The Black Cauldron - 25th Anniversary
Back in 1985, Walt Disney Pictures had very high hopes for The Black Cauldron. It was the studio’s first PG-rated animated film and its most expensive animated endeavor to date ($25 million). It included the studio’s first use of computer-generated animation, and it was the first time since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty that an animated feature was shot in 70mm. Today, however, the film is mostly remembered as being one of the studio’s biggest flops--and, arguably, its worst animated feature.
What went wrong? For starters, the source material--The Chronicles of Prydain’ series of books by Lloyd Alexander--clearly baffled the studio in its attempts to turn the five-volume literary series into a family-friendly film running under 90 minutes. Nine writers were credited in turning out the screenplay, which flip-flopped between surrealism and connect-the-dots action. Unwilling to take a chance on a genuinely mature work, but unable to let go of the kid-friendly Disney style, the resulting production came across like second-rate Tolkein with the genuinely scary parts filtered out.
Set in medieval times, the film follows the unlikely evolution of headstrong young Taran from a rural assistant pigkeeper to a bold warrior fighting to stop the Horned King from gaining control of the darkly magical black cauldron. There are several expected stock characters, including a spunky princess and two bumbling sidekicks (an inept elderly minstrel and a furry creature with a Donald Duck voice), though the film has a surprise element: a psychic pig plays a key role in the plot. However, the pig has no dialogue. Unlike other Disney romps, there are no talking animals - and no songs, which is a shame, since musical interludes could have added some oxygen to this gaseous mess.
For all of the money that went into the film, it is somewhat surprising that the animation is so ugly and clumsy. Even the film’s supposed centerpiece, the skeletal-faced Horned King, looks like he wandered in from a Scooby-Doo mystery.
In fairness, The Black Cauldron has one genuinely funny moment, albeit in the form of a cheap laugh: the old minstrel gets turned into a frog and stuck in the deep cleavage of a zaftig witch. But don’t expect that magical moment to be turned into a Disneyworld attraction!