The Black Cauldron (1985)
Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich
Taran is an assistant pig-keeper on a small farm in the country of Prydain. The owner of the farm, Dalben the Enchanter, fears that the evil Horned King will use Hen Wen, a magical pig that he and Taran care for, to discover the location of the Black Cauldron. This magical artifact, which allows the user to raise an undead army, is critical to the Horned King’s plans for conquest. To prevent him from getting it, Dalben sends Taran and Hen Wen away to safety.
Unfortunately, Taran is a little too busy daydreaming about being a knight and arguing with a furry thief named Gurgi that he catches stealing apples, and therefore permits the Horned King to find and kidnap (pignap?) Hen Wen. Taran attempts to break into the Horned King’s castle to rescue the pig. He succeeds in freeing Hen Wen, but is captured himself and sent to the dungeons. There, he is rescued by Princess Eilonwy, who springs him and the bard Fflewddur Fflam. Together, they find the pig in the care of the Fair Folk. Their king admits that they know where the Cauldron is: in the marshes of Morva. He sends the fairy Doli to guide them there, and they set out to get the Cauldron first and destroy it.
Once in the marshes, they encounter three witches who possess the Cauldron. Taran trades a magic sword that he got in the dungeons for it, but is then told that destroying it would require one of them to climb inside, killing whoever did it. Just then, the Horned King’s minions catch up to them, and capture everyone but Gurgi. The Horned King uses the Cauldron to raise an army of the dead, but Gurgi sneaks into the castle and frees the others. Taran resolves to jump into the Cauldron to end the Horned King’s threat, but Gurgi stops him and then does it himself. The Cauldron, the Horned King and his undead army are all destroyed, and Taran trades the now non-magical Cauldron back to the witches in return for them bringing Gurgi back from the dead.
Disney had optioned Lloyd Alexander’s YA fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain way back in 1971, at the behest of several of the Nine Old Men. At the time, they though that they could turn the five-book series into something like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. However, unlike the classic fairy tales that those movies had been based on, Alexander’s books were and are challenging to cull an audience-friendly feature out of. They’re heavily based on Welsh myth, have many character names that Americans can’t pronounce, and feature stories with complex, morally-gray themes. As such, it took the animators a really long time to crack the story. By the time that they had a script ready to greenlight, it was 1980, and most of the original champions of the project had long since retired.
By all accounts, the actual animating of the movie was a bit of a disaster. Several directors and producers came and went due to “creative differences,” and characters got complete redesigns more than once (particularly the Horned King, who started as a red-bearded Viking and ended as Skeletor in a red robe). Animation teams worked in separate groups without communicating with each other, causing greatly inconsistent animation throughout the movie.
Things came to a head in 1984, a couple months before the movie’s planned holiday release. New Disney CEO Michael Eisner had hired Jeffrey Katzenberg to be chairman of Disney’s movie studio a few weeks earlier, so the animators held a test screening of the nearly completed film for him and animation head Roy Disney (Walt Disney’s nephew). To say that the screening went poorly is a vast understatement. Reportedly, Katzenberg hated the movie so much that he headed immediately from the screening room to the editing suite, and attempted to edit the movie personally. He had to be physically restrained by the animators while Eisner came down himself to stop him. Eventually, 12 minutes of animation were excised under more controlled circumstances, and the film was pushed back six months to 1985.
The edits didn’t really help things. The Black Cauldron had become the most expensive animated film of all time, and it barely made half of its production budget at the box office. Not only that, but it got beat by another animated movie from a different studio.
No, not by Don Bluth and his upstart studio, who’d put out The Secret of NIMH already and were working on An American Tail.
Yup, that’s right. In the ultimate humiliation for the House of Mouse, The Black Cauldron got beat by the fucking CARE BEARS.
Critics (except for Roger Ebert, who liked it for some odd reason) thought it was definitely sub-par Disney, and the studio agreed with them. It didn’t even get a VHS release until 1998, thirteen years after it had come out, and as far as I know still hasn’t made it to Blu-Ray (the only one of their post-Cinderella movies that hasn’t). Like Sleeping Beauty before it, the debacle nearly ended feature animation at Disney, and did result in both of its directors being fired.
This review is going to be a little different than many of my others, as for once I’m very familiar with the source material that’s being adapted, and I have some very definite opinions about how that adaptation turned out.
But first, a bit about the movie itself. This really isn’t a great movie. However, while I think that it is ultimately a failure, I don’t think that it deserves the reputation of “worst Disney film of all time!!!” that gets thrown at it a lot. I actually think that it’s a nice little fantasy adventure for older pre-teens, that got away from the makers a bit on the story department. But it’s nowhere near as bad as the rep that precedes it.
As I see it, the movie has two main issues that really hurt it. The first is that the film is way, WAY too dark for its target audience, especially in the final act. I wouldn’t let anyone under about the age of 8 watch this, and it might even give some children older than that nightmares. And you can forget about my nieces. It’s darker than many Don Bluth films, an animator who wasn’t known for pulling his punches at all.
