‘The Little Mermaid’ Makeup Artist Responds to Criticism About Drag Influences: ‘Why Can’t I Do as Good a Job as a Queer Artist?’

Whenever Disney announces a new remake of a classic animated film, it gives grown-up fans an opportunity to revisit the property with a critical perspective they may have lacked as children. When it came to Rob Marshall’s new take on “The Little Mermaid,” much of that discourse revolved around the influence of drag culture on the original film. Many fans were quick to point out the fact that the character of Ursula was shaped by iconic 20th century drag queens like Divine — something Melissa McCarthy happily acknowledged when she signed on to play Ursula in the remake.

“There’s a drag queen that lives in me,” McCarthy said. “I’m always right on the verge of going full-time with her… To keep the humor and the sadness and the edginess to Ursula is everything I want in a character — and frankly, everything I want in a drag queen.”

When the film hit theaters this weekend, certain fans and influencers took to social media to question why the film didn’t take more steps to include the drag community in the character design process. Many felt that makeup designer Peter Smith King’s job should have been given to a queer artist. But in a new interview with Insider, King made it clear that he disagrees with those criticisms.

“I find that very offensive,” King said. “Why can’t I do as good a job as a queer makeup artist? That’s ridiculous. That’s trying to claim it and that’s fine, if that’s what they wanna do. But don’t put people down because they’re not what they want it to be.”

King also clarified that, while he is a fan of drag culture, he didn’t pull directly from any existing performers when designing the live-action Ursula.

“We discussed everything. I mean, we both laughed about how much we love drag queens and drag makeup and stuff,” said King. “It wasn’t based on any drag acts at all.” 

While Marshall’s remake topped the box office this weekend, reviews have generally been critical of the film’s inability to establish its own aesthetic and recapture the magic of the original.

“So, does it look real? Sometimes, sure, but that’s a strange worry for a story that is — again, again — about mythical sea creatures,” IndieWire’s Kate Erbland wrote in her review. “Disney’s obsession with turning some of its most beloved properties into live-action offerings simply for, what, the realism? the technology? the money? stumbles into both flashes of brilliance and moments of sheer nonsense (the latter was more of an issue with the studio’s recent ‘Lion King’ remake than in this Marshall joint). That trend will likely continue to be true for the foreseeable future, but until the House of Mouse cracks the real problem at hand, these films will never become classics on their own merit.”

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