Devil’s Advocate: The Black Cauldron

“Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain, there was once a king so cruel and so evil, that even the Gods feared him. Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron. There his demonic spirit was captured in the form of a great, black cauldron. For uncounted centuries, the black cauldron lay hidden, waiting, while evil men searched for it, knowing whoever possessed it would have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors… and with them, rule the world.”

As opening narrations go, it’s a fairly dark one. A man thrown into molten iron while still alive, bringing forth an army of the undead… these are not light-hearted concepts. One could easily be forgiven for thinking this was the opening to a particularly dark fantasy story for adults. As it happens, though, it’s the 25th film in the Disney Animated Canon, The Black Cauldron. Based on the first two novels of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, this 1985 animated feature stands apart from other Disney films in several ways. Perhaps most particularly, it was a financial failure, making only $21 million in the box office on a $25 million budget. Even more unusually, it hasn’t been vindicated by history the way Fantasia and Pinocchio were. While those are accounted as masterpieces today, The Black Cauldron‘s following is more on the lines of a cult classic.

And yet this black sheep of the Disney family has considerable merit to being more than just a cult favorite.

“So much, so soon, to rest upon his young shoulders!”

In order to understand why The Black Cauldron became the black sheep of Disney’s animated filmography, it’s important to look at its genesis. A significant part of its rough reception can probably be blamed on its rough path to creation. The Walt Disney Company first optioned the rights to Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain in 1971, shortly after they had released The Aristocats. This period of Disney animation is often derogatorily called the “Dark Age of Disney”, referring to cheaper production values and a lower sense of grandeur. It’s worth noting, however, that of the only three sequels among the films Disney refers to as the “Disney animated classics” — The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000 and Winnie the Pooh — two are sequels to films from this era, and the other is a non-narrative film. It’s questionable that the term “Dark Age of Disney” is ever appropriate, given that most of the films are still quite beloved.

“Look, you are somebody! You must believe in yourself!”

It was believed at Disney that The Chronicles of Prydain had the potential to be a great animated fantasy epic — as big for its time as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was for the 1930s. But Ron Miller, then studio chief, had concerns about the scope of the project, and whether his animators would be able to pull it off, especially with the young team he had at the time. Over the years, he kept pushing production of the project back, putting it on the back burners. Don Bluth, who had particularly wanted to make the film, eventually quit in frustration, taking 13 other animators with him to form his own studio in 1979. A few years later, news surfaced of Bluth’s first project — The Secret of NIMH, an animated feature with darker overtones than was typical of animated fare at the time. The competition rekindled interest in The Chronicles of Prydain. There was a sense at Disney that they needed to do some rebranding; they were gradually losing audiences, particularly the teen crowd, with their animated features. Taking parts of the first two novels, producer Joe Hale created a plot outline for The Black Cauldron, the first animated Disney film specifically intended for the teenaged crowd.

“I’m not a little boy anymore. I should be doing heroic deeds for Prydain!”

Interestingly, despite teenagers being the intended audience, the main characters are both on the younger end of the teenaged scale, rather than the older. Taran and Princess Eilonwy (voiced by Grant Bardsley and Susan Sheridan) both appear to be around 13 years old, give or take a bit. But if the protagonists are a bit on the young side, the rest of the film has a distinct “not for small children” vibe to it (save, perhaps, for the occasional antics from Gurgi and Creeper). Where most Disney animation is bright and colorful, The Black Cauldron is dark and colorful. Aside from a few pastoral scenes the film is awash in dark reds and purples and midnight blues. Yet although it is dark, it is every bit as rich an environment as any other. It’s merely that the color palette is meant to reinforce the feeling of fear and suspense; where Snow White had its forest of terror amidst a mostly bright film, The Black Cauldron has a brief bright spot near the beginning amidst a mostly dark film.

“If Great Lord go into evil castle, poor Gurgi will never see his friend again! Nope! Never.”

It should also be noted, when discussing the animation of this film, that it is the first Disney animated feature to use computer-aided animation. Magical effects such as Eilonwy’s bauble and the cauldron were created using computers. It was also the first since Sleeping Beauty to be shot in 70mm widescreen. It was also among the first to be released in Dolby surround sound. No expense was spared while making the film; at $25 million, it was one of the most expensive animated features ever made at the time.

The villain of the piece is the Horned King, who was conceived as being a villain who would be as memorable as Maleficent. Though arguably a minor villain in the books, he was made the central figure of the film. With a skeletal face and a sorcerer’s wardrobe, and the voice of John Hurt, he easily makes an impression. There’s no tragic backstory presented to give the audience a glimmer of sympathy for him, no explanation of his desire for conquest. He isn’t greedy, doesn’t crack jokes, never tries to present himself as a false ally to trick the heroes. He is purely and simply evil. The Horned King is presented as a nigh-unstoppable force; though we don’t get to see much of his actions of war (an introductory scene of his followers razing a village was cut during planning), all of the heroic characters save young and idealistic Taran believe him to be impossible to defeat. It’s arguably true; during the film, no character ever succeeds in facing him in direct conflict. He is undone only by the undoing of the Cauldron itself.

“Untried courage is no match for his evil.”

The Cauldron-born, the army of the undead raised by the power of the Black Cauldron, are also impressive. Many different designs were discussed among the animation team, some of which were used, and others were not. Some of the rejected designs came from young animator Tim Burton, who would recycle and adapt the designs for The Nightmare Before Christmas. The designs which remain are still the stuff of nightmares, skeletal figures that march relentlessly, immune to all opposition.

“Arise my messengers of death! Our hour has arrived!”

There is still a fair amount of levity in the film. The Horned King’s henchman Creeper — invented for the film and voiced by Phil Fondacaro — provides a lightening of the darkness of those scenes. Traveling minstrel Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) is part mediator, part comic relief. And certainly Gurgi — whose final design made him short of stature, furry, and voiced humorously by John Byner — has a definite comic appeal to him. But despite being the “kid appeal” character, Gurgi is arguably the most tragic figure in the film. He starts off alone, an outcast, and lacks confidence and feelings of self-worth for most of the film. Of all the characters, he’s the one who shows the most character growth, discovering a degree of courage as time goes on… all while still remaining a lovable scamp underneath it all.

“Munchings and crunchings in here somewhere…”

But comic moments don’t make for a film that’s any less dark. That it’s a film without any songs — a rarity for a Disney animated feature — further adds to the sense of darkness. Between the dark and supernatural themes, the appearances of the Horned King and the Cauldron-born, and the overall tone of the picture, The Black Cauldron was the first animated film by Disney to receive a PG rating. It nearly received a PG-13 rating. Several scenes involving the Cauldron-born were considered too gruesome, and were eventually cut. The cuts became a point of contention between producer Joe Hale and the new regime at Disney. While The Black Cauldron was in production, Ron Miller was ousted from Disney, replaced by Michael Eisner. His studio chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, hated the film. He wanted even more cuts than were made, and made several himself against Hale’s protests, and suggested new scenes be created to replace them. Hale had to explain that traditional animation wasn’t done that way; there is no such thing as an outtake when everything is planned from the beginning. Even then, it took direct intervention from Michael Eisner to get Katzenberg to stop cutting, and Katzenberg insisted on redoing animation sequences, delaying the film seven more months.

“Poor miserable Gurgi deserves fierce smackings and whackings on his poor tender head!”

Eisner and Katzenberg were executing an overhaul of the way Disney did business. The internal turmoil led to power struggles on the film, and turnover in the ranks. One of the animators, John Lasseter, left during production and eventually formed his own company, Pixar. Eisner and Katzenberg were considering scrapping the entire animation department, ending an era begun by Walt Disney himself, and focusing entirely on live films. Despite the power struggles between Hale and Katzenberg, Hale apparently succeeded in convincing Katzenberg of animation’s importance to the company… but Katzenberg still did not approve of the approach. He ushered in a new technique, based on screenplays rather than storyboards, more in line with the live-action films he had been involved in. This technique would be used for future classics The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and more. In a way, the production issues on The Black Cauldron created much of the landscape of western animation thereafter — Disney’s Renaissance, Pixar, Don Bluth studios, and even Tim Burton’s work can all be traced back to this film. Far from being the film that almost killed Disney, it’s the film that recreated it, if only through forcing everybody to reexamine what they were doing.

“I’m not a warrior. I’m a pig-boy. What can I do with a sword?”

Of course, changes from turmoil make the film historically important, but they don’t make it a good film… but nor do they make it a bad one. That turmoil can, however, have a profoundly negative impact on its reception, which is what happened with The Black Cauldron upon its release in 1985. The film was under-promoted, and also mis-marketed. It was the first Disney animated feature to receive a PG rating, and it had been created with the intent to attract teenagers — but the marketing did not reflect that, as the Disney-for-teenagers plan was abandoned, and attempted to lure in the usual Disney audience instead. Small children were often frightened by the dark film, and parents of small children were upset by the film. During test screenings, parents with small children left the theatre in droves. Critical reception was mixed, with some critics criticizing it for being too dark for children, and others praising its ambition and dark tone. Roger Ebert gave it 3½ stars out of 4, declaring it a return to form for Disney. But the attempt to market the film towards the young audience it wasn’t created for resulted in the film flopping at the box office, earning only $21 million — a loss of $4 million. Its intended teenaged audience didn’t show up, because they didn’t know they were supposed to. The marketing-target audience didn’t show up because they quickly learned it wasn’t actually geared to them.

“What a bunch of blundering misfits! Things never work out when you’re dealing with people!”

The failure at the box office has led to a recursive effect on the film’s popularity. It was mis-marketed, so it failed. So Disney has shied away from marketing it heavily since. Which has led to it remaining obscure, and being perceived as inferior. Which further leads Disney to continue quietly ignoring its existence — and ignoring the lesson of Fantasia‘s thirty-year-delayed success. While it’s good business not to throw good money after bad, there’s also something to be said for the theory that you can’t succeed if you don’t try. And Disney has spent a long time not trying to turn The Black Cauldron into a success. Disney TV specials featuring highlights from their movies seldom featured The Black Cauldron — by way of example, DTV Monster Hits featured about 2 seconds of animation from it, and it was a Halloween special dedicated specifically to the scary side of Disney. The film was never re-released into theatres, and it had a long absence from home video. When The Little Mermaid proved to be a major hit, it was rushed onto VHS, at the expense of the film that Disney had been planning to release at the time — the unsuccessful The Black Cauldron. It would not see a release on VHS until 1998, when the format was on its last legs. A DVD followed two years later, though it was neither remastered nor anamorphic widescreen (it would finally receive the remastering for the 25th anniversary edition in 2010).

“My phantom warriors have come to life! All dead from centuries past! Never has anyone created an army like this! Go forth my deathless warriors! Destroy all in your path!”

The film is similarly ignored in other forms of marketing. It only had one attraction at Walt Disney World, an eatery called “Gurgi’s Munchings and Crunchings”, which was revamped to a Beauty and the Beast theme in 1993. Only Tokyo Disneyland still has any references to the film; no trace of it remains in the USA parks. Even Song of the South is better represented. When it comes to merchandise, it’s fairly scarce. There were Gurgi and Hen-Wen plush toys when the film came out, but they sat on the shelves due to the marketing mismatch. For a long time, that was it; Disney has, however, put out a few more items in recent years, in conjunction with the 25th anniversary DVD, but Gurgi is still nowhere near as likely to be seen in a Disney store as Timon or Mushu.

“Taran has many friends. Gurgi has no friends.”

It extends to the other characters as well, of course. Taran isn’t hailed as one of Disney’s major heroes, Fflewddur doesn’t get any shout-outs, and probably wouldn’t even if his name were easier to spell. Princess Eilonwy isn’t even acknowledged as part of Disney’s Princess line. Mulan is included, and she’s not even a princess. (Note: I realize that as a grown man, this is a subject not particularly germane to my interests, but I recognize the injustice.) It arguably sends the wrong message to girls when a line so strongly directed at them leaves out the first proactive princess in the lines, a character who not only isn’t a damsel in distress but effects her own escape from prison and rescues a boy and a grown man in the process.

“If it weren’t for this girl you would still be in the Horned King’s dungeon!”

The lack of attention is all because the film flopped, of course. But did it deserve to? Not at all. It’s not a bad film, by any stretch. Certainly its characterization, while not especially deep on all characters, is no thinner than any of the Disney classics. Its animation is dark, but beautiful. The plot is exciting and fast-paced; admittedly it’s simplified considerably from the novels, but they themselves are derived from the Welsh Mabinogion. Criticizing a derivation of a derivation for changes would seem a little petty (and it is, after all, far from the only Disney film to deviate from its source material).

“Gurgi not lie. Not this time.”

Ultimately, I feel that the film may simply have been a victim of its marketing, and public perception. It was quite possibly just ahead of its time. As the first PG animated feature from Disney, people may not have known what to expect. It would remain the only PG film in the canon until 2000, with the release of Dinosaur… after which the stigma of the rating was completely removed. Of the last 14 films released as part of the “Disney animated canon”, eight have been rated PG — including the newest one, Wreck-It Ralph. There is no longer a concern with releasing a PG animated film, and animated films with a darker tone have become more accepted as well. Both How to Train Your Dragon and Brave received a PG rating for frightening imagery and themes, and both were box-office and critical successes. If The Black Cauldron had been released today instead of 1985, it would have been praised for its dark themes instead of criticized for them.

“You’re charming!” “And pungent too!”

It’s one of the sad facts of the movie business today that there are no second chances, and a poor marketing job can doom a film to permanent obscurity. Films seldom get reissued to theatres any more, and never get a big secondary marketing push if the first one doesn’t take. If Fantasia had been released in the mid-80s or later, it would not have received its multiple re-releases that eventually led to its success. It would still be considered a failure instead of the masterpiece it is now acknowledged as. And The Black Cauldron, being in that position, is viewed as a failure when it may never have really had a genuine chance to succeed.

But it really is a highly entertaining film, and beautifully done. And it’s quite memorable. I saw it during its theatrical release; I was six years old at the time, and yes, it did give me nightmares (the last film I remember doing so.) But I loved it. And I wanted to see it again for years afterward, and of course was unable to due to the lack of a video release. When I finally got to see it again, as an adult, I was not disappointed; it lived up to my childhood memories and satisfied my more critical adult eye as well. It’s one of my favorite films of the Disney stable, and if it’s not one of yours… consider giving it another chance. It may just surprise you.

“The world will applaud me. Its praise will reward me.
And I, Fflewddur Fflam, will find fame!”

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About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
This entry was posted in Favorite Films, Halloween Haunters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Devil’s Advocate: The Black Cauldron

  1. Pingback: Halloween Haunters 2012 Roundup | Morgan on Media

  2. I’m a big fan of the Chronicles of Prydain, but I never really gave this movie a shot because of all the bad buzz around it. Now I’ll need to check it out.

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