There’s one five-minute sequence at the end, when the titular cauldron finally gets used, that would have pretty much single-handedly earned the film a PG-13 rating in a modern context (as it is, the movie was the first from Disney to get a PG). The entire sequence reminded me very strongly of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, from the fog coming out of the cauldron, to the creepy music, to the heroes being strung up and forced to watch. The Horned King’s death itself, where his skin is sucked off his bones, which are then dismantled and sucked into the cauldron, is perhaps the most horrifying death I’ve seen in a non-Japanese animated film, and most certainly the most graphic from a major Hollywood animation studio.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I actually like how dark the ending was. I felt that it was by far the strongest part of the movie. The decision to have Gurgi, the closest thing this film has to a cute animal sidekick, sacrifice himself to stop the Cauldron was a very bold one, and I can’t think of another Disney movie offhand that does something similar. Sure, there’s frequently a character that “dies” and then gets revived (see: Baloo, the Beast, etc), as happens here, but I can’t think of any other Disney movie where there’s a character who essentially commits suicide, and who is established as being well and truly dead. That Gurgi comes back at all is only due to Fflewddur Fflam tricking the witches into reviving him, not due to the “power of love” or any other sort of sentimental thing that usually happens in these sorts of movies.
If anything, I think that it was a mistake for them to have played it safe and brought him back at all. One of my favorite animated movies (hell, favorite movies period) of the last decade or so is How to Train Your Dragon. The decision they made at the end of that movie, to have Hiccup win and survive but be permanently disabled as a result, was an incredibly brave choice for a major studio, and I wish that Disney had had the balls to actual commit to Gurgi’s sacrifice (in the book that this is based on, it isn’t Gurgi who goes into the Cauldron, but the character who does stays dead).
Speaking of Gurgi, I couldn’t help but notice that he’s essentially Gollum in a fursuit. He follows Taran around, calls him “Master”, and ultimately is responsible for the destruction of the magic item at the center of the quest. His voice even sounds absolutely, unmistakably like Andy Serkis’s performance, to the point where if you took two random lines I might be able to say who was who. Of course, I’m not accusing Serkis or Peter Jackson of ripping off The Black Cauldron. I don’t know that it had even been released on VHS in New Zealand by that point. But it was distracting.
The other major problem with the film, in my opinion as a fan of the original novels, is that only maybe a third of the film’s running time comes out of the books that it’s based on. The first two thirds or so are superficially based on The Book of Three, the first book in the series. It features many of the same plot beats as the novel, albeit with a lot of digressions for action sequences and a very out of place scene where Taran sneaks into the Horned King’s castle and walks into what seems to be a stereotypical D&D tavern. It even comes with the tavern girl, dressed in stereotypical ethnic clothing doing a dance on a table top. If I’m not mistaken, she even twirls her skirt at one point and you can see a flash of her undergarments. Who the hell over at Disney thought THAT would be appropriate for a kid’s film!?
The only real bit to come out of the title novel is the sequence with the witches (and the ultimate end for the Cauldron, of course, but that’s an extension of this scene). It also happens to be the most disappointing scene in the entire movie. The witches from the book are so deliberately opaque and other-worldly that they really gave a great sense that there was a wider world of magic beyond the confines of Taran’s plot, and that he was actually just a small player in the game so far. In contrast, the sequence from the movie was just…ugh. Instead of being delightfully strange, we get variations on Madame Mim – a stereotypical set of Halloween witches who want to turn our heroes into frogs and eat them.
Well, except for the overweight one, who decides to sexually assault Fflewddur Fflam. While this trope is rather widespread, especially when played for comedy, that doesn’t make it any more comfortable to watch. Especially not when Fflam ends up getting turned into a frog and trapped in her cleavage. Again, seriously, Disney? There’s putting in jokes meant for the parents, and then there’s straight-out pandering. Now, if the other two had fallen more in line with the Maiden/Mother/Crone archetype, I might have been able to overlook it as a Nanny Ogg-type character (even though Pratchett’s character was still a couple years away). But they’re both fairly interchangeable as evil ugly witches, so sorry, no points for you.
I’ve been fairly negative for a while, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I hated the movie or anything. I was actually mildly entertained for the entire duration, and would recommend it as an overlooked fantasy movie in the 1980s mold (with all the good and bad that entails), as long as you can get past some of the stereotypical characterizations and inappropriate gags. The score is excellent, there are many striking visuals, and I’m pretty sure that there’s some of the first computer graphics ever used for an animated movie in here at the end. Sure, there’s some plot holes and lack of proper explanation for events, but the books that it’s based on suffer from a bit of that as well, so I’m willing to give it a pass.
Animation: B (A bit of a downtick from Fox and the Hound, but it’s still better than most of their output for the last couple decades)
Main Characters: C- (It’s pretty bad when the pig has more personality than Taran. He’s pretty much Wart from The Sword and the Stone. Eilonwy is a little more proactive than your usual Disney princess, but I definitely didn’t buy the “romance” between them)
Supporting Characters: C- (Fflewddur Fflam costs the movie half a letter grade for making me have to type his name multiple times. And I know Gollum. Gollum is a good friend of mine. Gurgi is no Gollum)
Villains: B+ (The Horned King is probably one of the most underrated villains in the Disney canon)
Music: B (No songs, but a good fantasy score)