Black Cauldron, The (United States, 1985)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If nothing else, The Black Cauldron has become the most infamous of all of Disney's animated motion pictures. When it was first released in the summer of 1985, it was to have re- invigorated Disney' moribund animated division, which had produced only one significant motion picture, The Fox and the Hound, since 1977's The Rescuers. The Black Cauldron represented a significant departure from previous Disney features: it was presented in 70 mm, utilized computer animation to enhance the hand-drawn images, did not feature any songs, and was rated PG (for potentially frightening images). And, despite all of this (or perhaps because of it), it was a stunning box office disaster. No one went to see it. The film was out of theaters in several weeks, and its financial ledger was smeared with red ink.

In the years following the opening of The Black Cauldron, Disney released two less-than- sterling animated films, 1986's The Great Mouse Detective and 1988's Oliver & Company. Neither was an unqualified success, but then came 1989 and The Little Mermaid, which did for Disney what The Black Cauldron was supposed to have done four years earlier. In large part because of The Little Mermaid's success, the low-grossing The Black Cauldron was blackballed as a symbol of bleak times. For twelve years, it lay dormant on Disney's shelves, neither re-released in theaters nor distributed on home video. It was the forgotten animated film -- the one that purists and collectors began clamoring for. Finally, last year, the Magic Kingdom released the film on video overseas. Then, in August 1998, it arrived in domestic stores.

Those heeding some of the more wild rumors about The Black Cauldron (which claim that it's a "lost masterpiece") or buying into Disney's usual hype (which dubs the movie as the studio's "25th full-length animated classic") will likely be disappointed, for, while it's a pleasant enough diversion, it's not close to the upper echelon of Disney movies. The problems have more to do with plotting and character development than with the quality of the animation. This is the kind of picture that children will certainly enjoy more than their parents.

The credits claim that the film is based on Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain." In actuality, it was inspired by The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, two of the five books comprising the children's saga. However, while many of the characters and plot elements have survived the written page-to-screen transition, much of the depth and complexity is absent. Everything that makes the books beloved has been genericized, turning The Black Cauldron into a fun-but-uninspired swords-and-sorcery story.

The film opens on a small farm in the mythical country of Prydain, where Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper (voice of Grant Bardsley) is caring for Hen Wen, a swine with clairvoyant capabilities. Taran, like many Disney heroes, dreams of doing great deeds. The farm is presided over by Dallben the Wizard (voice of Freddie Jones), who, upon viewing Hen Wen's latest prognostication, a vision of doom, sends Taran away from the farm to hide his pink charge. All does not go well, however, and Taran's journey turns into a rescue mission when Hen Wen is captured by the agents of the evil Horned King (voice of John Hurt), a skeletal figure who intends to use the animal to discover the whereabouts of the Black Cauldron, a talisman of malevolent power that will enable him to take over the world. Along the way, Taran is joined by a petulant-but-pretty princess, Eilonwy (voice of Susan Sheridan); a cute, cuddly creature named Gurgi (voice of John Byner); and Fflewddur Fflam (voice of Nigel Hawthorne), a bard with a penchant for telling tall tales.

The Black Cauldron is not populated with a gallery of interesting characters. Taran is nobility personified, and, as such, is pretty boring. Eilonwy, despite showing signs of the backbone that later Disney heroines would display, isn't much more compelling than Taran. Fflewddur is used more for comic relief than anything else. That leaves Gurgi, who, while being the most endearing creature in the movie, doesn't show a great deal more depth than his human companions. As far as the villain goes, the only thing we learn about the Horned King is that he's evil and wants to take over the world. He looks scary and acts scary, but that's about it.

One thing that is noteworthy about The Black Cauldron is that it doesn't feature any songs. That's a rarity for any Disney movie. Occasionally, in recent years, I have lamented the need for films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules to throw in superfluous musical numbers simply because that's the animated formula. The Black Cauldron does not do that, and is all the better because of it. We are thankfully spared the experience of listening to Fflewddur Fflam croon some nonsensical ballad about missing pigs, fair folk, and heroism.

For those weaned on the slick animation of Disney's new wave features, some of the drawing in The Black Cauldron may seem a little rough or unfinished. Frankly, though, even judging by today's high standards, the artwork is impressive, especially during the late sequences when the Black Cauldron spews its magical contents skyward and an army of corpses begins its march. Although the characters don't have the range of facial variability displayed by Belle and Mulan, they're no less expressive than Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. And the backgrounds are as richly textured and detailed as in any other Disney film.

To date, Hollywood has yet to make a truly rousing fantasy feature, making it perhaps the only genre to have eluded those who weave movie magic. Maybe because it is animated, The Black Cauldron is one of the more successful attempts, bettering the likes of The Lord of the Rings (the Ralph Bakshi animated version), Conan the Barbarian, and the recent Dragonheart. And, while the movie probably plays better to those who have not read Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain," it's far from the failure it was once branded as. Now that it's available on video, it should find favor with a generation that never had the opportunity to see it during its brief theatrical tenure.

Black Cauldron, The (United States, 1985)

Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 1985-07-24
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1