Infamous as the movie which almost killed off Disney’s animation studio (the “The Little Mermaid”-led renaissance was still four years off), “The Black Cauldron” staggered into cinemas in 1985, mortally wounded by a butchering edit at the hands of Jeffrey Katzenberg and a critical mismatch between the source material and the studio behind it.
Loosely adapted from Lloyd Alexander’s ‘The Chronicles of Prydain’ which in turn were based on Welsh mythology, Disney had originally optioned the property back in 1971 and its 14 year journey to the screen reflects the difficulty the studio encountered in fitting the property to the Disney template.
When Dallben the Enchanter learns that the Horned King is searching for a mystical relic known as the Black Cauldron, he fears the Horned King may try to steal his oracular pig Hen Wen and use her to locate the cauldron. Dallben instructs Taran, his farmhand, to take Hen Wen to safety but Taran’s daydreaming causes Hen Wen to be captured by the Horned King’s forces. Taran follows the soldiers to their stronghold and teams up with a woodland creature called Gurgi, a captive Princess and wandering Bard Fflewddur Fflam to try to thwart the Horned King’s evil plans.
There really isn’t any aspect of the film which is successful. The only thing that comes close is the marvellous score by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein. The trademark Disney character design jars against the darkness inherent in the story; it’s too cutesy to achieve the crossover appeal of something like Ralph Bakshi’s “Lord Of The Rings” adaptation – which it desperately wants to be like – and too dark in tone to be a comfortable kids’ film. Disney’s animation had, of course, flirted with real darkness before: the ‘Night On A Bald Mountain’ segment of “Fantasia”, the character of Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty” but this tries to marry a dark fable of necromancy with the light-hearted frivolity of “The Sword In The Stone” with disastrous results.
Thanks to the savage cuts mandated by Katzenberg, Taran’s character is completely undermined as a hero. Because many of his fight scenes and bravery were relegated to the cutting room floor, his chief contributions to the story are losing the precious prognosticating piglet, clumsily bartering away a powerful magic sword and lets his faithful sidekick take the fall. He’s fantasy’s worst hero.
It’s a weird story choice for the hapless comic sidekick to be the one to make the ultimate sacrifice play, even if Gurgi looks like he’s wandered in from the casting sessions for “Lady And The Tramp”, has the voice of Gollum and the vocabulary and dialect of Jar Jar Binks. A ‘Hail Mary’ narrative leap at the last minute may resurrect Gurgi but it can’t undo the damage. Renouncing the sword because he’s not a hero isn’t a noble gesture by Taran; it’s an admission of the truth. It’s not just on the good guys’ side that the comic relief sidekick role is unusual: the relatively downbeat ending strongly suggests that the Horned King’s comedy flunky will inevitably take his place as the personification of evil too.
The story’s flaws are inescapable and, combined with the hard-to-sell tone, doomed the picture from the start – there weren’t even any songs (a first for a Disney animation at this point) to hum along to. The resultant Box Office bomb also robbed Princess Eilonwy of her chance to take her place in the Disney Princess pantheon.
Despite all its flaws there are still things to admire about “The Black Cauldron”. The animation is still impressive in places and while it tends towards the derivative, it steals from the very best sources: the Horned King’s summoning of the cauldron’s power is lifted almost shot for shot from the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”. The voice cast is pretty good too, featuring the likes of Nigel Hawthorne, John Huston, Freddie Jones and John Hurt so it’s a shame they didn’t have something better to work with.
You have to wonder how much bloody mindedness went into the decision to go ahead and release this instead of skipping it altogether or releasing “Basil The Great Mouse Detective” (they were being made simultaneously) in its place to give more development time. Mind you, given it had already had fourteen years of development, it’s unlikely another year would have prevented this from being the low water mark for Disney’s animated output up to that point.