The Black Cauldron is one of those movies I wasn’t sure if I had even seen or not. It’s kind of rare to find a Disney animated movie that I haven’t seen from before 1998, but in the case of The Black Cauldron it would seem I found just such a film. My only interaction with it had been via the PC game of the same name produced by Sierra around the time the movie came out. It was a frustrating and terrible game for someone used to Super Mario Bros. and I didn’t like it at all. Upon doing just some basic research on the film it became obvious why I had never seen it. The Black Cauldron just may be the most unloved of the Disney animated films to be released. It was marred by creative differences between those creating the film and Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg who would have cut the film himself if not for intervention from CEO Michael Eisner. The film went on to be Disney’s worst performing film at the box office and the film is known less for its merits and more for being Disney’s “rock bottom.” Because of its failure, it never received a home video release until 1998, more than a decade after its theatrical run. In spite of all the negativity surrounding the film, I was curious enough to spend a small amount of money on a DVD copy to see it for myself. I’ve seen plenty of good Disney movies, and I’ve seen some bad ones too, and I was curious to see what made this one possibly the worst of them all.
The Black Cauldron is an adaptation of a Lloyd Alexander book from his Chronicles of Prydain series. It was directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, who together with Art Stevens had previously directed The Fox and the Hound. I consider The Fox and the Hound to be one of Disney’s weaker offerings, a film with a good heart but a sometimes sloppy execution, so right away I’m not impressed by The Black Cauldron. The Black Cauldron also makes use of the xerographic production process that Disney had been using for some time. It leads to a rough, sometimes sketch-like quality, to the edges of the characters and is a far cry from Disney’s classic look. For this picture though, which is tonally quite a bit darker than other Disney films, it does add a certain credibility to the look. Some very early computer-generated effects were utilized as well that surprisingly look pretty fantastic even today. The effects were used sparingly, mostly for smoke effects, and it really makes the picture pop. The backgrounds have a very hand-painted look to them that helps add to the mystique of the picture. The one major drawback I found with the film was with the character animation. The backgrounds are rich with saturated colors, lots of shadowy holes and dingy dungeons, and the characters look flat against them at times. There’s often no shading done to the actual characters and it takes away from the overall feeling the scenes are shooting for. This is a flaw of pretty much all of the Disney animated works from this period, but it’s most obvious here because of the setting where all of the dark areas are lit by torch-fire. Still, overall I found it to be a very rich experience from a visual point of view, which is certainly a good place to start with any animated movie.
The score for The Black Cauldron has never really been under fire. It’s a quality film score and was composed by Elmer Bernstein, which from what I can tell, makes this the only Disney film Bernstein worked on. The voice acting utilized mostly British talents, and unfortunately, is one of the film’s weak points. The Horned King, played by John Hurt, sounds appropriately menacing and the creature voices are fairly well done. The lead, Grant Bardsley as Taran, leaves no lasting impression and I didn’t care for the woman portraying Princess Eilonwy, Susan Sheridan. I also never really warmed up to the voice of Gurgi, portrayed by John Byner. It’s not that Byner’s performance was lacking, more that I just didn’t care for the voice they chose to go with for that character (his voice reminded me of Frank Welker’s Slimer from The Real Ghostbusters).
The production values on the whole for The Black Cauldron are pretty good, which is to be expected since it was the most expensive animated film ever produced at the time of its release. Where the film seems to lack the most is in the plot and pacing of the film. At a running time of 80 minutes, it’s neither long or short by animation standards. The general plot revolves around Taran, a teen-aged farm hand who dreams of being a knight, who is tasked with shielding his pig, Hen Wen, from The Horned King. Hen Wen possesses a special quality that allows her to show her master the future and The Horned King needs her to deduce the location of the black cauldron, an artifact of terrible magic. Throughout his travels, Taran routinely makes mistakes and overestimates his ability as a warrior landing him in the clutches of The Horned King and his army of goblins and wyverns. Taran acquires followers along the way, the Princess Eilonwy, the minstrel Ffledwwur Fflam, and the irrepressible Gurgi. He’ll also encounter witches, pixie like people known as Fairfolk, and, of course, a magic sword. It’s all rather conventional with The Horned King surrounding himself with an army of incompetent servants who constantly undermine him along the way. I found Taran to be too cliché to really care about. The Princess is actually a strong female character, which I could appreciate, while the character of the Minstrel I found completely unnecessary. Gurgi is intended to be the cute, marketable character who provides some comedic relief. I already mentioned my dislike for his voice, but I also dislike his look as well. He looks like a combination of an old man and a shaggy dog which I found off-putting.
The first half hour, aside from the overuse of fantasy trite, is pretty exciting as Taran finds himself in the clutches of The Horned King, one of Disney’s most horrifying villains and a worthy antagonist. Upon Taran’s escape, the film lost me as characters seem to be in limbo for the next half hour before the film’s climax. The climax is actually really well done, with the film’s best animation being saved for these scenes. There’s even a well-executed “sacrifice” and the film found a way to realistically have the heroes face off with The Horned King that audiences could accept. Really, if the film could have found a way to make the middle section more interesting it would have gone a long way towards improving the experience as a whole. There are times for comedic relief along the way, and some of it is contained in the middle parts when the witch characters are introduced. A lot of film critics seemed to dislike the film for its joylessness when compared with other Disney works, but I actually though the film did a decent enough job of balancing the humor and drama. It’s certainly a film meant to be more of a thriller than a laugher, but joyless it is not.
The Black Cauldron may or may not be the worst animated film put out by Disney. I can’t say for sure as I haven’t seen every film the studio produced, but I have a hard time believing it truly is the worst. The 1970s and 80s for Disney really were dark times for the studio as it struggled to recapture the old Disney magic and The Black Cauldron fits in among those works. It really is no better or worse than most of Disney’s films from that time period like Robin Hood or The Rescuers. It has things it does well, and things it does not so well. Because it is a bit more serious and contains some menacing characters, it’s more similar to some of Disney’s older works than even the modern films. The Horned King and his minions are characters intended to frighten young children, much like Monstro and Maleficent. If you’re thinking of buying this for your four-year old, you may want to watch it alone first. If you’re an older animation fan like myself and you’re curious about this picture, I say give it a look if you have the 10 bucks or so to spend on a DVD. You’ll likely find a plot that is lacking, but the visual experience makes the minimal investment worthwhile.