Few Disney movies have interested me as much as The Black Cauldron, speaking strictly from a behind-the-scenes standpoint. From its notoriously troubled production history to its colossal failure at the box office in 1985, I find myself fascinated by its relative obscurity. This was a movie that began pre-production in 1973; a full twelve years before it would see the light of cinema screens. An inexperienced staff, constant rewrites, and a sense that Disney had lost its magic touch caused many talented animators (including Don Bluth and Tim Burton) to leave the studio over the course of production. Once the film was nearly completed, it was a struggle to market. The production team intended to create a dark fantasy for teens, but then-new CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to sell the film to kids and families (just like nearly all Disney films had been up to that point). There were instances of death, gore, and frightening images the likes of which had never been attempted in Disney animation. So commenced the film's editing: twelve minutes of finished animation were cut; unprecedented and financially unwise in the world of hand-drawn animation.
So, what happened when it finally arrived in theaters? Well, let's just say it made less money than that year's The Care Bears Movie. Yeesh. The film was such a disaster that the company has all but disowned it. It didn't even get a VHS release until 1998; thirteen freakin' years later! It also has the distinction of being the only non-wartime Disney film unreleased on Blu-Ray, and with no plans by studio to do so. I'd kill for a quality documentary on the full making of The Black Cauldron, but 2009's Waking Sleeping Beauty does a very good job detailing the changing of the guard at the Disney studio during the '80s. It's a great watch if you're interested in the history of Disney animation.
The film itself is obviously ambitious, and often times very beautiful, but it's not one for the ages. The story focuses on a teenage boy named Taran (Grant Bardsley), an assistant pig-keeper in the Medieval, magical land of Prydain. He longs to be a warrior (as he states outright multiple times), and one day, he gets his chance. The evil Horned King (John Hurt), a skull-faced demon man, seeks the mythical powers of the Black Cauldron, which has the power to raise an unstoppable undead army. The pig that Taran takes care of is named Hen Wen, but it's no ordinary pig; she has psychic powers, and can detect where the Black Cauldron is hidden. Once the Horned King finds out about this (somehow), he sends his dragon creatures out to capture her. Taran, having been tasked with protecting Hen Wen, journeys to the Horned King's spooky castle to rescue her. Along the way, he meets a furry little creature named Gurgi (John Byner), who is clearly hungry, lonely, and a little insane. While there, he runs into other prisoners, including Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) with a magic harp. After making their escape from the legions of grotesque guards, led by the king's lackey Creeper (Phil Fondacaro), and discovering a magic sword, the trio must find the Cauldron before the Horned King and save Prydain.
I have no real issues with the film's plot. On paper, it's a straightforward Medieval fantasy adventure story, and one with a lot of potential. However, in execution, the writing leaves a lot to be desired. Constant plot holes pop up, including one that the late, great film critic Gene Siskel pointed out in 1985; when the characters get Hen Wen back, and need to find out where the Black Cauldron is before the Horned King, why not just use her to find out where it is? Wasn't that the reason he wanted her in the first place? The lead characters are also vanilla as hell, all without backstories or meaningful relationships to each other. Taran's dialogue is so irritatingly on-the-nose, and his voice actor is, quite frankly, rather annoying. Eilonwy (not too crazy about the names either) is called "Princess," but of what exactly? How did she end up a prisoner? Where is her kingdom? She does a magic spell in one scene, but then never brings it up again! Prydain is an especially under-developed world. We never see any villages, never get a glimpse at the war that's supposedly raging on, and the only magical community we encounter are some fairies in a cave underground. These are things that I doubt the twelve minutes of deleted footage would have fixed.
Yeah... this happens...
However, once you know that so much violence was excised from the movie, you can plainly see where it might have helped make things more interesting. The undead army has a whole lot of buildup, but they are defeated before they can even cross the bridge out of the castle. Letting the their lost scenes of menace (which included slicing a man's throat and dissolving a man in mist) might have scared the crap out of young kids, but the film would have at least set itself apart from other Disney movies by deciding to "go there." What results is a film that feels somewhat neutered. Alas, a number of scary images do still remain, all of which are much appreciated (and apparently did scare the crap out of the few children who grew up with this movie).
Style over substance is clearly what the film excels at anyway; it's gorgeously animated. Especially judging by the standards of animation in the '80s, it's downright groundbreaking. The scratchy look of Xerography is replaced by a sharper style achieved with the slicker APT (Animation Photo Transfer) process. To my knowledge, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and The Little Mermaid are the only films to ever use the process, before all cleanup and coloring was done in the computer. I have a real soft spot for this style, which has the charm of ink and paint cells but also the smoothness of digital finishing. It's the best of both worlds, and it's sad there will likely never be another film made this way.
The Black Cauldron's biggest flaw is its lack of heart. Spoiler alert, but Gurgi supposedly sacrifices himself at the end, and it's meant to be a tear-jerking moment. I'm a sucker for getting choked up during Disney movies, but I felt absolutely nothing for this furry little creature sporting Geppetto's mustache. There isn't enough character interaction, chemistry, or meat to anything that happens; too much is told and not shown. Lloyd Alexander, the author of the original books, stated that he thought it was an enjoyable movie but had virtually no resemblance to his work. Perhaps it was twelve years of grueling work, producers not knowing the audience, or trying to follow dark fantasy trends that are to blame. Disney wanted to tap into that (previously untappable for them) "teenage boy" market, and unfortunately, the film is a failure in that regard. But as a curiosity, swept under the rug by its creators? An anomaly; truly unlike anything out there, animated in my favorite style? With a fascinating history and mysteriously missing scenes of graphic violence? I couldn't ask for anything more.
Creepiness rating: 8 undead Cauldron-born warriors out of 10