‘I started with a movie that nobody has ever seen called The Black Cauldron.’
– Andreas Deja, Disney animator, when asked about the Disney movies he has worked on during his career.
So, to be totally honest, I hadn’t heard much about the Black Cauldron until about 2007, when I decided to buy it because I wanted to write about it in a university essay. I had heard it mentioned on a podcast, and one of the presenters was saying how underrated it was, and that it was actually a good movie. This being said, I thought that it might be a little like Treasure Planet or Atlantis; sort of a diamond in the rough, however it turned out to be something I did not expect.
The film was released in 1985, and was the first Disney animated feature to be given a PG rating, being suspended from a video release for many years until 1998. It was, therefore, a questionable choice for Walt Disney World to open a restaurant themed around the film, since it was not in circulation at the time the eatery opened in 1986. I use the term ‘restaurant’ lightly, as it was a counter service fast food place serving the usual unhealthy theme park food that we all love. ‘Gurgi’s Munchies and Crunchies’ managed to survive to over six years old, which seems like a long life for a place themed around a film which, we can assume, that a lot of guests may not have known anything about.
Anyway, food aside…Any Tim Burton fans would be interested to learn (if they did not know already) that he worked on the pre-production of the film as a conceptual artist. Along with Mr. Burton, many of the Disney animators who would become instrumental in the second ‘Golden Age’ of Disney features worked on The Black Cauldron. The film is based (apparently loosely) on the book called The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, which is based on Welsh mythology.
The film seems to be aimed more at a male audience, particularly pre-teens, and its dark aura does not lend itself to younger viewers. It could be argued that most Disney films are more aimed at females, or more specifically little girls, with stories of princesses living happily ever after. That said, many little boys seem to enjoy those movies too, whereas the same cannot be said about The Black Cauldron.
Enlarge the image to see a hidden Mickey!
The hero of the story is Taran, an assistant pig keeper who has dreams of being a warrior. It turns out that one of the pigs under Taran’s charge, Hen Wen, is a magical pig, who knows the location of the mystical black cauldron. Ok so this is the point where I gave the T.V the look of ‘what the heck?’ A magical pig? It seems a little childish. However this nonsense was balanced out by one of the most evil and frightening Disney villains I’ve ever seen, and let’s be honest, there are a fair few to choose from. He is The Horned King, (think Hades meets Skeletor but minus the comedy) and he is trying to locate the cauldron for himself, and unleash an army of invincible undead warriors called ‘The Cauldron Born’. On Taran’s quest to keep Hen Wen safe, he meets a small, very annoying dog-like creature called Gurgi. Speaking of annoying, there is one prominent female character who goes by the name of Princess Eilonwy. She does not appear to be a typical princess compared to characters such as Cinderella, although you can understand that due to the dark subject matter, the animators would want to prohibit her from skipping around amongst forest animals or singing uplifting sugary songs. There are the usual escapades, running away, being captured, escaping, looking for a magical pig…Then before you know it, out of this dark and strange land we are introduced to the Fairfolk. They are small fairies, some of which slightly resemble the seven dwarfs, along with a few females. They are brightly coloured, glowing, and seem to provide a lot of information to our heroes about what to do next to find the black cauldron. If you look closely you may even see Tinkerbell!
One of the (few) pros about this movie is that it does not take long to get the story started. The downside of this is that the rest of the film seems to amble along rather slowly, and unlike most Disney films that had gone before, it did not possess any musical numbers to lighten the mood. Speaking of lightening the mood, I have to say that I did not laugh once during this film, it is rather serious, and any attempted humour seems to fall by the wayside.
Something which seemed to stand out like a sore thumb when I first started watching the film was that there was something strange going on with the lip-sync. Possibly not even that, but it didn’t sound like the voices were coming from the characters on the screen, it is hard to explain, and needs to be seen to be understood. Another thing that was very noticeable was the quality of the film, with lots of particles of God-knows-what and fading in and out of colours, the film dated itself about 20 years! The character animation is good, but there are times when the characters look faded, or lit differently from the rest of the scene. There is also some CGI used, in particular in one scene for a pink sky where Taran and Gurgi are talking to each other. Unfortunately, the 2D animation against a 3D background mix about as well as laxatives and sleeping pills, at least in the realms of 1985.
While the production values on this film are by no means awful, they do leave a lot to be desired, as mentioned earlier. On the up-side, the backgrounds are very nicely drawn, with lots of detail and more moody tones than a 15-year-old. I realise that the film is old now, but other Disney films from the 1980s and earlier stand up a whole lot better than this one does, quality wise, as well as regarding the subject matter.
There are a few scenes missing from this film, ones which had been completely animated, in fact. A scene where one of the Cauldron Born mauls a man was famously removed from the final cut, as well as scenes of graphic violence, including a man being graphically dissolved by mist, and the quaint Princess Eilonwy almost showing all she’s got. We have Jeffery Katzenberg to thank for these changes; however I can honestly say that I doubt that keeping those scenes in would have made the film any more interesting. When the 25th anniversary edition DVD was released, many people were half expecting these deleted gems to be included in the special features, however, this special edition turned out to be a single disc which did not boast many more features than the first DVD release.
Being dissolved by mist, not seen in film.
Who will enjoy this film? In my opinion, not many people. At the time not too many people did either, or just didn’t bother going to watch it, because it was a box office bomb. The folks who grew up watching it as youngsters probably will, as well as children who are young enough to overlook the fading colours and questionable lip-synching. I have yet to see the 25th anniversary edition of the DVD, which I gather has been cleaned up a bit compared to the original DVD release. The only reason I can see for buying another edition of this film, is if they restored the deleted scenes, which I think is never going to happen! So regarding the special features on the DVD I am reviewing from, which is the 2002 release, well, don’t get too excited…We have a ‘Quest for the Black Cauldron’ game, a still frame gallery, and a ‘Trick or Treat’ Donald Duck short. The gallery on Disney DVDs is always worth a browse through, and the Donald Duck short provides that Disney hydration you need after being parched from watching the main feature. On the anniversary edition you will find the same features, plus another game *sigh*and a deleted scene called ‘The Fairfolk’. The deleted scene that I imagine most Black Cauldron fans were least excited about seeing.
I realise I am probably enraging many Black Cauldron fans out there, but this is just my opinion, and comments are welcome!
I give this movie 1 Tink, simply because I refuse to cut Tink in half.