A Study in Disney: ‘The Black Cauldron’ (1985)

| December 31, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

The Black Cauldron (1985) directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich • Reviews,  film + cast • Letterboxd

Something is missing here. 

On the first go-around, it was difficult to figure out what exactly was missing from The Black Cauldron but there is an element that seems oddly absent.  It certainly isn’t the material, that seems like prime fodder for a Disney feature – it takes place in a magical land; there’s a boy with the potential to be a warrior; there’s a beautiful princess; there’s a fearsome villain who wants to take over the world; there’s magic, cute sidekicks, adventure, danger, defeat, victory.   It is all here; it is all in place and yet . . . something is missing.

In order to figure out what is missing, it helps to understand where the movie stands within the Disney canon and also where it came from.  The Black Cauldron is a curious failure.  This was suppose to be the movie that would put Disney’s faltering animation department in turnaround but ultimately it represents the darkest creative period in its history.  Since the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio had been in a state of frustrating transition, trying to find itself an identity without it is titular leader – Walt’s brother Roy died in 1971 and his only son Roy Jr. was a senior executive privately known around the office as “The Idiot Nephew.”

Times were tough and so was the reality of time itself.  Disney’s legendary Nine Old Men – at this point in their 60s and 70s – were either retiring or heading off to that great drawing board beyond.  With that in mind, the studio had put together an apprenticeship program in association with Cal Arts to train a new crop of eager animators who desired to return the studio’s animation to the glory of Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi.  That led to conflict between older production staff and the younger animators.  When, in 1979, Don Bluth and 25 animators resigned “In the name of Walt Disney” there was a sense of chaos left in its wake.  The release date of The Fox and the Hound was delayed by six months

The transition was not without problems.  There were creative disagreements between the older animators, the younger animators and the executive staff headed by Disney CEO Ron Miller (Walt’s son-in-law), that led to a near-disastrous split in the late 70s.  The disillusionment of a good number of Disney’s animators led to a mass exodus on September 12, 1979 led by Don Bluth who took 11 animators with him to start his own company.  In a short time, 25% of Disney’s animators would resign in protest and would cause such a blowback that it would stall the release of The Fox and the Hound by six months.  Out of this, Disney’s animation department had to find a way to press on and one way to do that was to make a film that would get the animation department out of its slump.

After 14 years wallowing in Development Hell and a $44 million-dollar budget (the most expensive animated movie ever made) The Black Cauldron was released into U.S. theaters on July 24th, 1985.  It opened at #4 behind European Vacation, Back to the Future and the re-release of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  Domestically, it barely made half of its budget back and financially was beaten out at the end of the year by, of all things, The Care Bears Movie.

Moviegoers and critics were not kind to the movie, but a minor reassessment over the years has brought up the question of whether The Black Cauldron was an unqualified disaster or a maligned masterpiece.  To put it bluntly – no it is not a maligned masterpiece.  The movie begins on a flat note and never seems to achieve take-off speed.  There are characters and plot developments that are half written, and half explained.  The Horned King is an interesting villain who wants to raise an army of the dead, but from where does he draw his power?  What is his back story?  How has he been installed as the ruler of Prydain?  Did he overthrow someone?  How does he plan to conquer the world with reanimated skeletons?  Are they stronger than mortal man?  Are they immortal?

Plus, who is Princess Eilonwy?  How is she a princess?  Is she part of a royal family?  If so, what happened to her family?  Did The Horned King usurp the throne from them?  Was the princess excised from her kingdom?  The movie addresses none of this.

The characters barely exist at all.  The hero is Taran, a pig-tender who becomes a warrior, but he’s so empty as a character that he comes off as just a talkative bore.  The cute sidekick Gurgi is annoying and childish – he is changed from selfish to self-sacrificing only because the plot – Spoiler Alert – needs someone to die.  The henchman sidekick Creeper is a jabbering irritant – a little of him goes a long way.  The style and purpose of this character would be reworked much better as Fidget in The Great Mouse Detective

Then there’s the film’s score.  Even in Disney’s least films, the music has always been at the top of the line, but here under the direction of the legendary Elmer Bernstein, there’s something a bit recycled about the music, not from other Disney movies but from the film that Bernstein scored a year before, the comedy hit Ghostbusters.   No kidding, there are musical cues in this film that sound like they are pulled directly out of that film.

The quality of its visual textures waffles back and forth – at best you can see scenes that are a leap forward in the new integration of computer animated effects such as the scenes involving the cauldron itself raising the army of the dead.  At worst, the animation comes off like a cheap computer game.  There are a long series of scenes in the back half of the movie involving faeries that look like a bad kid’s cereal commercial.  This whole movie feels like the work of a lesser studio, not Disney with $44 million dollars to spend.

So yes, there is something missing here.  Something fundamental.  There should be a moment when the spirit of the adventure grabs hold of you and carries you along, like the opening scene of Star Wars when Princess Leia’s tiny runaway ship is overtaken and she is kidnapped by the fearsome Galactic Empire.  But this movie never achieves a moment like that.  The elements are in place, but somehow it never leaves the ground.  This movie feels like a monorail instead of a roller coaster.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.