Directors: Ted Berman & Richard Rich
Release Date: July 24, 1985
‘The Black Cauldron’ was the first new Disney animation film I saw when I was a kid. At the age of twelve I found it an exciting and scary adventure. Unfortunately, watching it again many years later my views have changed.
‘The Black Cauldron’ was a clear attempt by a young team to bring something new to the screen. It was to be Disney’s first and only step in the realm of ‘epic fantasy’, a genre explored before by Ralph Bakshi in the unsuccessful features ‘Wizards’ (1977), ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (1978) and ‘Fire and Ice’ (1983), by Jim Henson’s much more interesting puppet movie ‘The Dark Crystal’ (1982), and by the then popular television series ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ (1983-1985), whose evil character, Skeletor, looks remarkably similar to the Horned King in ‘The Black Cauldron’.
The film’s source however, is much older, and lies in the first two novels of the children’s fantasy series ‘The Chronicles of Prydain’ (1964-1968) by Lloyd Alexander, and the Disney studio already started working on it in 1971. The film tries to squeeze the contents of Alexander’s two books into 77 minutes and it shows.
The Disney studio clearly is at unease with the serious atmosphere of the epic fantasy. It’s the only animated Disney feature not to feature any song at all, and even the comic reliefs Gurgi and Flweddur Fllam are hardly funny. Instead, the studio follows ex-Disney artist Don Bluth into a much darker realm. With ‘The secret of NIMH.’ (1982) Bluth had shown that an animated feature could contain a more serious and darker tone, and ‘The Black Cauldron’ is clearly Disney’s own attempt at it.
This is exemplified most by the Horned King, and his army of skeletons. The horned king is nothing more than a skull himself, and remarkably scary for a Disney film. Not only this villain, but most of ‘The Black Cauldron’ is drawn in grim tones, however, and there is hardly any air from the gloomy atmosphere.
The story, on the other hand, is remarkably light. And here lies the main problem with ‘The Black Cauldron’. Despite his evil appearance, the Horned King never tries to harm our heroes, and his castle is leaky as a sieve. Taran and princess Eilonwy can wander about in the dungeons of the castle undisturbed, where Taran absurdly easily finds a magic sword. The escape, too, is an easy one. And it seems that outside his castle the horned king has no power, at all. And when he finally has his army of the dead, it is destroyed when it’s still crossing the drawbridge. Ironically, the feature’s scariest scene is when the horned king dies.
The story is hampered by its episodic character. Most of what happens is a result of chance, and our heroes wander around cluelessly throughout the film. The film’s hero, Taran, suffers from a badly cast voice and remains a bland character, who, unlike Gurgi, fails to steal the audience’s heart. Moreover, the character animation wanders at times, sometimes becoming over-excessive, and the film contains one conflict scene that feels utterly forced and superfluous. The film’s message only appears at 56 minutes, with an almost gratuity ‘you must believe in yourself’, which hardly forms a turning point in the series of events.
The film’s undisputed highlight lies in its inspired soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein and in the character of the furry creature Gurgi, who, with hindsight, looks like the inspiration for Gollum in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, in his speech and behavior. The cowardly Gurgi for example attaches to Taran half-heartedly, calling him ‘master’, just like Gollum does with Frodo in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
‘The Black Cauldron’ was a failure at the box office. And thus it proved to be an experiment the studio never repeated. The next year, Disney returned to much more familiar territory with ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ with much better results. Indeed, the studio’s final breakthrough in its attempts to rejuvenate, ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989), was the result of a return to the successful princess films ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), ‘Cinderella’ (1950) and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959).
Watch the trailer for ‘The Black Cauldron’ yourself and tell me what you think: