The Great Disney Blogathon: The Black Cauldron (1985)
|July 6, 2015||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, The Great Disney Blogathon|
I think it’s fair to say that The Black Cauldron has a pretty solid reputation as, well, arguably Disney’s worst movie. I don’t know that that’s true – or that “worst movie” is even a fruitful discussion to have in the first place – but certainly it’s not beloved. I’ve never been particularly impressed by it, but I wouldn’t say it’s entirely without merit. It is, however, certainly emblematic of an era, and definitely an interesting topic of discussion. So let’s get into it!
The Black Cauldron is an adaptation of The Chronicles of Prydain, a beloved five-book series by Lloyd Alexander. The plot, in brief: Taran, pre-teen assistant pigkeeper, dreams of glory in battle against the evil Horned King, but is stuck minding the pampered pig Hen Wen. This is more important than he thinks, because Hen Wen is an oracular pig, and the Horned King wants her to help him find the Black Cauldron, which will raise an undead army to fight for him. While trying to keep Hen Wen safe, Taran a) encounters a strange fuzzy creature named Gurgi, b) escapes the Horned King’s dungeon with fellow prisoners Princess Eilonwy and hapless bard Fflewddur Fflam, as well as a magic sword, c) makes a quick trip to the land of the Fair Folk, d) trades his magic sword to three witch sisters for the Cauldron, and e) promptly loses the Cauldron to the Horned King. As the Horned King raises his army, Taran prepares to sacrifice himself by jumping into the Cauldron, which will take away its power – but Gurgi, who has grown fond of Taran, takes his place. The Horned King is sucked into the Cauldron, and Taran trades it back to the witches in exchange for Gurgi’s life.
Deciding to cram five books (well, two – technically the movie just combines the plots of the first two books, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron) into one hour of animation is an uphill battle on its own; adapting a series considered by many to be one of the building blocks of the modern fantasy genre, on par with Tolkien and Lewis, is just asking to be hated by its fans.1 Sure enough, Alexander fans disavow this movie hard. While I don’t totally blame them, I didn’t read the Prydain books until I was an adult, and I honestly think Disney made some wise choices when they trimmed the fat. Cutting Gwydion, for example, the valiant knight who shows up at the end of every book to save Taran’s useless butt, was a huge relief, as Gwydion’s a total deus ex machina and repeatedly robs Taran of any chance to, like, accomplish things. (I mean, Taran still doesn’t accomplish anything, but at least Gwydion’s not cluttering up the screen.) Eilonwy, the best thing about the books, retains her sparkling presence for the movie. Everything else, though, feels underexplained and undersold, like the filmmakers are just checking off boxes on a list of characters and props from the books.
So what are we left with? Well, not much, to be honest. This movie doesn’t really feel like a Disney film; if I didn’t know better – and couldn’t see glimmerings of the house style in Taran and Eilonwy’s designs – I’d think it was made by a lesser contemporary studio, like Don Bluth or Warner Brothers. The animation is unremarkable all the way through, which is especially a shame considering what heights it could have reached, given its material – just think how terrifying the Horned King and his undead army could’ve been, or the lovely effects someone like Ub Iwerks could’ve dreamed up around Eilonwy and Hen Wen’s magic or the Fair Folk. The characters are all as stock as stock gets: bland everyboy Taran, a slew of grumbly old men with bushy eyebrows, a little gobliny henchman for the Horned King. There’s too much stuff crammed into the movie to have time to connect with any of the characters or relationships; nothing is memorably funny or scary, and there aren’t even any musical numbers.
(That said, this is the first Disney movie to use computer animation, and impressively, it doesn’t have that jarring and obvious quality that marked so much computer animation in traditionally animated movies of the 80s and 90s, which is not the case for, say, the climactic Big Ben fight scene in The Great Mouse Detective, which was being animated at the same time as this film.)
The best thing about the movie, as mentioned above, is Eilonwy. Sharp, smart, and independent, she’s an absolute joy on the screen, though they could have cut a fair amount of giggling from the soundtrack. She’s pretty much the most active character in the film: Taran is useless, Fflewddur and Gurgi are trembling comic relief, and the villains are all basically sedentary. Eilonwy is perfectly capable of escaping from every bad situation she’s put in, and tries to warn Taran off of all his boneheaded decisions – not that he listens to her, but that’s not her fault. Plus, she’s cute as a button. I’d watch an Eilonwy movie in a heartbeat.
And yes, Gurgi’s sacrifice at the end…well, it doesn’t exactly wring the heartstrings, but it has the potential to wring them. Cut Fflewddur and Doli, excise the Fair Folk sequence entirely, spend some time building up the relationship between Taran and Gurgi, and this could work. Obviously that’s not an option – this movie’s 30 years old – but presumably the New Guard that had taken over at Disney was learning the rules of storytelling, because the next two films we’ll cover, while not masterpieces, are great fun, and we’re only four years away from the glories of The Little Mermaid.
Anyway, that’s The Black Cauldron! Big smiles, everyone – aside from a few clunky sequels, it’s all uphill from here. Until we get to Home on the Range, at least.
- Of course now it would be eight three hour epics (the fifth book, of course, would be expanded into its own trilogy) starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Fflewddur Fflam and the palest 22-year-old they could find as Taran, so maybe we got off light. ↩