Starring: Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Nigel Hawthorne, John Hurt, John Huston
Director: Ted Berman, Richard Rich
The forgotten film that nearly sank Disney studios, The Black Cauldron is an adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s stories The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, which were part of a successful series in the late 70’s for children. In the land of Prydain, an uneasy peace exists, until an ancient evil returns from the past. The Horned King (Hurt) breaks his banishment, and wants to rule the land with his dead army, but to raise them, he needs The Black Cauldron. All that stands in his way are a rag tag bag of misfits. Taran (Bardsley) who is the assistant pigkeeper to Henwen, an oracular pig, is joined by Princess Eilonwy (Sheridan), a furry creature called Gurgi and a bard who can’t sing. They must escape the Horned King and get to the Black Cauldron before the Horned King.
The film was greenlit with high hopes, but it’s production soon descended into a mess. Trying to cut down multiple storylines and characters from the source material, and problems with animation technology led many involved with production on the film to leave due to creative differences. It changed hands, it’s release status kept being put back, but some still felt that it could be Disney studios greatest triumph.
That was partly due to the material, and partly due to new computer generated animation techniques that were being used for the first time. There are scenes in the film where you can see the use of what was cutting edge technology and effects, and the film has a wonderful dark atmosphere and beauty in these scenes. The film was the most expensive animation ever made at the time, costing $44 million USD, but at the Box Office, it tanked, and only made $21 million. The studio was almost bankrupted, and could have meant the end of the House of Mouse.
The Black Cauldron became the film the studio wanted to forget, and was not released for home viewing until 1998.
The film itself is quite interesting, because of this. It had a PG rating, which is very unusual for a Disney film, especially an animation. It features scenes of dead bodies being brought to life, some really dark and dank places, and the Horned King himself is skeletal and quite scary. Originally, the film had some scenes where the Cauldron Born cut people in half and other scenes of violence, but these scenes were cut. It’s a very dark film for Disney.
The film is quite uneven and feels a little unfinished. The performances and character animation feel quite wooden and underdeveloped, and the plot seems to move forward in rushes and long pauses because of odd cuts made after completion (a total of 12 minutes cut). Some dull scenes linger and other plot points are glossed over or, rushed or missed entirely. But the effects and design are really dark and ghoulish and beautifully realised. The film feels very much of it’s era, with fluorescent green smoke and purple skies, a bad guy who looks a lot like Skeletor from He-Man, and cute sidekicks and magic swords. You can really see that the money went into those new visual effects, and that it had a clear audience, but somehow it failed to come together at all, and as a finished film is a little confused.
On the whole, it’s a sneak peak at what might have been, at what the studio had planned would be a blockbuster, and the way that animation was developing in the early 80’s. It’s also a very interesting film in tone from a studio that makes films for family viewing. It’s a piece of animation and Disney history, but a flawed one that might be hard for viewers to find.
See It If: you have an interest in animation and it’s development, or if you love Disney and have an interest in it’s history. It has a dark 80’s fantasy vibe, and has entertaining moments, but it’s flaws make it a little less than emotionally engaging.