Movie 25: The Black Cauldron

Long ago there was a legend of a great movie flop.  A flop that nearly crippled the great life force known as Sir Disney.  It was even defeated by a mangy set of daemons known as the Carebears. Could it rise up and conquer as the beautiful Princess Rachel trogged through it sore knee and all.

Well good friends let’s talk about the Black Cauldron…


First there is a lot to talk about with production on this one.  Black Cauldron was released in 1985 after a 9 month delay insisted upon by then Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg (later Disney traitor!).

Based very loosely on a series by Lloyd Alexander called The Chronicles of Prydain.  Alexander later said:

“First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book.
Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very
enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the
movie would certainly enjoy it, but I’d also hope that they’d actually read the book.
The book is quite different. It’s a very powerful, very moving story, and I think
people would find a lot more depth in the book.”

I actually think this is super cool of Alexander.  It must be hard as writer to see your work and passion changed by another source (especially one as big as Disney) and to still have warm things to say about it is very commendable.

The movie has a darker feel than previous Disney films or at least since the minion scenes in Sleeping Beauty but there was a certain string of animation at the time that liked such mythological dark stories.  Two I thought of were Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings animated movie (better than this and in 1978 so 7 years earlier) and Don Bluth studio’s Secret of Nimh.

Secret of Nimh even has a character with bone hands like the Horned King here.  Nimh is the better movie IMO but you can see  a similar trend in the movies and animation of the era.

black cauldron

That’s why it is maybe a bit surprising that so much ‘to do’ was made about the Black Cauldron being too dark and scary for kids.  Many similar looking films had been released within 7 years so why did this one cause such an uproar?

Black Cauldron was actually the first animated film to receive a PG rating, so that may have been part of the backlash; but also where people are able to take a bold artsy film from Bluth and Bakshi they expect lightness from Disney (although have these people seen On Bald Mountain or Pinocchio?)

Nevertheless, the movie had bad buzz before it’s release.  Evidently at one point Katzenburg actually tried to edit the movie himself to keep the violence down.  Michael Eisener, who Katzenberg would later use as inspiration for the design of Shrek, talked Katzenberg out of the editing room but he was still vocal about his distaste for the film.  (Such drama!) All of this bad vibes didn’t help the marketing by Disney and it was a huge failure at the box office.  The worst in all of Disney history.

In addition to being the most expensive animated film ever at the time, it was also was one of Hollywood’s top flops including live action:

“It’s right up there with Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate as the most expensive film (unadjusted) made at the time, costing $44 million to produce, it grossed only $21.3 million domestically”

Worthy of the Hate?

So is it worthy of such hate?  Yes and no.   The animation is stunning.  It looks full and rich with details rarely seen even today in a Disney film.

Fullscreen capture 982014 40345 AM

If we look at the shot above in the castle you can see how rich the backgrounds and animation is.  Every crack and crevice of that wall is textured and ridged.  The backdrops are also gorgeous, like a dark watercolor.


The other major standout of the movie is the score.  Written by the great Elmer Bernstein it is one of the most stirring scores I’ve ever heard.  And you’ll never guess who played the orchestrations?- The Utah Symphony! Right here at home recording for Disney!  It’s one I might consider purchasing because I loved it and I like to listen to scores while I am working sometimes.

Where the movie looses me BIG TIME is in the voice work.  With the exception of the Horned King (who has just standard villain voice by John Hurt), I thought all the voices were not only wrong but cringe inducing.

gurgiThe worst of all is Gurgi, a dog, who sounds like Donald Duck is on the journey.  It is Jar Jar Binks bad.  The voice of the Princess  Eilonwy by Susan Sheridan, while not as bad,  is high pitched and annoying and even the lead Taran by Grant Bardsley is awfully whiny.  They are all missteps.


I almost wish they could go in and record new voices like they do with the Miyazaki movies.  It is so distracting.

The Story-

The story is pretty long and convoluted but it works all right; although, it feels like  a poor man’s version of the kind of lore and legends of Secret of Nimh or Lord of the Rings.  A prophetic pig and a black cauldron just doesn’t have the same gravitas as the ring of power or the amulet in Secret of Nimh.

We start out with a pig-keeper Taren daydreaming about becoming a great warrior.


