Saturday, August 16, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 24th July 1985
The Black Cauldron is perhaps the most fascinating film in the entire Disney catalogue. There are a number of reasons it stands alone among all of its peers. It marked the very first time computer animation was used in a Disney movie, even in its very limited capacity. It took an extremely long time to develop and create - somewhere in the vicinity of 10 years - and it was a very troubled production. It is the ONLY animated movie in the ENTIRE Disney collection to not feature a single song. It was the first animated 70mm since Sleeping Beauty in 1959. It was the first Disney animated movie to be rated "PG." It was notoriously hacked to pieces by Jeffrey Katzenberg when he came into the Disney company. But mostly, The Black Cauldron is remembered for being an incredibly dark and scary movie, very un-Disney like and dividing audiences all over the world.

The movie takes its inspiration from the first two books of Lloyd Alexanders "Chronicles of Prydain," a five-book series featuring an assistant pig-keeper called Taran and a princess named Eilonwy. For the most part, the main characters are accounted for, with a few major omissions. The Horned King, who had been a powerful army general in the book but who barely featured at all as a character, was given the top-billing as the film's main villain.
With a world filled to the brim with swords, sorcery and magical creatures, you would think it would be easy as pie for Disney to create a new classic for the ages. So what exactly went wrong...?

The Walt Disney company had never truly recovered after the death of its beloved founder and leader. His son-in-law, Ron Miller, was trying his best to keep the company going, but no one could deny that the output of animated movies since Walt's passing had declined, and no movie had come close to reaching the heights of the Disney Golden Age of the 1950s. Many animators also felt frustrated at the movies they were outputting. The "old guard" were approaching retirement while the fresh new generation of artists were eager to create something magical like the movies they had grown up with. Don Bluth had also taken a group of loyal animators with him when he departed Disney during production of The Fox and the Hound. Basically, the studio was very churned up and needed some strong leadership and teamwork to get back on track... None of that happened during The Black Cauldron's creation.

Disney first claimed the film rights to the Prydain series back in 1971, but sat on them for a long time, with only moderate concept development happening. Compressing the entire tale proved difficult, so it was decided that the stories of the first two books would provide ample plot for a single film.

One of the early concepts (that just sounds unbelievably cool, if completely impractical) was that during the sequence where the undead "Cauldron-Born" army were emerging out of the titular cauldron, a state-of-the-art hologram system would start up, sending three-dimensional holograms of these monsters out into the audience of the theatres! The prohibitive cost of such a venture, especially in a movie that was severely over budget, put a quick stop to that.

In the end, The Black Cauldron was released (albeit in a heavily edited form - 12 minutes shorter than the original running time) and audiences did not take to it. Disney quickly forgot all about it and moved on to other projects. For many years, it was the "forgotten" Disney film, the one that the company didn't want anyone to see. Fans lobbied and pleaded for home releases, but it wasn't until late 1997 that the U.K. branch finally gave in and released the movie on V.H.S. A couple of D.V.D. releases have followed over the years, but of the 12 excised minutes of footage, nothing has been seen by public eyes except for an "in-development" Fair Folk sequence on the most recent D.V.D. release.

So some might say that The Black Cauldron is more interesting for the story of its creation than the movie itself.

The Black Cauldron opens with some narration, explaining the origins of the evil object that has the power to create an unstoppable army of undead warriors.

Meanwhile, in the peaceful farm of Caer Dallben, an enchanter named Dallben is feeling restless with the knowledge that the Horned King is gaining power.

Dallben's assistant pig-keeper Taran is full of foolhardy ideas of heroism, but he is completely untested in combat. The only thing he really knows how to do is look after his pig, whose name is Hen Wen.

As he is giving Hen Wen her bath, she suddenly goes into a frantic panic. Dallben calls them inside and reveals to Taran that Hen Wen is a special pig who can project visions of the future. He uses her power to show what the Horned King is planning. The vision shows the Black Cauldron, a dangerous object that would give the Horned King the power to take over the world, should he find it. The last thing the vision shows is Hen Wen. Dallben, realising that the Horned King wants to find the pig to show him where the cauldron is, instructs Taran to take Hen Wen away, to hide her somewhere safe.

