51 Days of Disney (Day 25): the Black Cauldron

The creation of Don Bluth Productions by the disgruntled ex-Disney animator, Don Bluth, made Walt Disney Productions start to not be nearly as culturally relevant as it was in previous years. The films that Don Bluth was putting out were dark and edgy. They were films for a new audience and a new time, so Disney tried to copy what was being put out at the rival studio and what we got was the Black Cauldron.

Taran is an assistant pigkeeper to the enchanter Dallben, but he wants to be a famous warrior more than anything. He is confused and laments the fact that he has to wait on a pig hand-and-foot, but little does he know that the pig, Hen Wen, has the power to see the future. Dallben finds out by using Hen Wen’s power that the evil Horned King (John “England Prevails” Hurt) knows about the pig’s power and wants to use it to find the titular Black Cauldron in order to obtain the power to raise an army of the dead. Dallben sends Taran to hide Hen Wen in a cottage on the other side of the forest in order to keep her safe. In the forest, Taran encounters a strange creature named Gurgi shortly after losing track of Hen Wen.

The Horned King’s dragons capture Hen Wen and Taran sneaks into the Horned King’s castle to get her back. Along the way, he rescues Princess Eilonwy and a middle-aged bard named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawethorne, who also voiced Professor Porter in Tarzan). After the three escape the Horned King’s castle and reunite with Gurgi, they meet a number of mythological creatures such as witches, fair folk, and zombies, all while moving towards stopping the Horned King’s reign of evil.

The Black Cauldron was one of the first animated Disney films since Sleeping Beauty to have a widescreen aspect ratio. It was also the first animated film ever to have a PG rating due to it’s dark and violent nature. Unfortunately, the darkness and violence came with a price, the characters are decidingly one-sided and what humour is in the film just comes off as being annoying rather than funny. Seriously, Gurgi needed to toned down because his character really grated on my nerves. It made me not really feel the emotion that you are supposed to feel at the end of his personal storyline. The story is good, but it bears very little resemblance to the original source material, it never reaches the depth of the books and the story is incredibly over simplified. That being said, the story is still interesting, it just would have been better if they had more time to tell it.

One thing that the movie really has going for it is that the animation is fantastic. It had a budget of 25 million dollars and it really shows. The animation is fluid and expressive and Disney even tried out some CG animation to create the Baubles and the titular Black Cauldron. The CG looks very good as it’s used sparingly and actually used smartly. It’s the rotoscoped smoke and fire effects that don’t hold up nearly as well. Unfortunately for the Black Cauldron, it was not able to make back it’s obscenely large budget and the result was not a good one for the Studio during those dark times.

During the production of this film, some serious changes were going on at the Disney Studios. The studio never quite recovered from the death of Walt in 1966 and the death of Roy in 1971, Card Walker, Roy Miller, and Don Tatum were put in charge. Unfortunately for the trio, the studio didn’t have many successes under their reign. Throughout this period, EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland were opened and the Disney Channel was launched. These ventures kept Walt Disney Productions from going completely under, but that ended up not being the least of their problems.

Saul Steinberg, the CEO of Reliance Insurance Company, tried a hostile takeover of Walt Disney Productions in an attempt to sell off all of it’s assets and make a pretty penny off of the venture. The Studio was able to successfully fight off Steinberg through some White Knight investors and the studio lived to fight another day. Shortly after this attempt to kill it, the wounded company took in some new brains to lead it: Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. The dynamic duo eventually brought the Studio to financial success (only to ruin it again a few years later).

This movie had so much going for it. It was dark and forbidding, based off of a fantastic series of books, and was a fantasy. It had a great number of things that should have made me like it, but the static characters, the oversimplified story, and merely passable music made the Black Cauldron one of the weaker films in the Disney Canon. It did give us one of the most genuinely terrifying villains to come out of Disney, though.

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