As it turns out the very pig Taren is helping has  special powers.  He can see into the future if he dips his head in water (strange super power but there you go) penwen

Next we meet the villain of the picture, the Horned King. The design on him is great but I’m not sure we get enough backstory of who he is or why he wants the cauldron.  As contrast, Sauron in Lord of the Rings has a detailed backstory of why he turned and why the ring had such power over him.

Still it’s a cool design and the one voice I liked by John Hurt.

horned king

The other problem with the story in The Black Cauldron is there is never a sense of real jeopardy for the characters. I’m not sure if it is the comic relief thrown in at odd times  but it never felt to me that they might not make it. In the Bakshi version and definitely in Secret of Nimh there is a real sense of peril for the characters.

The other difference is our character motivations.  Frodo and Mrs Brisby have selfless motivations.  Frodo wants to serve his friends and do what Gandalf asks.  Mrs Brisby wants to save her son.  Taran wants to be famous.  He wants to be a celebrated warrior in all the land, which just isn’t as gripping as more noble ambitions.

In fact, Taran looses Hen-wen, who he has sworn to protect very quickly because he is daydreaming about being a ‘famous warrior’.

Fullscreen capture 982014 95607 AMAs Taran journeys to the castle fairly uneventfully we meet Gurgi who I already said is so out of place in this kind of film.  The voice is just insufferable.

Anyway, Taran gets to the castle relatively easily. Again in Nimh and Bakshi there is way more peril at every step of the way, not just the climatic battle.  This makes you care about the journey and the characters much more and be invested in the battles.

One cool thing at the castle is there are layers to the sound (sound mixing I think?) which I had never heard in a Disney film.  You’d have a conversation going on in the forefront but could hear murmurings from the pub or guardsman in the background.  That is a very cool immersive touch I think they should do more often.

So Taran and the Horned King meet and long and short of it Taran ends up in the dungeon and Henwen escapes.  In the dungeon Taran meets a princess with the tough to pronounce name of Eilonwy.  I agree with Doug Walker’s review of the movie on youtube that there really is no good reason to make her a princess.  She doesn’t have any kingdoms we see, people looking for her or following her, or any of the other vestiges of royalty.  There’s no sense of loss  to her people shown if she isn’t freed from the Horned King.  I also think if she is a Princess than she wouldn’t be in the dungeon with all the other prisoners.  Think like Star Wars where Leia is used as a tool by Vader to try and get what he wants.  In fact, I’m not sure if we ever see the Horned King with Eilonwy? (There actually isn’t enough of the Horned King in general).


I found her voice by Susan Sheridan to also be incredibly annoying. Not as bad as Gurgi but still very bad.

But to Taran’s good luck Eilonwy is escaping just as he arrives in the dungeon and she allows him to accompany her.  They also meet a minstrel player named Fflewddur Fflam (doesn’t that name seem like something out of a Monty Python skit?)   He doesn’t add much to the story but he is fine voiced by Nigel Hawthorne.

Blackcauldron704Taran also gets a sword of power kind of given to him but why we aren’t really sure?  When Harry get’s Gryfindor’s sword he has been brave and it is a gift from Dumbledore. Here he kind of finds it which doesn’t quite make sense for this kind of story.  Later the 3 witches will trade anything even the black cauldron for the sword, so why would Taran just stumble upon it? And again, he is most excited about it at the start because it will make him famous…

magic-swordEventually the band gets free from the castle and there is some bonding time, romance time that really falls flat (Eilowynn has such a dopey laugh) but it’s fine I guess.  This middle section should be building peril and endearing us to the character but we don’t get that.

They stumble into a whirlpool that takes them to the world of fairies.  Considering Disney knows how to design fairies I don’t know what they were thinking with these.  They feel very Saturday morning animation style with the crabby faerie roped into helping the group on the quest.

fairies fairfolk I guess they are cute but why go the cute route?  I would have gone the mystical route like the faeries in Fantasia.

So fairly easily they are taken to the room with the black cauldron but it is guarded by 3 witches who are fun with the exception of one who falls instantly in love with Fflam.  Instant love?  Haven’t seen that before in a Disney movie…And in this case it does nothing for the story except to be funny and for her to have big Dolly Partonish breasts (a strange design choice for a fable action movie)..

the-black-cauldron-witchesThe witches make a deal with Taran to give them the black cauldron in return for his sword (which again he had just kind of stumbled upon).  He gives it to them but it turns out he can’t really use the cauldron.  It is only magical if someone jumps into it to their death, making the ultimate sacrifice.