Unfortunately, as Taran daydreams about becoming a hero, Hen Wen wanders off. As he looks for her, Taran bumps into a strange little creature called Gurgi, who wants Taran's "crunchings and munchings."

Hen Wen is suddenly attacked by gwythaints, scouts for the Horned King. They capture the pig and fly her off to the castle while Taran watches on in horror.

Determined to keep his promise to protect Hen Wen, Taran sneaks into the Horned King's keep, dodging guards and making his way to the throne room where the evil king himself is keeping court, accompanied by his little gargoyle henchman, only known as "Creeper."

When Taran sees Hen Wen about to be hurt, he falls from the rafters and finds himself face-to-face with the Horned King, who orders him to utilise Hen Wen's powers and show him where the Black Cauldron is. (Man, Taran could not have failed any more spectacularly at his mission)

Somehow Taran manages to make an escape, tossing Hen Wen over the castle wall into the moat. The pig-keeper is captured however, and thrown into the dungeon. While he contemplates spending the rest of his life locked up, he is met by a princess called Eilonwy, who is also trying to escape. She has a magic bauble which lights the way through the dark dungeons.

Taran discovers an ancient sword laid on the tomb of a king. He soon realises that this sword is magical, and can turn him into a fierce warrior just by holding it.

After a daring escape - in which they pick up another captive, a bard named Fflewddur Fflam - they regroup in the forest. Taran and Eilonwy argue about who was more important to their escape. Suddenly Fflewddur is attacked by Gurgi, who tells Taran he has seen Hen Wen's footprints leading into a pond.

They follow the tracks and end up in the underground world of the Fair Folk, little pixie-like creatures who are governed by King Eiddileg and his grumpy assistant Doli.

They tell the group that the Black Cauldron is hidden by witches in Morva. Taran figures that if they can get the cauldron before the Horned King, they can destroy it and then the danger will be gone. The Fair Folk agree to look after Hen Wen while they fulfill this dangerous task. Meanwhile... In one of the shots of flying Fair Folk, there's a familiar little pixie hidden among the crowd...

Doli accompanies them to Morva, though not without a complaint or two. They find the home of the witches, which is full of frogs and cauldrons.

When the witches arrive home, they taunt the travellers and tell them that the only way they will give up the Black Cauldron is to trade it for something of equal worth. Taran reluctantly gives up his sword while Fflewddur tries to avoid the romantic advances of Orwen the witch.

So the Black Cauldron is finally theirs. But the witches laugh as they tell them that it can never be destroyed. If a person sacrifices their own life by climbing into it, its evil can be temporarily halted, but they cannot damage it. Suddenly the Horned King's henchmen appear (wait - what??) and capture the group and the cauldron. Gurgi manages to escape just in time.

Taran is once again proven to be an absolute failure. He failed to keep the pig away from the Horned King, and now he has delivered the Black Cauldron right on to the castle doorstep. The Horned King utilises the immense powers of the cauldron to bring forth a vast army of undead warriors to take over the world. This sequence was hugely edited by Jeffrey Katzenberg, considered to be way too scary and gruesome for the usual Disney audience.

The minutes of deleted scenes have never been seen outside of the Disney studios, even to this day. One sequence which was cut short, in which a henchman is melted away by the cauldron-born, has had a few animation cels somehow found. This is about as close as we can get to seeing the scene as it was originally created...

Pretty gross, right? Hard to believe that this is a Disney movie! Well that's what Katzenberg was thinking as he was culling minutes off The Black Cauldron's running time.

Anyway, Gurgi decides to be brave for once. He comes to the castle and frees his friends before sacrificing himself by plunging into the cauldron. (His last words are "Gurgi has no friends." Cue children crying... NOW!) The cauldron's magic is reversed. The undead warriors fall to the ground. A furious Horned King goes to see what is wrong, and in doing so gets sucked into the cauldron, the flesh being ripped from his skeleton. Indiana Jones eat your heart out!

The danger has at last passed, and the Horned King is dead. Everybody should be happy, but they're not. The real hero of the story - Gurgi - is gone. When the witches reappear to reclaim the Black Cauldron, Fflewddur and Taran agree to trade the cauldron for Gurgi.

And here we have one of the most infuriatingly overused Disney tropes ever: the character who appears dead, is mourned by the main characters, and then suddenly wakes up to live happily ever after. Eurgh. The happy band of heroes walk off into the forest as Dallben, Hen Wen and Doli watch on from Caer Dallben.

