As a child, The Black Cauldron was the “red-headed stepchild” of the Disney canon. And not just the stepchild, we’re talking the stepchild you kept under the stairs! The movie was a commercial failure, and almost cemented the demise of Disney animation entirely. The problems with the film are myriad ranging from too many cooks in the kitchen, the jamming together of two epic novels into a 90 minute feature, and the overall fear of presenting a movie that was too dark/too intellectual for its target audience; I’m also tempted to say that Ralph Bakshi‘s 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit tread over much of the same material earlier. As a first-time viewer I knew this wasn’t for me. The 1980s were filled with fantasy sword and sandal epics which I’m not a fan of (see my review of The Sword in the Stone). As a whole, The Black Cauldron is ambitious and probably Disney’s sharpest divergence into darker waters, but the story is paper-thin with characters that are introduced, a flat-out MacGuffin and an ending that doesn’t belong with the movie. The movie is at the mercy of the those behind it, and I’ll detail the full-story below, but it’s a missed opportunity that feels unfinished.
Based on the fantasy series The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron tells the story of Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley), tasked with protecting a magical pig named Hen Wen. When Hen Wen is kidnapped and taken to the Horned King, Taran meets a cadre of characters who believe that finding the Black Cauldron might be the key to getting Hen Wen and stopping the Horned King.
The Black Cauldron had several factors working against it. Despite being technologically advanced – being the first film to use CGI – it suffered from a dark source material and copious editing. The movie had been in development since the early 1970s, when Disney first bought the rights to Alexander’s work; however, nothing was done with the film until the early 80s. While in development, the movie had to be re-edited to get a PG rating (being the first Disney animated film rated higher than a G). Depending on who you talk to, several top brass in charge of animation just didn’t get this movie. Eventually, the animators were forced to cut scenes after the movie had been produced. This marked the first time since Snow White that scenes had to be edited in post-production, and the reason why is because unless you plan on re-animating scenes to make everything gel, you can usually tell when stuff’s been cut. A whole lengthy argument ensued between Disney animators and animation head (at the time) Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg’s logic was the movie needed to be family friendly – a disastrous test screening resulted in crying children forced to endure scenes involving the undead – while the animators felt Katzenberg had no idea what went into making a successful animated movie, at all. Eventually, Katzenberg kicked the animators out of the editing room and started going at the film with a pair of scissors, eventually excising twelve minutes of footage. The Black Cauldron didn’t see a theatrical re-release like past animated films, and has been heavily edited for air on Disney channels. It wasn’t until 2010 that a DVD release with some of the deleted content finally came out. The movie has gone on to achieve cult status, but to Disney it’s the 12 year (5 actually spent in production), $25 million dollar mess.
With all of that, it’s easy to see the flaws being aided by the convoluted production process. The tone is wildly divergent, getting extremely dark and mythological in the middle, before slapping on a smile and literally having the heroes skip into the sunset. In telling such a rich mythology, you need a longer format in which to tell it. I’m not advocating for a three-hour opus here, but at an hour and twenty minutes, Taran’s journey feels incredibly easy. He’s told to take Hen Wen out to the woods because supposedly the Horned King knows about her; we’re not sure if he’s actually coming for her, but he knows of her. Boy and pig walk around for a few minutes, meet some people, and the pig is kidnapped. The scenes revolve around characters stumbling upon other characters that can help them, and all of them come together in the climax. About 50 minutes in, the pig is saved and taken back home! If you ever needed proof that Disney could use a MacGuffin, look no further than Hen Wen from The Black Cauldron. We get a throwaway glance of her watching the happy ending, but you discover she served no purpose other than getting Taran to the third act. This is probably due to the editing and the desire to keep this within the requisite 80 minute runtime of most Disney films. Unfortunately, telling such an epic story such as this doesn’t work. In its finished form, The Black Cauldron is the typical Arthurian legend, The Sword in the Stone with a darker gloss.
1977 saw the release of Ralph Bakshi’s The Hobbit, which is universally beloved by animation fans; The Black Cauldron is a pale, and obvious, imitation. We have an animation style that is suspiciously similar (then again it also is the same as the eventual style used for the Disney Afternoon cartoons), and the trajectory is the same. The supposedly cute, I found him annoying, character of Gurgi (voiced by John Byner) sounds eerily like Gollum from the newer Lord of the Rings series. Speaking of the animation, it is sloppy as all get-out. I rag on the xerography process, but the animation here shifts sharply, again possibly because of the editing and the need to cobble story elements together in order to have the scenes appear smooth. The set design of the Horned King’s lair is impressive, filled with dark passages and bizarre etchings. The magnificent, ominous score works beautifully to introduce the Horned King as a creäture created in the pits of Hell. Furthermore, the Cauldron Born, the undead creatures the Horned King makes are chilling, although they were excised from the finished cut due to children being frightened of them. As the plot progresses, though, the animation goes through a weird rollercoaster of not looking quite right. This was the first, and last, time the multiplane camera would be employed, and the layering looks great. In certain scenes the animation looks out-of-focus or muted, though; characters will talk but their mouths aren’t moving. Clearly, this is the result of the editing, but the finished product doesn’t have the high standards of a Disney feature.
There’s really nothing more to say about The Black Cauldron. Because it is so short and breezy, the plot whisks through and doesn’t deliver a significant payoff. Gurgi ends up being the hero leaving the audience to wonder, again, why we’ve spent so long with Taran and the damn pig. The princess does nothing more than cower or say Taran’s name, and the latter doesn’t even have her moving her mouth making me believe she did less before the editing. The Black Cauldron is an intriguing idea, but the Disney rules force it to be an outcast. The plot is too shaky, the animation more so, the characters are cardboard, and the ending wraps a ribbon on a corpse to prevent children from being too traumatized. The Fox and the Hound was a great example of presenting dark material to children. Here, when you’re attempting to showcase fantasy with real consequences, it doesn’t work; it’s too fantastical. I recommend it for those who are Disney completists, or want to see something different that the studio will probably never undertake again.
NEXT WEEK: We discuss my favorite Disney movie, and the kick-starter to the next Golden Age of Disney animation, the 1986 mystery/adventure The Great Mouse Detective.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.