Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Black Cauldron


If there’s one film that could be considered the black sheep of the Disney Animated Canon, it would be The Black Cauldron, the studio’s 25th animated feature. Released in 1985, The Black Cauldron is recognized as the antepenultimate film in what’s colloquially considered Disney’s “Dark Age” and is notable as not only the first film from the studio to receive a PG rating and feature CG, but also the most expensive animated film ever made at the time. Unfortunately, it was also a box office bomb, earning a mere $21.3 million compared to its $44 million budget, and nearly bankrupted the studio, as well as sideline any further attempts at adapting the source material, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, for decades. On top of that, it didn’t get a proper home video release until 1998 entirely as a result of its failure.

In the years since, however, The Black Cauldron has developed a cult following due to the very elements that led to its initial failure at the box office. Disney themselves have even acknowledged its existence with a 4K Disney+ release in 2019, a 2021 Blu-ray release (though exclusively through the Disney Movie Club) and representation in the Disney Villainous tabletop game, as well as a small selection of merch for the 35th anniversary. This cult status also led us to finally check it out, as we sometimes do with other lesser-known Disney films. In this case, while it’s certainly not the best film the studio has ever released, it’s easier now to at least appreciate what they were going for at the time.

In the land of Prydain, a teenage boy named Taran (Grant Bardsley) works on a small farm as an “assistant pig-keeper”, but dreams of becoming a warrior. While under Taran’s care, the pig Hen Wen freaks out and is taken to Dallben (Freddie Jones), whom Taran lives with. Dallben reveals Hen Wen’s oracular powers to Taran and learns that the evil Horned King (John Hurt) is after a mystical relic known as the Black Cauldron, which could raise an invincible army of undead “Cauldron-Born”. Out of fear that the Horned King will use Hen Wen to locate the cauldron, Dallben tasks Taran with taking the pig to safety. On the way to the designated location, however, Hen Wen is stolen by Gwythaints, dragon-like creatures that serve the Horned King, and Taran gives chase.

Taran (Grant Bardsley, left) is tasked with protecting Hen Wen (right).

Compared to most of Disney’s other output, especially at the time of its release, The Black Cauldron is known for its rather dark tone that mostly plays its subject matter pretty seriously. So seriously, in fact, that there isn’t a single song anywhere in its 80-minute runtime. For many Disney fans, this would certainly be a drawback, as there aren’t really any classic “Disney” elements anywhere to compensate for it. There are some moments of humor, though not enough to completely distract from the at times uneven story or enough to keep most prospective viewers fully engaged. As such, the story feels like it drags in places, however briefly.

That said, there are elements that The Black Cauldron does well. Owing in part to its darker tone, the Horned King is one of Disney’s most intimidating villains, commanding a presence within the room and making even the courageous Taran quake with fear. The story also makes it clear that obtaining the Black Cauldron will make him unstoppable, providing good motivation for the protagonists to find the relic first. On top of that, he’s shown as rather cunning, using the heroes’ escape from his dungeon as an opportunity to play the long game and gain the upper hand later.

Although the story doesn’t answer certain questions, like who exactly Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) are and how they ended up imprisoned by the Horned King, it’s otherwise not that hard to follow and has a pretty consistent internal logic. The protagonists make up an interesting group and their interactions feel believable, such as a scene where the teenaged Taran and Eilonwy get into an argument and the middle-aged Fflewddur Fflam unsuccessfully tries to deescalate it. The idea of using self-sacrifice to stop the eponymous Black Cauldron also introduces an interesting moral dilemma that carries through to the emotional ending.

Taran (right) doesn't get along with Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan, left) at first.

It's also worth addressing here that certain elements may feel reminiscent of the original Star Wars, including a farm boy, who seeks a higher calling, obtaining a magic sword and befriending a princess. While it’s understandable to think of Star Wars while watching, as I did, or even think The Black Cauldron borrowed from that film, it’s worth mentioning that while Star Wars came out in 1977, The Chronicles of Prydain started publication in 1964, predating the famous space opera by over a decade.

As the most expensive animated feature at the time of its release, the animation for The Black Cauldron has actually aged incredibly well over 35 years later and shows its budget. Characters move with a lot of fluidity and expression, as well as realistically sell the weight of their movements. Highly-detailed backgrounds ground the world in a realistic fantasy setting and help carry the mood of each scene, be they lighthearted or more macabre. The animators also clearly paid a lot of attention to the detail of other visuals, with incredible lighting, particle and smoke effects, not to mention well-rendered water that reacts accordingly depending on how its vessel is disturbed. Best of all, there are some more daring shots not seen in many other Disney films, with special mention to the formal introduction of the Horned King.

The Horned King's (John Hurt) introduction is very striking.

As the first Disney film to use CG, however, that aspect has unfortunately not aged very well. It’s minimal, mainly used for rendering the Black Cauldron, but it’s also rather obvious. Fortunately, future Disney projects would continue perfecting the use of CG within their traditionally-animated features, using it as more of a tool rather than a crutch, most famously within the ballroom scene from Beauty and the Beast. There’s also a scene near the Horned King’s castle where the backgrounds look like live-action footage of clouds, which may appear jarring for some.

What helps The Black Cauldron is its high-quality voice acting. While everyone does a great job in their roles, special mention goes to John Hurt as the Horned King. While the score by Elmer Bernstein may not have much staying power, it’s appropriately atmospheric and actually allows for quiet moments.

While not perfect, The Black Cauldron is worth watching at least once, if only for its historical value in relation to Disney’s animation division. Those who enjoy some of the studio’s more offbeat productions, however, may find more to enjoy here, though it’s not really a bad film by any stretch.

Either way, it’s worth mentioning how Lloyd Alexander, the original author, reacted to the film: “First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I'd also hope that they'd actually read the book. The book is quite different. It's a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book.”

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