IRVYNE: There is no denying that the story in this film is quite a mess, but you know what? Somehow it still kind of works. The overall story structure isn't too bad. Everything is basically leading up to the Horned King using the cauldron to unleash his army, and at the film's climax we finally get to see this, before the evil is stopped and they all live happily ever after. The problems lie more in the characters and the chopped-up nature of the plot.
Remember, this movie is based on two books in the Prydain series, and it's being crammed into an 80 minute movie. It feels like a lot of basic story and character development is happening off-camera.
Let's start with the characters and what purpose they serve in this story. Taran is a very average, bland wannabe hero. He is trying to protect his magic pig, and fails. He tries to destroy the cauldron before the Horned King can get it, and fails. He tries to stop the magic by leaping into the cauldron, and fails that too. What does Taran actually ACHIEVE in this story??
Next let's look at Princess Eilonwy, a character that has a much better claim to the "Disney Princess" title than say, Pocahontas or Mulan! She and her magic bauble help Taran escape the dungeons, but apart from that she's just... there. Here's a character with an awesome magic bauble, but it's never really given the opportunity to DO anything. At least she's never reduced to being a damsel in distress.
Fflewddur Fflam is at least a bit entertaining, with his buffoon character and truth-sensing harp. But even he is really just tagging along for the ride.
Gurgi is a love-or-hate character. Lots of people hate him. They see him as the Jar Jar Binks of Disney. He is quite annoying, but at least he's cute at the same time. And hey - he is the hero of this story. He is the one who saves the day. (In the book it was a character named Ellidyr who climbed into the cauldron, but he was removed for the film, so that role went to Gurgi.)
The Horned King is both magnificent and kinda crap at the same time. He is quite likely the scariest villain in the entire Disney catalogue. I mean, look at him!
He is wonderfully voiced by John Hurt, and he conveys so much power by his slow and deliberate movement. But so much is left unexplained. What is he? A demon? A cursed human? Where did he come from? Why is he so evil? Why does he put so much faith in his stupid henchmen and wimpy little Creeper? What is his ultimate goal? None of this is explained. He's just evil for the sake of evil. And I suppose with that face and those horns, he pretty much gets away with it.
The story and characters in this film ALMOST work. There are some HUGE plot holes that require the audience to "just go with it." How the heck did the Horned King know the heroes were in Morva getting the cauldron, for example? It just comes across as rushed and too simplified. "This needs to happen, so we'll just make it happen instead of finding a good REASON for it to happen." If only they had spent a bit longer in plot development... For example, why not give each of the heroes some ability or quirk that would help them in their journey and make then more useful? You know, give them a purpose for being in this story?
The Black Cauldron has an inconsistent look to it, but there is some truly beautiful artwork here. The backgrounds are very detailed and have a lush, painterly quality to them.

I like the design on all the characters, and they MOSTLY animate well. Fflewddur unfortunately seems to be a victim of the "sketchy" Xerox-style animation from the 60s and 70s, much more so than the other characters.

This was the very first time CGi was used in a full-length animated film. It's not immediately apparent where it was used, but there are a number of moments where the animators trialed how it could be utilised. One example is in the escape scene near the end, where the boat and flames were all generated by computer.

The design of the Horned King's castle is one of my favourite aspects of the film. The run-down, dark, damp castle makes a real impression, and I feel like I'd love to go and explore the old ruin.

As mentioned above, this is the ONLY Disney animated movie to not feature a single song in it. (Fflewddur does sing a brief melody as he plucks his harp, but this could hardly be considered a "song.")

The score however, is quite wonderful in a very creepy kind of way. It was written by famed composer Elmer Bernstein. He combines the quaint provincial tone with some seriously scary and intense music for the Horned King and his evil magic. Some of the "creepy music" bears a striking resemblance to Bernstein's score for Ghostbusters, which was released one year earlier.

I don't think you could ever claim that The Black Cauldron is a Disney masterpiece. But it does have occasional moments of brilliance, and I just find it fascinating to watch, because of what it represents in the grand scheme of Disney. There is no WAY this movie would be released today. It's amazing that it got released at all, but I suppose after all of the millions of dollars spent on its development, it was better to just get it out there and quickly forget about it.

