Taran is a young boy who dreams of being a great warrior and hero, but achieving that dream isn’t easy when in reality you are an assistant pig-keeper for an enchanter. Taran is sick of this life, especially since there is a war going in the world of Prydain, and the enchanter, Dallben, insists he doesn’t find and make sure he takes care of the pig, named Hen Wen. Dallben later shows Taran the importance of Hen Wen, as it can produce visions of the future, and knows the secret location of the Black Cauldron, a Cauldron created by the gods to seal the most evil magic, and allows the power to resurrect an undefeatable undead army. The visions show that the evil Horned King seeks the Black Cauldron, and knows Hen Wen’s powers, so Dallben tells Taran to take Hen Wen away to the hidden village so he cannot be found. Unfortunately Hen Wen, and later Taran are later captured by the Horned King’s soldiers. Now it is up to Taran, the beautiful Princess Eilonwy, the eccentric Bard Fflam and the loyal furry creature Gurgi, to prevent the Black Cauldron from getting into the wrong hands, as the fate of the entire world depends on this group to avoid the Horned King from bringing on a major terror to the lands.
Even for Disney Standards, The Black Cauldron had a shaky development history. The total production time was 12 years, although Disney acquired the rights to the original novel years before production began, however only five of those years was the actual production. Some of Disney’s oldest animators such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston as well as some of the animators that left to form their own companies such as Don Bluth worked on parts of the film, and Tim Burton worked as one of the concept artists. The reason for the lengthy production time mainly was due to both the changes in management at Disney and other, more thorough, productions going on at the same time such as The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound. Since Disney still wanted to maintain their reputation of being a family friendly film production studio, edits had to be made to the film to avoid it getting a PG-13 rating due to its dark and graphic scenes. The film eventually got a suitable edit that was worthy of a PG rating, the first for a Disney animated film, and released it on July 24th 1985, however it bombed at the box office, earning $21 million out of the $25 million production cost.
The animation is hit-and-miss, which I know is an odd opinion to make for the animation of a Disney film but that is literally what the visuals look like on an overall level. There are some really neat effects used to show the magic and fantasy elements of the film, the lighting for its time is brilliant, even in comparison to modern animated films like The Secret of Kells. However in some scenes the animation looks dull and uninspired, some of the character designs are bland and expressions feel limited. The character design of Taran looks like the most generic teenage male protagonist I’ve seen ever in an animated film, and while the Horned King looks dark and sinister; his design is really simple and hard to appreciate since you can’t see much of him over the angles and lighting in the scenes until near the end. It’s watchable, it feels like a dark and engaging experience some of the time, but it isn’t Disney’s best work, pre-renaissance or not.
The music is simple and generic orchestra, which even in a pre-Renaissance Disney film is unusual since there is usually well done musical numbers or highly memorable and creative soundtracks. It’s refreshing to see a Disney film that doesn’t have songs or musical numbers, especially in this one because I believe the film wouldn’t be taken as seriously overall if there were songs in it, but most of the music is kept mainly in the background, and none of it has a memorable feel that other Disney films have. While this maybe a criticism to something Disney normally does great in their original films, music, on the other hand it allows the audience to take the film seriously and focuses on the characters and stories, something that I find most American produced animated films these days fail to do.
The voice acting for the most part is nothing special with a few exceptions. It’s very listenable and most of the actors do a good effort at making these likable characters, and I give credit to the actors good attempts at pronouncing Welsh sounding words and names, however they don’t give a long lasting impression on the viewer. This is with the exception of John Byner as Gurgi and John Hurt as the Horned King, with Byner’s Smeagol-like goblin voice along with his happy personality actually making Gurgi really adorable, while John Hurt makes the Horned King really dark and frightful with such a cold and mystifying voice. One minor issue with the voice casting is that Grant Bardsley sounds like his voice broke partway through the film, as sounds more adult later in the film, and it sounds so sudden that I wouldn’t call it a storytelling effect.
This is a really dark and engaging film, and I think it’s a great attempt by Disney at making a captivating film. There are no musical numbers that break the mood, the comedic moments blend in well with the dark moments and the relationship that occurs between Taran and Princess Eilonwy is made more realistically progressing instead of sporadically romantic. The Horned King is a really underrated villain, since he dark and mysterious, his personality and motives are more subtle and John Hurt really shows how dark this person is. Despite all that, it still bombed at the box office and while Disney still rereleases it as one of their classics, no one really mentions it and Disney doesn’t present it as much as their other classics. Therefore, one question arises, what went wrong? Well two major problems arise with this film, and it’s only going to be a problem depending on who the viewer is. The first one is an obvious one; it’s a loose adaptation on the book. I don’t normally bring up comparisons to a story’s original form because it’s what you expect in an adaptation, it’s a kid’s film, Walt Disney Animation, despite how many dark moments appear in their films, don’t like their films having an adult rating, and you can’t expect several pages of descriptive narrative to fit into an 80 minute film, so it should be treated as its own film. However, people who would’ve read the book would noticed how toned down it is, and what scenes are missing, so it might put them off, as it clearly did for critics at the time. Another problem is that, while I like this film for the stuff explained at the beginning of this paragraph, it causes the film to lack any special charm that is found in several other Disney films. Disney Animated films all have a special formula that makes Disney special, and it only seems to work whenever Disney makes the film. But with Black Cauldron, that formula isn’t there, and the film shows. Most of the characters, despite how charming or fearful they are, they seem dull in comparison to Disney’s other great protagonists and antagonists, and the more sombre or joyous moments feel really underplayed in comparison to other Disney films. It’s these two reasons which make it difficult for the film itself to stand on its own two legs, which is why I feel it failed back then to grab an audience, but now that it’s more accessible it should be possible for it to find its true appraisal.
I believe that if you really want to enjoy this film, you have to be in the right mind and heart. If you expect to find a good old Disney adventure or a faithful adaptation to what is possibly a great fantasy film, you may be disappointed, but if you want a dark and atmospheric fantasy film you might find something to enjoy in this little underground classic.
The Black Cauldron is available from Walt Disney. The original novels by Lloyd Alexander, chronologically titled “The Book of Three”, “The Black Cauldron”, “The Castle of Llyr”, “Taran Wanderer” and “The High King”, collectively titled The Chronicles of Prydain, is available from Henry Holt with a collective box set to be released on October 2011 by Square Fish. A collection of short stories collectively titled The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydrain which are set before the original stories in the same universe and were also written by Lloyd Alexander, are available by Holt, Rhinehart and Winston and Puffin Books.