I liked this idea of a Messianic feel to the cauldron.  Many of these stories have Messianic overtones (anointed one, called to sacrifice for good, fights the devil, etc).  That gives the story the kind of heft it sorely needs.

Eventually they end up back in the castle with the Horned King.  He is attempting to use the power of the cauldron to create an army of the undead, which is super cool looking.  I’m not sure how they did the design but they look like cellophane, layered on top of each other.



The Horned King is going to keep building his army if the black cauldron isn’t stopped.  Again, this animation is awesome!

horned kingSomeone must make the sacrifice into the black cauldron and in a very touching scene despite the annoying voice Gurgi takes the fall for his friends.

When he enters the cauldron it reverses the army of the dead and sucks the horned king into the cauldron in an awesome scene. I think it is one of Disney’s best villain deaths they’ve ever done.

With the Horned King gone the castle starts falling apart (not sure exactly why? Is his castle part of an evil spell or creation?) But the team escapes and meets the witches who try to give Taran the sword for the cauldron.  Taran doesn’t want the sword.  He just wants Gurghi back.

witches2It’s a fine scene but I don’t know if the narrative has really earned it?  I think it is good in Lord of the Rings for Gollum to make the ultimate sacrifice for the ring which has ruined his life.  Or in Harry Potter when Dobby sacrifices himself we have an emotional tie to the character.  I don’t know if I ever feel such a closeness between Taran and Gurghi or that he has really grown from wanting to be famous?

But it’s ok and Gurghi returns and our story is basically finished.


Movie Review/Conclusion-

So in the end is The Black Cauldron the horrible piece of junk some claim it to be?  No.  The animation alone takes it beyond the putrid level.  While not as beautifully animated as Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings or Bluth’s Secret of Nimh, it still has stunning moments of visual artistry.

It doesn’t have the heart or the story which Bakshi and Nimh have either and the voice performances are almost all terrible.  However, I think if they recorded new voices like they do with Studio Ghibli movies and rereleased The Black Cauldron might be a pretty big hit nowdays with kids sensibilities being more comfortable with darker stories.

The score by Elmer Bernstein is tremendous.  Every scene it immerses you in the story in a way the story itself doesn’t actually do.  It’s sweeping and then soft and magical at the same time.  I loved it.

The characters motivations and the gravitas behind the prophetic pig and the cauldron just don’t have the weight of similar stories and movies.  I know we are supposed to see Taran grow and learn that being famous isn’t everything but I needed another layer of motivation for him to go on this quest and make choices.

The other side characters are fine once you take away the voices.  Princess Eilonwy doesn’t need to be a princess.  In fact, I think her character might be more interesting and layered if she was a normal girl caught up in the magic like Taran.

I really liked the villain. I wish more had been done with him, explaining his backstory or why he wants the power of the cauldron  but his design is very cool (and the only voice I didn’t want to punch in the throat).

So The Black Cauldron has its big flaws.  Evidently Disney kind of dropped the ball on the marketing too so I can see why it wasn’t a big success but I’d take it any day over a mean spirited entry like The Rescuers. I know we have the undead and a Horned King but I still thought it was a more enjoyable and less cruel story than Medusa abducting Penny…

If you like this kind of adventure story and have seen Secret of Nimh and Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings than give this a watch.  You won’t have a miserable time at the movies.  As far as entertainment for kids it is pretty dark but then again kids like pretty dark in Lord of the Rings (Jackson version) and Harry Potter and even How to Train Your Dragon.  So it just depends on the kid.  If I was making a rule I’d say 10 and up.

It would be more terrifying if there was a real sense of peril for the characters like in Harry Potter or even the bear scene in Fox and the Hound.  That to me is much scarier for kids because it comes out of nowhere and it feels like our heroes could actually lose.  As much as I liked the Horned King I never felt like he was going to win.

There is some nice messaging about friendship, sacrifice and not seeking fame that would be great for kids.  So depending on the kid give it a watch.

Overall Grade- C  Voices- F

What do you guys think of The Black Cauldron?