Epic Disney Watchfest 1: The Black Cauldron: A Hearty Review of the Black Sheep of the Disney Animated-Film Stable

black_cauldron_ver1Err Mah Gerrrsh. I just watched The Black Cauldron with Brazle and Hayley. It’s about a young boy named Taran (he’s an Assistant Pig-Herder) and his quest to keep the mysterious Black Cauldron out of the hands of the evil Horned King.  It was surprisingly enjoyable; I would give it a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. That’s pretty good for what is one-of-if-not-the-biggest-of box-office failures in the history of Disney’s illustrious line of animated films. What I liked: it has some beautiful artwork, nice animation, fun characters, a rousing soundtrack, and a wonderful medieval fantasy world. What I didn’t like: it has several plot holes, sketchy pacing in places, poor character development and an extremely rushed ending. Throw all that in the hopper and you get a pretty okay kid’s movie. 6/10.

Now – there is SO much more to this movie than that brief review. There are probably 1,000,000,000 things I could talk about, but I’ve culled the list to seven different things I think you should know in addition to my above synopsis.

Click here to purchase The Black Cauldron 25th Anniversary edition on Amazon.com

1. This Film is Dark-ish Cauldron is probably the darkest animated Disney movie ever made.  I don’t mean the whole thing is ultra creepy and gross and weird – it just has elements that might be scarier than normal. And it doesn’t have the typical song-and-dance numbers to lighten the mood, so the whole effect is a darker, more serious film. Some of the heavier things that come to mind include:

  • The army of dead people the Horned King (our antagonist) wants to resurrect
  • Scenes in which Taran (our protagonist) gets bruised and bloodied
  • The art design of the Horned King’s realm (the whole thing is pretty Gothic)
  • The process of working with/against the Black Cauldron

Overall, the whole thing leaves an impression of “dark”.  And that is why it was a box-office failure.  Parents accustomed to the cute and fun song-and-dance numbers of past films weren’t crazy about taking their children to see a movie about an army of the dead and a scary Horned King.  Alas.

2. The Chronicles of Prydain I was surprised to find that this movie is based on a 1960’s children’s series called “The Chronicles of Prydain”. Written by Lloyd Alexander between 1964-1968, the series is a bildungsroman centered around our hero Taran. Apparently, the film is loosely inspired by the first two books in the series, but Alexander himself has stated that “there is no resemblance between the movie and the book.”  Some have lamented the failure of The Black Cauldron since apparently the books are really good.  Having never read them, I have no idea as to their quality, but two of the five received Newberry Award; that has to mean something, right?  RIGHT????  Now I want to read them.  

3. I Didn’t Know They Got Andy Serkis For This Thing!!  No kidding, there is a little creature called Gurgi and he sounds literally EXACTLY like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings feature films.  It is uncanny.  He even refers to himself in the third-person, just like Gollum.  It is really weird.  I haven’t seen or read anything from Peter Jackson or Serkis regarding the similarity, but there is NO WAY Gollum’s voice wasn’t based on Gurgi.  Check it out.  Beyond the voice and speech pattern, the two characters are fairly dissimilar, as Gurgi is a good-hearted little creature and Gollum has been twisted into a malevolent being by the power of the Ring.  Speaking of Lord of the Rings…..

TBC army of dead

The Army of the Dead equals box office poison for The Black Cauldron

4. This Thing is Like LotR Lite For serious, this story, as seen in the film, bears a remarkable resemblance to “The Lord of the Rings.”  The Black Cauldron = The Ring of Power, Taran = Frodo, Gurgi = Gollum, Hen Wen looking into the water = Galadriel and her fortune-telling water, The Army of the Dead = The Army of the Dead, and Morva = Mordor.  There is even a scene in which Taran stands on some rocks and looks into the Horned King’s realm – it looks very, very similar to the scene at the end of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when the camera pans up from Frodo, Sam and Gollum in the forest and we see Mordor.  My friend Cary commented the only thing missing was an all-seeing eye to complete the effect.  Considering how descriptive Tolkien is, it’s likely the directors of Cauldron generated the design of that scene directly from the books.

5. Technological Breakthroughs? What? This movie is so weird.  It flopped at the box office, was long denied a home release due to it’s dark nature, and has basically been relegated to the dusty shadows of the Disney Vault.  One can scarcely believe, in light of all of that, this this movie featured two major technological breakthroughs.  It even won this one dude an Academy Award!  Nuts.  The two breakthroughs are:

  • Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) – this was the first Disney animated feature to include CGI.  What????  Weird.
  • APT (Animation Photo Transfer) Process – this allowed animators to transfer their drawings to cells at a much higher quality.  I don’t really understand more than that.  Some guy named Dave Spencer won an Oscar for developing the APT Process for this film!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Craziness.

6. But Seriously, the Soundtrack This soundtrack is AWESOME.  For some reason, it received mixed reviews upon release, probably because everyone wanted to just pile on the negativity.  Well, that ill-regard is totally misplaced.  This soundtrack is fantastic.  Elmer Bernstein (!!!!) composed and conducted the score and recorded the tracks with the Utah Symphony Orchestra.  Recent revisionist history has recognized the beauty and power of the work, and in fact, some have said this is one of his best works and one of the best scores for a Disney film.  I was delighted listening to it during the movie, and I’m excited to purchase the re-released CD so I can enjoy it anywhere.  It’s that good.  Get your copy here.

7. Troubled Production The Black Cauldron was produced and released in the midst of a turbulent time for Disney.  There was a change in upper management, and when new studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the film, he ordered it be drastically edited for content and runtime.  He went as far as to personally make some edits himself, resulting in a movie different from that which was originally intended.  This crazy edit process likely explains some of the blatant plot holes and weakness in character development.  Furthermore, it resulted in the loss of much of Bernstein’s wonderful score.  Shame.  Somehow, the movie is still pretty good.

Okay, so there you go.  I set out to write 400-600 words and instead cranked out upwards of 1,200.  In closing, The Black Cauldron is a fun film with pretty art, nice animation, likeable characters, a GREAT soundtrack, and an imaginative setting.  Despite its drawbacks, I would still recommend it.  6/10

Please comment, and feel free to email me your thoughts at grant@grantstevensgroup.com.

Grant Stevens is a native Texan who lives in Oklahoma and writes movie reviews.  He also writes/records songs and sells real estate.  His goal is to do everything good and not do anything bad.  He does NOT think that is too lofty a goal.  Grant is also the National Chairman for the Use Ironic Correctly Society, or the UICS.  On a related note, Grant also just started the Use Ironic Correctly Society – they ARE accepting members at this time.  www.grantstevensgroup.com

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