I hope The Black Cauldron is never forgotten though. On its own, it's a decent fantasy adventure movie with a mountain of missed potential.
HAKU: I think the pacing is actually fairly reasonable. There weren't many down moments, it just kept pushing forward the whole time.

IRVYNE: The flip-side of that, of course, is that we never really get to stay in any place long enough to develop the location or characters.

HAKU: It's only 80 minutes long, but I think it's all the better for it.

WENDY: It doesn't feel like it fits with the other Disney movies and characters... Well, except for the Fair Folk. They definitely felt Disney-ish.
SHENZI: It's nothing like other Disney movies. There's no singing and dancing!
WENDY: Hen Wen is beautiful. I want a pig just like that.

IRVYNE: She is adorable. I think the animation on her is just wonderful.

SHENZI: She reminds me of Wilbur from Charlotte's Web.

IRVYNE: That movie was probably made around the same time as this... (some research time later...) I'm a bit off, Charlotte's Web was 1973. And the songs were by the Sherman Brothers! I didn't know that... No wonder they were so catchy!

MALEFICENT: It's a clever idea having the pig that can see the future in a tub of water.

IRVYNE: What did we think of the Horned King?

WENDY: Awesome! What an incredible villain, and that voice!

IRVYNE: That's John Hurt, aka The Storyteller, aka Mr. Ollivander, aka the host body of the very first Chest Burster in Alien. In this video you can see Mr. Hurt performing the Horned King's voice.

HAKU: His death scene at the cauldron is pretty full-on!

WENDY: Yeah, with the flesh being ripped off his bones!

IRVYNE: Good happy family fun! I think afterwards when they stood back and had a look at this movie they could honestly say, "that's not what Disney's really supposed to be about, is it?" The biggest irony was that in 1985, Disney - the grandfather of animation - was beaten at the box office by The Care Bears Movie! The Disney artists took this as a very personal insult.

HAKU: In the Horned King's first scene where he's surveying the room full of dead bodies and saying that he wants to be a god among mortal men... Not very Disney.

IRVYNE: You know, I feel like that scene was put in much later in the production. When he comes into the throne room later in the film to see Hen Wen's powers, he is given such a huge dramatic entrance with smoke and lights... You feel like this was supposed to be the first time the audience gets to see this incredibly powerful character. But that's a bit weird, because we've already seen him by this point, in a cutaway scene. I wonder if that was added as an afterthought to get him into the movie earlier.

MALEFICENT: You never see the Horned King when the other Disney villains are paraded around.

IRVYNE: Eilonwy should be included with the other princesses too! I think that even though Disney has appeased the fans by releasing it on D.V.D., they actually don't want anyone to see it. They'd rather just sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened.

HAKU: Which is a shame, because it's not a bad film. There's worse films we've watched this year... like Swiss Family Robinson!

SHENZI: By the way... Gurgi = Gollum.

MALEFICENT: And a pain in the neck.

WENDY: Why would you choose him instead of an awesome sword?

MALEFICENT: I'd take the sword, definitely! It's a fantastic sword, you don't even have to do anything! It just does all the attacking on its own! Gurgi is useless.

HAKU: It might just be me, but I really don't like Taran's voice actor. He's very stilted. Not natural at all. Fflewddur has a good voice.

MALEFICENT: He's a bit of a nothing character though. What does he achieve?

HAKU: He's got more important things to do in the books.

WENDY: I love how his harp keeps him honest.

HAKU: There's quite a jarring out-of-character moment in the scene where the dog is chasing Fflewddur through the castle. The dog has been menacing and nasty the whole time, and then right at the end of the scene he has this funny little fall at the gate.

MALEFICENT: That's straight from The Sword In The Stone. The wolf does almost the exact same movement when he realises he's missed out on eating Wart. I agree, that doesn't make sense in The Black Cauldron. This isn't a comical dog.

IRVYNE: I think that's a good example of the fact that this movie had so many cooks trying to make the broth, it lacked a single overseeing vision. Being created over such a long time by so many different people, it's really amazing that it came together as well as it did!

MALEFICENT: They should do a live-action remake!

IRVYNE: Imagine that!

HAKU: It doesn't really do justice to the source material, but it works okay as a movie.

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