The Black Cauldron was released as the twenty-fifth full-length animated feature in Disney history on July 24, 1985. It is loosely based on the first two books, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, in Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain and clocks in at eighty minutes.
Long ago in a faraway land, there lived an evil king, a despot so terrible that he was universally feared. It may have been tempting for the masses to jail this tyrant, but the people chose a safer and more practical course, throwing the king into a crucible of molten iron, where his demonic spirit was captured in the form of a “Black Cauldron.”
Ding dong! The witch…err, very nasty king, was dead, and all was good with the world!
Indeed, stability persisted for many centuries, until another evil king came to be. This new tyrant, the Horned King, wants to rule the world, an unfortunate goal that is nonetheless attainable by locating the Black Cauldron and unleashing its contents, an army of deathless warriors that will exterminate all happiness.
Humanity is not necessarily doomed, though. You see, the location of the Cauldron is known only to a prophetic pig named Hen Wen, and a very responsible adolescent pig keeper, Taran, is determined to safeguard Hen Wen. Taran will succeed at this endeavor. Won’t he?
Dissent at Disney
Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney had their share of disagreements while working together at Disney animation, but they definitely concurred on one matter: The Black Cauldron was extremely flawed. In particular, both men deemed the content and visuals too intense for children and did not see how the movie could garner the traditional “G” rating afforded Disney’s previous animated offerings. Indeed, the flick became the first animated movie in Disney history to be rated “PG,” a non-issue today—Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014), for example, were both rated “PG” with no backlash—but it was an embarrassment for the company in 1985.
Roy Disney also admitted that he did not understand the story. (1) The Black Cauldron‘s release date was postponed from late-December 1984 to July 1985 to allow for some editing, but, as Producer Joe Hale told Katzenberg, editing animated films was nearly impossible, and the finished product was unchanged save for some scene cutting. (2)
Response at the box office proved even more dismal than the in-house critiques. First, the $22 million grossed by The Black Cauldron was a net loss; the film had been created for $25 million. The real embarrassment for Disney, however, came via an indirect blow. The Care Bears Movie, developed by Nelvana for a mere $2 million using cheap foreign labor, earned more money than The Black Cauldron at theatres. (3)
Merits of the Criticisms
The observations of Katzenberg and Roy Disney were legitimate.
The movie’s visuals are undoubtedly graphic at times. For example, when the King’s dragons, termed Gwythaints, swipe Hen Wen, their fangs scrape the face of a desperate Taran, inducing visible blood. Additionally, skeletons are prevalent throughout the film, and the Horned King’s appearance is hideous: he is a cloaked mummy with devilish eyes and ram-like horns. These elements did not impact my opinion of the film, but they may affect a child’s enjoyment of it.
I also agree with Roy Disney’s critiques concerning the story. The opening description of the Black Cauldron’s history is confusing, and I had to listen to the narration multiple times to come even close to comprehending it.
Furthermore, there are numerous ambiguities in the plot. We never find out who the Horned King really is. How did he come to power? Who does he rule over? How did he discover Hen Wen’s powers? This lack of depth mitigates the Horned King’s strength as a villain to me. In fact, all of the characters are poorly developed, so it is tough to feel anything but apathy for them even during emotional sequences.
Delusions of Grandeur
Taran comes to realize over the course of the film that the achievement of lofty goals, such as defeating the Horned King, often requires teamwork. At the beginning of the movie, the cocky teenager believes he can singlehandedly destroy the despot and attain personal glory. As it turns out, however, Taran needs help from new friends, including Princess Eilonwy, Doli, Fflewddur Fflam, and Gurgi, as well as a magic sword to succeed.
Seemingly aided by a conscience, which is not named Jiminy Cricket, Gurgi atones for “cowardly” acts in the early parts of the film by making a selfless sacrifice for humanity.
The female protagonist of The Black Cauldron differs from other Disney princesses, such as Aurora, Anna and Elsa, and Jasmine, in that her royalty serves no actual purpose in the story. Eilonwy happens to be a princess, but this fact is only evident because she says so. Had Eilonwy been a commoner, the plot would not have been affected.
Though darkness dominates in The Black Cauldron, the occasional colorful scenes are breathtakingly beautiful. Said scenes include Taran’s magical sword fights, the adventure into the domain of the Fair Folk, and the grand finale with the erupting cauldron.
As an aside, King Eidilleg of the Fair Folk reminds me of Santa Claus in his appearance. Don’t count on presents, though.
Comedic moments are sprinkled throughout the flick.
Gurgi exudes a whimsical persona, a combination of Donald Duck, ET, and Dobby from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).
A trio of witches, Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, prove to be hard bargainers. They refuse to trade the Black Cauldron for an apple core.
The banquet scene at the castle is amusing with lots of eating and dancing by an assortment of bizarre characters.
Fflewddur Fflam is an entertaining entertainer, who has a tendency to overstate his importance. The strings of his harp, like the nose of the title character from Pinocchio (1940), indicate lying.
Unfortunately, The Black Cauldron is void of songs. This omission is disappointing because the music in Disney’s animated features is usually captivating. The background tunes, alternately foreboding, solemn, and jolly, are well chosen, however, and effectively complement the story.
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Tinker Bell, the iconic fairy from Peter Pan (1953), makes a cameo among numerous other fairies forty-six minutes into The Black Cauldron.
The Black Cauldron is one of two Disney animated features to be released in wide-screen 70 mm Technirama, Sleeping Beauty (1959) being the other. (4)
A magic sword also plays a prominent role in The Sword in the Stone (1963).
Nigel Hawthorne, the voice of Fflewddur Fflam, also played Professor Archimedes Porter in Tarzan (1999).
In the Parks
No attractions or regular character meets related to The Black Cauldron and its protagonists are featured in Disney’s theme parks. Tinker Bell, however, appears in numerous attractions and entertainment offerings, such as “Peter Pan’s Flight” and Florida’s “Festival of Fantasy Parade.” Guests can also interact directly with Tinker Bell in Walt Disney World at the Magic Kingdom’s “Town Square Theatre” and in California at Disneyland Park’s “Pixie Hollow.”
With no songs and an underdeveloped plot and characters, The Black Cauldron is not among Disney’s best animated films. Still, for older children and adults, a plethora of action and amazing visuals make it an enjoyable watch.
1) Stewart, J. (2005). The Wonderful World of Disney. In Disney War (p. 68). New York: Simon & Schuster.
2) Ibid., p. 69.
3) Ibid., p. 70.
4) Smith, D. (2012). Animated Features. In Disney Trivia from the Vault: Secrets Revealed and Questions Answered (p. 17). New York: Disney Editions.
What do you think of The Black Cauldron? Let me know in the comments!
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