I’m going to work this review a little different than I have in the past. Instead of just blabbing mindlessly, I’m going to pose a question and try my best to answer it. Why? Because this movie is the biggest Black Sheep in Disney’s animated canon (notice I didn’t say the studio itself – obviously that goes to Song of the South).
Except by those who have seen it and it’s small but loyal group of fans, this movie is generally forgotten. Even the studio it came from wants to push it from existence. It never came out on video for the first time until 13 years after its theatrical run. It’s never gotten a “Diamond Edition” or “Platinum Edition,” isn’t on Blu-Ray, and isn’t like a lot of other Disney movies where it moves in and out of the vault every 7 years. You can get it on amazon (that’s where I acquired it), but it’s just cheaply put on DVD (even though it’s supposed to be the 25th anniversary edition. Yeah right!).
The reason for Disney to completely hate this movie is quite simple really. It was a complete box office disappointment. At the time it was made, it was the most expensive animated movie ever made, and tied for the most expensive movie EVER made. You read that right. It cost $44 million, and only made back half of that. Many call it the worst Disney movie ever made. They say that this is when Disney “lost its way,” and forgot what the studio was all about. So, given all that, here are my questions that I will attempt to answer during this review:
Is The Black Cauldron truly deserving of all this criticism? Should we really just forget about it? Is this really when Disney lost its way?
We’re going to take a few things into account to determine this. First, let’s talk about where this movie came from. This movie is loosely based on the first two novels of a children’s fantasy series called The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. This series of five books was published in the 60s. They won Alexander the Newbery Honor and the Newbery Medal. While not as well known, the books are comparable to The Chronicles of Narnia in sales, and currently it has a 5 star rating on Amazon with glowing reviews. I mean, it’s insane how good some of these reviews are. I feel like I need to read these books now.
Now I’m not one to compare movies to the source material. I believe that movies are movies, and books are books (I’m probably the only Harry Potter fan in the world who actually likes Order of the Phoenix…). That being said, a lot of people and a lot of critics are not so forgiving as I. This was one of the biggest criticisms I’ve ever heard about this movie: It was too ambitious and didn’t stick to what made the books so memorable.
The fact that this movie is based on two of the books is a bit of a problem. I feel like if this movie were made now, it would have only been based on one of the books, with the idea of making it into a series. That’s what we do now. Back then, not so much. Instead, Disney took the idea of the movie and tried to make a cohesive screenplay with more at stake. The first book centers around the rescue of a man named Prydain from the evil Horned King. The second book is our main character seeking to destroy the legendary black cauldron that can turn dead men into zombies. The movie is about our main character (Taran) in a race to find and destroy the black cauldron before the Horned King can use it to rise to power.
In that one sentence, the movie doesn’t sound so bad. That’s because that is the plot of the movie in the smallest nutshell possible. The idea was good; it’s the execution that was… not so good. I’m not even going to explain the actual plot here, because it’s complicated; more so than it has to be. I’ll try to expand a bit without getting confused myself. Here we go:
There’s a future-seeing pig at the farm where our protagonist Taran is an assistant pig-keeper. They find out the Horned King is after the Black cauldron, and knows that the pig, Henwen, can help him locate it. Taran takes the pig out in the woods to safety, but go figure, she gets captured, and soon Taran finds himself in the castle of the Horned King. He finds Princess Eilonwy (or more like she finds him) and Fflewddur Fflam, a minstrel, and the three escape with Henwen to the “woods” to search for the black cauldron. They encounter fairies and a strange creature named Gurgi before finding the cauldron with some witches who want to trade something for it. They get the cauldron, but oh look, the Horned King gets it from them. He rises the dead, Gurgi sacrifices himself to break the cauldron (or does he?) and it’s the end.
It’s not just that the narrative is a bit complicated, it’s just not executed well. There’s too much in it. They don’t stay too long in any one place, and it’s all rushed. At the same time, strangely, this movie feels like it drags on. I have to agree with the critics on this one: Disney was too ambitious in the story. That’s one point for Disney – but it’s not enough to try to erase it from existence.
