Disney's The Black what? If you found yourself saying this, then you are not alone. The 25th Disney animated film is probably the most unmemorable and least recognizable Disney film of the canon. Is it that bad? It's not great, but it holds a special place in my childhood. I can remember going to Sam's Club with my parents and seeing the movie on the shelves and wondering what the heck it was. Little did I know that the year I was born, there was a fantasy movie that Disney had tried to pull off, mostly to appeal to all the trendy fantasy nerds. I think that was an oxymoron. I was thirteen when the movie was finally released on VHS, making the release year 1998. I thought myself exceptionally privy on Disney movies, so I was a little confused on why I hadn't seen this particular one. I begged my parents to buy it and watched it as soon as I got home. Remember that I was thirteen and kind of easy to please, so I really enjoyed the movie. This was a darker animated film with a lot of scary characters. I love anything scary, gothic and spooky so this movie was just for me. I wasn't really into fantasy stuff though, and I'm still not that much into it. Needless to say, I have a soft spot for this Disney movie.
I'm going to try and keep this summation short and sweet. This works well because there isn't a whole lot to say about The Black Cauldron. Some of the Nine Old Men had been trying to make this movie since the mid 70's but couldn't really get the ball rolling. The books the movie is based off of, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron had came out in the mid 60's and this was right when fantasy was starting to gain it's footing in pop culture. By the time the 70's rolled around you had role playing fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons which premiered in 1974. The craze was just starting so Disney wanted to hop on the trendy bus and take it all the way to the bank. Unfortunately for Disney, the trendy bus broke down and they had to put a lot of money into it to get it going without ever getting to the bank. After the Nine Old Men couldn't tackle the dense books, the new animators decided to take a crack at it. What came from the new animators efforts was the most expensive animated movie Disney had made so far, costing 25 million dollars to produce. Keep in mind that this was the early days of computers so they decided to make a few computer animated scenes. Though it's a little hard to tell in this movie, the baubles, the boat, and the cauldron itself are all computer animated.
The Black Cauldron was adapted from the first two books of The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Alexander's books are like most fantasy novels in that they are kind of confusing with all the funny names and have a sweeping narrative that involves the usual fair of sorcery, swordfights, unlikely heroes, and evil kings and wizards. I have, since writing this post, read Llyod Alexander's "The Black Cauldron," and I have to say that it is incredibly different from the movie. It's way better than the movie in fact, so you should do yourself a favor and check it out, no matter what your age. For one, Hen-Wen is not in "The Black Cauldron." The prescient pig is only really in Lloyd's "The Book of Three." In the book, Taran, Fflewddur Fflam, Prince Gwydion, Prince Ellidyr, Doli, and Adaon all set out to destroy the Black Cauldron, which is the hands of the evil Arawn. Like in the movie, the cauldron is able to make the "cauldron born," who are the undead and cannot be killed. Believing that the Cauldron is behind enemy lines, the group sets out to retrieve and destroy it. Princess Eilonwy and Gurgi eventually catch up to the group, not wanting to be left behind. A quick note about the characters: Taran, Eilonwy, Fflewddur and Gurgi are basically the same from book to movie. The biggest character shift is Doli, who in the movie is a fairy, but in the book is a dwarf. Doli belongs to the fair folk, but at no point in time does the reader get the impression that Doli is anything but a brutish dwarf. Oh, and Doli can turn invisible whenever he wants, though it makes his ears feel as though there are bees buzzing around in them. As for the characters that didn't make it into the movie, well they are probably the most interesting characters in the book. Prince Gwydion is the courageous hero of the first book, and the man that Taran really looks up to. Adaon is the level headed travel mate that speaks of dreams, mostly because they are the supposed future. Adaon is able to be prescient because of his brooch, but eventually passes it on to Taran. Prince Ellidyr is the bully of the book. He is one of the more complex characters of the book so I won't go into too much about him. The witches, Orrdu, Orgoch, and Orwen are present in the book, and do in fact possess the cauldron as they did in the movie. The only difference is that the group has to barter something else than a magic sword to get the cauldron. The cauldron comes with the same destruction directions: whosoever goes into the cauldron of its own free will will destroy the cauldron, but will not climb out again. There are many other characters and plot twists that I could speak of, but I just wanted to give you a small taste of the book and how it compares to the movie. Seriously, read it. Who cares if it's a young adult book.
If you happened to have seen this movie, then you may have noticed something that makes this one stand out from the others: there's blood and scary monsters everywhere. This is Disney's first animated movie to receive the rating of PG. The funniest thing about the whole production was the fact that they were actually afraid that they would get an R rating for awhile because of all the violence and scary images. Jeffrey Katzenberg had just taken over as studio chief and when he saw the first version of the movie, he freaked out. He was certain that they would get an R rating which would basically bury the movie. They did a few cuts here and there but it only went down to a PG-13 rating. They cut it down even further and it stopped at where we know it now, PG. Something happened though when they cut out all the dark and violent scenes from the movie; the movie became disjointed. The scenes didn't really mesh together that well anymore. Disney had a problem but they went along anyway hoping the movie would do well with teenage males, a group that it never really appealed to in earlier years. I would like to see what the movie looked like before the cuts to see what Katzenberg thought of as a PG-13 or even R rated movie. One of the most disturbing scenes in any of the Disney movies is the death of the Horned King as you can see by the above picture.
The movie, on top of the cuts and violent story had another thing going against it: its characters. They were kind of dull, and audiences and critics realized it quickly. Why do you think we don't have Princess Ailonwy with all the other Disney Princesses? Why is there no mention of The Black Cauldron at any of the theme parks (OK, so there is an attraction at Disneyland Tokyo)? Why did it take Disney thirteen years to release the movie in any way shape or form? The story was a bleak one, and the characters didn't help. The Horned King was scary, yes, but really wasn't that threatening in the end. Taran is an OK hero, but doesn't really scream memorable. Then there's the one character that either made you love the movie or cringe every time you heard his voice. I'm talking about none other than Gurgi. Gurgi sounds a little like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, but is much more annoying. He likes to rhyme most of what he says like "Munchies and Crunchies" and is basically a cowardly half dog half badger for most of the movie. He ends up saving everyone yes, but man was he annoying along the way.
Despite having an awesome release poster, The Black Cauldron tanked. It only make a little over 21 million for Disney, making it an official flop. Most critics blamed the dark story material for the mediocre film, but still pointed out that the narrative was a bit disjointed and the characters weren't very memorable. One of the few who gave it a positive review was Roger Ebert, who praised the film for it's "splendid visuals." Lloyd Alexander himself claimed that the movie had no resemblance to his books, but he enjoyed watching it and hoped that people would read his books which he felt had more depth. Unfortunately for Disney, by 1985 the fantasy craze was over and no one bothered to watch their movie. I'm not sure if I'm just easy to please or what, but I still enjoy this movie, which is more than I can say for most of what Disney released in the 2000's. Check this movie out if you haven't before. You might like it!