Forgotten Classics: Disney’s The Black Cauldron

Posted on November 1, 2010 by

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This is one of those Disney movies, like The Great Mouse Detective, (which i’ll get around to eventually) that’s not based on a fairy tale, or an original idea. It’s based on a fairly modern book series. As the above was based on the Basil of Baker Street books, The Black Cauldron is based on Lloyd Alexanders Chronicles of Prydain books, from which, I’m sad to say, it suffers some noticeable adaption decay. But we’re not here to judge it’s quality based on the books, we’re here to judge it’s quality as a film in general. Disney’s 25th animated feature, made 25 years ago, (conviniently), let’s look at the red-headed stepchild of the Disney animated canon- The Black Cauldron.

Well, the first thing you’ll notice is that this film is dark. Seriously dark. It’s not quite Watership Down, but it was the first Disney film to get a PG rating, (it nearly got an R rating, but several scenes were cut to lower the rating) and it had no songs whatsoever, and while the last few Disney movies we’ve looked at didn’t either, they were made twenty years later. This came during something of a black spot for Disney’s animation studio, a period where they were making their less popular films, like The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Co, it came after more famous films like Robin Hood and the Aristocats, but before Disney’s re-vitalisation with The Little Mermaid.

It’s got a very Lord of The Rings‘y vibe to it. Basically, the plot is thus- Taran (Our hero) is assistant pig keeper to the enchanter Dallben. Taran dreams of one day becoming a mighty warrior and doing valiant deeds, thwarting tyrants, slaying dragons and so on. The pig he keeps, Hen Wen, is revealed to have magical powers that can show people visions of stuff, and the pig is kidnapped by the nefarious Horned King (John Hurt, because the character design alone wasn’t creepy enough, they gave him that guys voice) who wants to use the pig to show him the location of the mythical Black Cauldron, A honking great Macguffin that will, in his hands, be used to create a massive, invincible army of the undead, because, as we can all agree, an Army of Darkness would be Groovy.

Taran must rescue his pig, and then, with a rag-tag band of friends including sort-of love interest Princess Eilonwy, Comic relief bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the Jar Jar, a little talking dog-thing called Gurgi (Who is so Gollum-like that one wonders if the Tolkien estate ever considered suing for copyright infringement) race against the Horned King to get to the Cauldron before he can use it to summon an army of the Cauldron Born.

As I said earlier, this movie is seriously dark compared to the normal Disney stuff you might have seen. As far their animated canon goes, this easily ranks as one of the darkest, most mature features they’ve done since The Night of Bald Mountain bit at the end of Fantasia, and while modern films are now dealing with grown-up things like miscarriage (UP), you’ve got to bare in mind this movie came 25 years ago, during a time when Disney was provisionally light and fluffy and had the same ten voice actors in every flick. It also marked the last time they brought out the multi-pane filming technology, now redundant in a world with CGI and the hugely impressive Deep Canvas technique, although this was also the first Disney film to include Computer Generated Imagery (something fans erroneously credit The Great Mouse Detective with).

A financial flop, one wonders what might have happened had Disney been braver, and made a full on adult-oriented animated feature (Akira proved it could be done three years later in 1988) we might have had a true classic on our hands, something that would take Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoon and crushed it into the dirt, instead we got a0 still, admittedly, very mature and dark- action fantasy. Once again I did some digging and found, much to my surprise, although by now it shouldn’t be so surprising anymore, that the legendary film critic Roger Ebert praised the film hugely. We seem to keep agreeing on stuff, weird.

So, if you see if, grab it. I totally recommend it. This is a movie absolutely worth your time, if not just to convince the haters once and for all that Disney isn’t just for kids. While it has some flaws, like dodgy accents and slightly wooden acting, this will always be a favourite of mine.

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