- Movie Rating -

The Black Cauldron (1985)

| July 24, 1985

Something is missing here. 

On the first go-around, it is difficult to figure out what exactly is 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’s all here, it’s all in place and yet . . . something is missing.

In order to identify the missing component to The Black Cauldron it helps to know where the movie came from.  Its production history was long in gestation with far too many conflicting hands pulling it in different directions.  It was supposed to put the faltering animation department in turnaround but ultimately it represents the darkest creative and financial pit from which the Disney Studio would have to crawl if it ever hoped to survive.  Since the death of Walt Disney in 1966, Disney had been in a state of constant transition, trying to find itself an identity without it’s titular leader – Walt’s brother Roy died in 1971 and Roy’s son Roy Jr. was a senior executive but had a reputation 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 The California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) to train a new crop of eager animators who desired to return the studio’s animation to the kinds of films that had made Walt Disney famous.

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 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.

Since Disney’s death, the animated films produced by the studio had been reasonably successful but were artistically a step backward.  The studio which had produced Snow White and Bambi and Sleeping Beauty had, in recent years, been producing successful but undistinguishable nuggets like The AristoCats and Robin Hood and The Fox and the Hound.  A new, and far more cynical post-Vietnam America had largely abandoned the institution of family entertainment in favor of roller coasters like Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Plus, it probably didn’t help that by the time the 80s rolled around animation had been taken over by corporations.  The most popular cartoons on television were a product of the change in regulation laws in the Reagan administration which would change the landscape of children’s television; now rather than a hit TV show spawning a line of toys, a line of toys could spawn a hit TV show.  That’s why the most popular kids shows in the early 80s were “He-Man and The Masters of the Universe”, “The Transformers”, “G.I. Joe” and “Thundercats.”  Burdened with these issues, it was important that Disney not only redefine its image but also usher in a new era of animation that would return it to the kinds of films that Walt had produced in his lifetime.  The film that was to bring about this new era was a shelved idea that had been sitting around for at least a decade.

In the early 70s, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson suggested the idea of adapting Lloyd Alexander’s five-novel series “The Chronicles of Prydain” into a single feature, claiming that if it worked, it could be just what the studio needed to revitalize its faltering animation department.  They even went so far as to make the claim that if the project worked, it could be as great a Snow White.

The stories took place in the mythical land of Prydain and were structured much like Tokien’s “Lord of the Rings” series only with a much more youth-oriented feel.  The action centered on the maturation of the protagonist Taran, a pig-keeper who dreams of something better for himself.  He is flanked by his companions Princess Eilonwy, a bard named Fflewddur Fflam and various sidekicks including a tiny beast named Gurgi.  The adversary is Arawn, a dark lord who rules the land of the dead.

The production of The Black Cauldron would be long in gestation; the studio optioned the books in 1971 and production began in 1973.  Over the years, the prospect of reigniting Disney’s animation department and returning it to the kinds of films that made Walt and the Nine Old Men legends was catnip for new, young and eager animators.  But right out of the gate this film seemed burdened with problems and creative differences.  Although production had begun in 1973, the difficulty of scaling down the five books’ many storylines and massive glut of characters weighed down the progress of the script writing and ultimately the release date of 1980 was set.  One of the first problems was a disagreement over inexperience of the new animators.  Veteran animator Mel Shaw drew up the concept art for the film, but Ron Miller wasn’t confident that the young animators could handle the job.  On this – and because of internal issues dealing with the production of The Fox and the Hound -the film’s release got pushed back to 1984.

Another problem was in agreeing on the direction that the story should take.  Almost immediately the concepts of the young animators were thrown out and replaced by the older, more experienced artists.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ron Clements (who would go on to direct The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) had been hired as animation director, but when his ideas were thought to be too jokey he was replaced by four older animation directors, Richard Rich, Art Stevens, Ted Berman and Dave Michener; but this caused concern with Miller over the direction of the story so he brought in Joe Hale as the layout artist. 

Twenty-three-year-old Tim Burton was replaced after he came up with some unusual and strikingly different character designs.  Hale instead brought veteran Milt Kahl out of retirement to come up with some more cohesive concepts even though Kahl admitted that he wasn’t a creator but more of an artist who knew how to refine existing work.

By the time the studio began gearing up its advertising on The Black Cauldron things in the Disney Company were beginning to change.  Its stock was dropping, EPCOT was becoming a financial burden and Disney was having better luck with live-action films that were outside of the kiddie market.  In February of 1984 Ron Miller founded Touchstone, a distribution label that would be charged with more adult-oriented PG-rated films whose content wouldn’t hurt the Disney brand – its first hit was Splash, which netted $69 million domestically.  While the other portions of the company were improving, the animation department still needed help.  Things were about to change both for the company and for the movie.

The revolving and rotating of the staff working on The Black Cauldron certainly had a long-term effect on the outcome of the story.  Writers were brought in and let go, most notably British television writer Rosemary Anne Sisson who was brought in to give the film a British feel but was let go when that idea was abandoned.  John Musker and Ron Clements left the project because of creative differences.  With that, the film took on a much darker tone that was upsetting to Disney’s new regime who had been brought in to head the film department when Ron Miller resigned in September of 1984.  The company’s new chairman was former Paramount President Michael Eisner who brought in Jeffery Katzenberg to run film production.  Neither had any background in animation.

Katzenberg’s influence would first fall on the problems facing The Black Cauldron.  Just before the film’s release, the studio ran a test screening in Burbank that revealed a major issue, namely that Disney’s first PG-rated animated film was too scary for young children, especially during the “Cauldron Born” sequence which caused many parents to remove their children from the theater before the screening was finished.  At this, Katzenberg ordered that the scarier scenes in the movie be cut out.  The animators reasoned that in this medium, films were not cut down at the storyboard level, not after the ink and paint has been applied largely because animation cost a lot of money and throwing away finished work was throwing money on the fire.  Katzenberg didn’t see the issue and decided to take the film to an editing bay himself but was stopped by a call from Eisner.  As a compromise, Katzenberg ordered the film to be modified instead which delayed the film’s release from Christmas of 1984 until Summer of 1985.

The result was a film that was 12-minutes shorter, removing some of the exposition scenes of the Fairfolk fairies, and chunks of the “Cauldron Born” sequence, which removed scenes of throat slashing, torso slashing and at least one Raiders of the Lost Ark-style scene in which one The Horned King’s henchman has his flesh melted off of his bones by the power of the cauldron.  This caused gaps in the animation and movement of some of the characters and noticeable gaps in the soundtrack as well.

Finally, 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 had brought up the question of whether this an unqualified disaster or a maligned masterpiece.  To put it nicely, no it’s 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 and 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 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 is 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.  Watching the film, you wait for the adventure to begin, but then the cold-water reality washes over you that 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.
(1985) View IMDB Filed in: Animated