23 July 2012

Disney Daze: Week 25: The Black Cauldron

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

In the annals of Disney history, The Black Cauldron stands out as one of the studio's biggest failures. The film was the most expensive animated film produced up to that point and was stuck in development limbo for months at the behest of new Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who demanded certain completed scenes be cut or reworked. When finally released, the film failed to recoup its massive budget and in fact, made almost two million dollars less than 1985's other animated feature, The Care Bears Movie. A reissue of One Hundred and One Dalmatians grossed 50% more than either film. Critically, the film fared poorly as well, with most reviews bemoaning the lack of Disney's trademark charm. This is unfortunate because The Black Cauldron, while indeed flawed, is a singular picture with a frustrating but fascinating voice.

Based upon a series of fantasy novels by Lloyd Alexander inspired by Welsh mythology, the film feels indebted to Tolkien and his unparalleled creation, the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings. In fact, the film could be construed as Disney's response to Ralph Bakshi's reviled Rings adaptation released two years before production began on The Black Cauldron. The story follows a simple young man named Taran who longs for a life of adventure away from his duties as an assistant pig keeper. When he discovers that his pig is actually clairvoyant, he is told to secret the swine away from the horrible Horned King who will use the pig to find the whereabouts of the mystical black cauldron that will grant unlimited power. On the journey the boy loses the pig, makes some friends, finds a magic sword, and eventually defeats the king, becoming the hero he daydreamed about in the process. 

Those critics and fans that cried foul at the film's claim to the Disney lineage ignored an element that is equally essential to the most satisfying of the studio's pictures, and The Black Cauldron has it in spades, that is, evil. The movie studio that made its fortune with a happy-go-lucky mouse has always been expert at tapping into the darker aspects of storytelling as well. It is rather shocking how often this is forgotten. Sleeping Beauty would not be the masterpiece it is without Maleficent's terrifying presence. The same goes for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and its vain and vicious Queen. The Black Cauldron however is the darkest of them all. The Horned King is an all-together terrifying villain, albeit a little one-note, with his lack of remorse and Skeletor-like visage. He also gets to spout, in the voice of John Hurt, one of the greatest lines in Disney history: 

"I presume, my boy, that you are the keeper of this oracular pig."

It is not just the Horned King that fills the screen with dread. His minions, especially the army of undead skeletons raised by the cauldron are a fright (as they recall the Dead Men of Dunharrow in The Lord of the Rings). His pair of tracking dragons, who at one point rush toward the screen as they fly through a craggy landscape, are demonic, nightmarish creations. Even the Horned King's dank and labyrinthine castle is a villain in itself, its mere presence swallowing the dwarfed characters onscreen. To The Black Cauldron's credit, the dark elements are easily the strongest sections of the feature. It is a shame that the main thing the critics denounced the film for is its most consistent strength. The film only stumbles when it attempts levity. 

The middle third of the film, taking place after Taran and his newfound friends escape the Horned King's castle, is by far the weakest for this very reason. The group, now featuring the requisite princess, Eilonwhy, as well as an old minstrel named Fflewddur and a furry scamp called Gurgi, find themselves sucked into a whirlpool that leads to an underworld populated by flickering sprites. There is some unfunny business featuring two of the sprites bickering before one of them takes the group to a witches' outpost where the black cauldron is kept. The witches themselves are used for comedic effect with an extended bit featuring a toad-transformed Fflewddur being trapped in one of the witch's ample cleavage. 

The animation style in The Black Cauldron is a step up from the few previous features. The work here is more lavish, with some of the first uses of computer generated imagery ever seen in an animated film. The raising of the dead and the ethereal green smoke emanating from the cauldron are particularly splendid creations. The backgrounds, especially the aforementioned castle, are dense and well conceived. The animation that unfortunately gets the short end of the stick is the characterization of the heroes. While the aforementioned villains make a forceful stand, the protagonists are either bland, derivative, or ugly. Taran could be a teenage version of Arthur from The Sword in the Stone, while Eilonwhy looks all too much like a pale facsimile of Princess Aurora. Gurgi however gets the worst treatment. Call it the prolonged influence of the seventies, but at this point in Disney's legacy any time they try and make something adorable, which used to be their stock and trade, they fail miserably. Gurgi looks like a terrier/bichon frise mix with the body of a chimp and an old man's mustache. 

The Black Cauldron unfairly carries the weight of its initial failure and critical expectation like an anchor. The stigma of "the bomb" can cloud any picture's legacy. However when all of the production problems, reshoots, and pithy reviews are swept away, all one is left with is the film itself. Despite its similarities to other fantasy worlds, and the occasional callback to previous Disney creations, The Black Cauldron continually makes choices that separate it from the rest of the pack. The film should be praised, not damned, for these deviations. For example, the film contains no songs, which is unprecedented and certainly for the best considering the terrible soundtracks that accompanied The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. The instrumental score by Elmer Bernstein is for the most part fairly rote, although some particularly creepy moments are heightened by the music. The Black Cauldron stands at a distance from its Disney brethren, shunned for not following the formula. Instead of faulting the film for failing to adhere to the studio's standards, the studio itself could afford to learn some lessons from this dark, disturbing, troubled creation. Blaze your own path. It might not always be successful but it is certainly never boring. 


  1. I think you mIght be overselling it a bit. You're right about the good elements of the film, but the bad ones are really bad. As I recall, the plot is pretty dumb and the hero characters uniformly bland and pointless.

  2. Possibly. If anything, The Black Cauldron benefits from its placement in the Disney timeline. After so many bland, repetitive, and formulaic features, it can't help but feel invigorating to see a film that approaches the medium differently.

    You're right, the heroes fail to make a dent, which I meant to address a little further than just remarking on their overly familiar design. The only one that makes any sort of impact is Gurgi, who stands out only because he's annoying. I can't tell you how much his self-sacrifice to the cauldron redeems him though.

    The plot is silly, of course, but not much more so than most of the other pictures. What tickled me about it however was the structure. The first third feels much more like the climax of a traditional picture, with the heroes escaping imprisonment from a guarded fortress. The journey surprisingly follows the escape, and then we get a showdown that for a Disney picture has some pretty high stakes.

    I still think The Black Cauldron gets an unfair rap. It's better than something like Cinderella which is all sorts of boring.

  3. My response to it is probably clouded with disappointment, seeing for the first time since its initial theatrical release, when I loved it.