil, was calling to me instead.
No Disney hero or villain embodies the aloof It Girl persona more than Ursula’s human alter ego, Vanessa. We truly know nothing about her besides that she’s hot, her dresses are gorgeous, she’s wickedly wild, and for some reason Ursula really liked the name Vanessa enough to use it as a pseudonym. She’s sultry, seductive, and sinister, a femme fatale with siren eyes to catch both a killer and a lover. And she does absolutely nothing in the original animated iteration of The Little Mermaid besides showing up and slaying.
Credit: L: Matt Winkelmeyer/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images. R: Screenshot Disney+
Naturally, I was worried about how a character so close and dear to my heart would be reimagined in the live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid. But when I saw Jessica Alexander, who plays Vanessa, completely kill it on The Little Mermaid‘s red carpet, I knew I was in good hands. This most recent adaptation dances between paying homage to the animated classic and introducing new additions to the story — some of which are great and others that are, well, interesting. And while Vanessa’s character arc stays relatively true to the animated version, Alexander’s diabolical embodiment is infused with so much evil and decadence that you’ll begging for a Vanessa spin-off.
Whereas the animated film introduces Vanessa as she walks on the beach and “sings,” the live-action Little Mermaid has Vanessa seated on a rock on the windy beach, her voice swirling alongside each gust of wind. The reimagined introduction is arguably much stronger, setting the scene for a new, more maniacal Vanessa who wants your attention. Her slayful streak continues as she lounges in her room in the palace — wearing black lingerie, might I add — dropping a roaring “So long, Red!” before breaking into “Vanessa’s Trick”(opens in a new tab) (a positive addition to The Little Mermaid soundtrack). And yes, her mirror scene with Ursula (Melissa McCarthy) is definitely cooler than the animated reveal.
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However, the real standout Vanessa moment for me was her complete meltdown during her wedding to Eric (Jonah Hauer-King). I appreciated the fight between Ariel (Halle Bailey) and Vanessa; it’s nice to see Disney let the girlies lean into chaos. But watching Vanessa crumble to the floor while cackling, screaming, and crying, then flashing a crazed smile as Ursula’s violent vibrato rings through the crowd? To me, that’s cinema.
“You’re too LATE!” she screams, as she watches Ariel turn back into a mermaid. If you blink twice, it’s almost as if you’re watching Toni Collette’s “I am your mother” monologue from Hereditary.
The real charm of Alexander’s Vanessa is that she relies entirely upon physical acting to bring out the character. At no point in the film do we ever actually hear Vanessa’s own voice; it’s either Ariel’s singing or Ursula’s monologuing, yet Vanessa still feels like she has a life of her own. Alexander, with her teeth-baring cackles and eyes permanently glued to her prey, both feels like an extension of McCarthy’s Ursula and her own independent character.
Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Both Ursula and Vanessa are melodramatic yet incredibly divine forces, and the live-action Little Mermaid allows their villainy to sprawl and whip, much like Ursula’s tentacles. It’s almost as if Rob Marshall recognized how loved the duo are and so gave us a Vanessa at her absolute, unhinged best to match McCarthy’s over-the-top, wicked sea queen. Vanessa is allowed to scream, cry, kick, and crawl. She throws a tantrum while wearing the most gorgeous dress you’ve ever seen. And I need to see so much more of her!
I love women. And I particularly love feral women. Vanessa may have only been on screen for a mere ten minutes, but she stole my heart and ate it all the same.
The Little Mermaid is now playing in theaters.