The other criticism with the story is that it’s too dark. Personally, I have no problem with it. In fact, I would LOVE to see Disney do another big dark fantasy like this. To me, it’s no darker than Medusa kidnapping a kid, or Cruela wanting to murder puppies. But I don’t think that’s the problem. The animation is DARK. There aren’t happy colors in this movie at all. There’s no songs. there’s nothing but our characters and their adventure. There isn’t really even a ton of humor. Is that “un”- Disney? maybe.
But I ask you to consider this: The Rescuers had a lot of dark animation. The Fox and the Hound had a dark story. One of the differences between those movies and this one is that those also had humor. Yet as I mentioned in The Fox and the Hound review, the humor that was there seemed misplaced. In Disney’s later “I’m going to pretend we ever made this movie” The Hunchback of Notre Dame, (another dark movie) the humor from the gargoyles seems incredibly misplaced (but we’ll talk at length about Hunchback later).
I for one applaud Disney for realizing that this movie was not befitting of tons of humor. They saw what they wanted to do, and they did it. They didn’t compromise by trying to make it too “kiddy.” That, to me, is the saving grace of this story. They aimed this movie at teenagers, not kids. They didn’t bow to the masses by adding something in to make it more appealing or funny. It isn’t necessarily un-Disney. It’s just Disney realizing that for this project and the audience they were trying to target, humor didn’t fit.
Ok. So the narrative isn’t that great. It’s too ambitious and convoluted and according to some (but not me) too dark and very un-Disney. What about the characters? I’ve always said I’m a person who enjoys characters more than plot. The problem with this movie is that, as I mentioned before, the plot is so rushed and there is so much, it ruins any chance we have at character development. It’s really a shame. Apparently the characters in the books are great (again, I feel I really need to read these books now).
This is what kills me the most about the movie. You can see that these characters have a chance to be great. You can see that Taran has the chance to be an amazing character (in all honesty, he’s not bad… they had a little time to get him built up in the beginning). Where they really crapped out was the supporting cast of Gurgi, Eilonwy and Fflewddur Fflam. They’re all caricatures of fantasy characters. There is nothing about them that really stands out. There could have been. Eilonwy is definitely not a damsel in distress. She’s good at what she does, is strong-willed, but… all that fades and she becomes more like a little girl after they escape the Horned Kings castle. Why didn’t you make her into a badass??? I’m picturing a younger Daenerys Targaryen here. She could have been awesome, and she had that little floating light that became useless that could have been cool!
Fflewddur is completely forgettable. He could have been a soft humor-type character, and that would have fit. Gurgi, our attempt at a funny character, is memorable if only for his voice that makes him hard to understand (and therefore not funny). seriously, I feel like I have to watch this movie over and over just to understand this thing. In the books, apparently he and Taran end up with an amazing friendship. You don’t see that here. He’s an annoyance, then sacrifices himself, and suddenly everyone is acting like he was their best friend.
You don’t see the connection between the characters. You don’t see the friendships. They’re just people who happen to be on this journey together. They even throw in a romance between Taran and Eilonwy (which was in the books, but not till the 4th or 5th one) at the very end, and it’s like “whoa, where the hell did that come from?” It is nowhere else in the movie at all. In some ways, Taran is a reason to watch the movie. Some people might think he’s annoying, but I think he’s just a kid trying to prove himself and save his pig and have an adventure. It’s just…. it bugs me so much because I can see what this movie could have been. I see what the characters could have been to each other. And it could have been awesome.
