Original Release: July 24, 1985
Runtime: 80 Minutes
Directed by: Ted Berman and Richard Rich
My initial reaction to watching The Black Cauldron was actually “What did I just watch?” I know I’ve seen the film at least once before but it’s so different, so new, so out of left field compared to everything we’d seen before. In fact, if I didn’t know that it was Disney, I would absolutely deny that it was one of the “Classics.” This is a film which doesn’t reek of positivity and happiness. It’s a dark film with pretty scary imagery. It has a villain who I very legitimately thought was going to kill someone. It has dragons and feels like something out of a myth, perhaps something you’d see in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. That being said, I loved the film. It’s such a breath of fresh air. I was sure that upon researching the film, I’d find that it marked the coming of a new age for Disney. I was positive it would be heralded as a masterpiece. Imagine my surprise when I saw just how horribly this film did at the box office. The Black Cauldron, it turns out, is not only dark and sinister on screen, but has a pretty dark and sinister history as well.
Based on the series by Lloyd Alexander, the rights for The Black Cauldron were originally purchased by Walt Disney Productions in 1971. Production, however, would not officially start until 1980. A new form of transferring drawings to cels was invented for the film but after much testing, it was discovered that the line artwork faded too quickly, so instead the old process of xerography was used instead for most of the film. The Black Cauldron is actually the first Disney film to do many things. For one, right off the bat, we noticed that this film does not have opening credits like most others. The credits are instead placed at the end. It was also the first animated film to use the intro logo of Sleeping Beauty’s castle with a star over it. This would go on to be used for many more Disney films to come.
Black Cauldron was also the first Disney film to use computer-generated images. These were used for a boat, the floating orb and even the cauldron. In fact, both Cauldron and our next film, The Great Mouse Detective were in production side by side and when Joe Hale, the producer of Mouse Detective, found out about the computer images, he decided to use some in his film as well. Look at you Black Cauldron, setting trends like the cool kids.
The editing process of The Black Cauldron is something of an interesting tale. Disney studio chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg was concerned right before the release of the film that it was too long and that certain scenes were too mature. Because of this, he asked producer Joe Hale to edit out the scenes. When Hale objected, Katzenberg had the film brought to him so that he could edit it himself. Hale, upset by this, informed then CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, who called Katzenberg, still in the editing room, and had him stop. This halted the editing but also set back the release and in the end, 12 minutes were lost from the film.
The Black Cauldron did so poorly upon release that it put Disney’s animation studio in peril. It was the most expense animated film to ever be produced at the time. It was not released for home video until a decade later. Critically, the film was also scrutinized for having weak characters, although being technically very solid. Coincidentally, Lloyd Alexander, author of the original book, actually enjoyed the film, despite it being very different from the source material.
Here’s the thing though. Not knowing ANY of that, I really enjoyed this film, despite how different it is. Taran is a young man who wishes only to be a great warrior, but is actually just a simple pig keeper. But wait, the pig is magic and can create visions that allow its owner to know the location of the mythical black cauldron, and in case the name doesn’t give it away, the cauldron is pretty evil business. And yes, there’s a big baddy after said big bad cauldron. A villain known as The Horned King. He’s pretty much Maleficent with more evil and less fabulousness. The Horned King comes after the pig and this sends Taran on a quest to save the pig, Hen Wen, and eventually save the day and become the hero he was meant to be.
This is one of the craziest casts of characters to be in a Disney film yet. Honestly, it feels a bit ahead of its time, seeming more like Tangled or Frozen than anything before. Sure you have Taran, but there’s also Princess Eilonwy, a sure of herself woman with a magic orb. There’s Fflewddur the bard, a man who’s lute breaks every time he lies, which is often. And then there’s Gurgi the…well I don’t know what he is. He’s sort of like Donald Duck and Golem inside a teddy bear’s body. It’s a rough crew to say the least but all of these wild characters work pretty well with one another and present a balancing team of fun and drama.
The story itself is a true fantasy epic. We get to go into dark and sinister castles, forests, underground homes of the Fair Folk, a swamp. It’s all here in all its Lord of the Rings-like glory. There are witches and fairies and dragons and the whole thing left me wanting more. This is a vast and complex world and for the duration of the film, it really feels like we only get the tip of the iceberg as far as what it holds for us. I just want to know more. There’s a pretty big epic here, it’s just a shame that I feel like we get a bit short changed on it.
As to the darkness of the film, I love it. I’ve said on this blog before that I often feel like kids get short changed a bit. They want Goosebumps and Cowardly Dog, but adults often feel that they can’t handle it. Cauldron tries its best not to shy away. The Horned King is by far the scariest looking villain so far and his army of undead soldiers is pretty horrific, but that’s what makes this film so compelling; the fact that it has this very creepy vibe. I actually felt, for the first time, that these animated characters were in very real peril. Gurgi literally kills himself to save the world from being overrun by the evil of the cauldron.
I have to mention the witches because they are hilarious. These witches who simply want to turn our heroes into frogs so that they can eat them, break up the tension with some laughs and a scene which I’m honestly surprised didn’t get cut. When our bard gets turned to a frog, he gets stuck in the cleavage of one of the witches. It’s crazily absurd and a bit on the naughty side, but I found myself laughing out loud at how ridiculous it all was.
The thing about The Black Cauldron is that it doesn’t feel like Disney. Technically, it has the polish of other Disney films but the story isn’t light and the film strays into some pretty dark territory while never quite delving as deep into its characters or its world as it could have. That being said, if you can get around the fact that it doesn’t feel Disney, you start to see that it is a really cool film. It has the epic scope and story that just beg to have three sequels and a spin-off. The characters are so mysterious and leave us wanting more and every aspect of this film, from a magic pig, to a glowing orb, to Gurgi make us want to see what’s waiting behind the next door. Despite what the critics say, I found The Black Cauldron to be an excellent film and especially great to watch during Halloween week. We’re nearly haflway through the animated canon and from what I can tell, they just keep getting better and better. What will we uncover next? One can only hope it has more Munchies and Crunchies than the one that came before.
Next Up: The Great Mouse Detective
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!