But are these characters so bad that we should lock them in a vault and forget about them? No, definitely not. The characters actually are very Disney. They look Disney and feel Disney. They’re just not the best Disney’s ever come up with. Are they the worst? I would argue no. There have been much less developed characters *cough*Sleeping Beauty*cough*
How about the villain? Disney always makes memorable villains, and to its credit, the Horned King is definitely memorable. He probably gave many children nightmares, actually. He looks like a skeleton with horns, wears a long robe, and is just… scary. Here:
The scene where he uses the black cauldron is nightmare-inducing. It really is. I can see why families were shocked this came from the same studio who brought you the story about singing and dancing animals (even if, again, this movie really was aimed for teenagers…). They’ve even cut out 3 minutes of the film to keep the rating to PG (it was the first Disney movie to ever get that rating). But personally, he’s a freaking awesome villain. he doesn’t do much, and a lot of people think he’s just a scary face. That might be true, but what he does do is scary as hell. Not safe for children under 6, or 8, or for me, 10. I would have had nightmares for weeks if I had seen this as a kid.
I could say a lot more about this movie. I could talk about the politics of Disney animation at the time and how it might have influenced this movie’s outcome. I could talk about the animation and how it’s heralded as the only thing that was good about this movie (The animation is really cool). I’m not going to though. I wouldn’t say it well enough. This movie had so much going wrong for it, it sort of makes me sad. It makes me sad it wasn’t better. It makes me sad that because of this movie, things changed with Disney animation. There was no more hand-brushing cells. Instead, the focus was on churning out money-making movies. You could say that Disney animation lost it’s art with The Black Cauldron. Had it been a success, maybe it would have delayed that change for a few years.
So I ask you, what’s more un-Disney? What’s Disney “Losing its way”? A dark movie, or taking the art out of animation? Walt was about embracing new ways of doing things. He loved telling stories and entertaining children and families. He loved the planning process and storyboarding. He loved animating. It makes me wonder what he’d think of his company now, and what he thought of them back then. I don’t know that he would have liked The Black Cauldron, but at the same time, I don’t think he would have started churning out movies just to make money. I dunno. Just something to think about.
The Black Cauldron has its issues. It has a lot of them. It was too ambitious, and the story and characters suffered for that. But I’ll ask my questions again: Is it truly deserving of all this criticism? Should we really just forget about it? Is it really when Disney lost its way?
My answer: No.
Although it ranks very low on my list of Disney movies, I still find it enjoyable, funny enough. Yeah it feels long and yes parts are boring, but I want to watch it because I want to go on this adventure. I want to see something I haven’t. I want to pick out parts that maybe I never understood the first few times around. I want to understand everything Gurgi has to say. I want to watch the Horned King bring those bodies back to life. It’s a strange feeling watching this movie. You want it to end, but at the same time you don’t.
It’s a movie worth remembering, even if it is for the wrong reasons. It shouldn’t be forgotten. It should be given a Blu-ray release and celebrated as a movie that was put out in the wrong time; before its time. There are many fans of the movie, and I bet there would be more if it were widely released today. Now, we’re ok with dark things. Even Disney of all studios is so ubiquitous with everything that seeing violence and darkness from them is OK. They own Marvel and Star Wars now! But back in the 80s, it was just the animation studio and the family movies. At the time, darkness like this wasn’t ok. It was surprising. But we shouldn’t just ignore this movie. It has a right to exist, and a right to be celebrated. I mean hey! Did you know it was the first Disney movie to use CGI? I didn’t!
If you know someone who owns it and you’ve never seen it or never even heard of it, I really think it’s worth a watch, even just once. You may not like it. You may think it’s the most god awful thing you’ve ever seen. Or you may get lost in the animation and the scenery. I would LOVE to see Disney do another fantasy epic. I would love to see them embrace their darker side, because I think they can do it, and could do it well. I just don’t think that’s ever going to happen (boo).
If anyone’s interested, this is a great article that Slate did on this movie. Really really great. It goes into more detail about the politics in the studio at the time, the new President of Disney, and everything that I didn’t touch on:
I give The Black Cauldron (1985) a 2.8 out of 5. Believe it or not it’s actually not my least favorite Disney movie, although it’s my lowest ranked (so far).
Up next: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)