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The Black Cauldron: The Less than Wonderful World of Disney?

The Black Cauldron was meant to be a leap into more mature, Tolkein-like material. Instead, it was a stumbling block that would see some good (The Great Mouse Detective) and a lot of bad (Oliver and Company) before a certain little mermaid would rescue its credibility.

The Black Cauldron

Rated: PG
Director: Ted Berman, Richard Rich
Cast: Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, John Hurt, John Byner
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 1985
Distributor: Walt Disney Home Video
Release Date: 2010-09-14

We will never get to see the "real" Black Cauldron. We will never get the opportunity to witness what the House of Mouse hoped was a "new chapter" in the company's animation legacy. As a property, it had been in development for over 12 years, and it actually took five to make. Along the way, minor characters were amplified, narrative lines were reworked, and the overall tone was taken into dark, disturbing areas. Then along came new company suit Jeffrey Katzenberg. Horrified by what he saw and certain that the film would earn an R from the MPAA, he demanded massive cuts. Entire scenes were tossed, elements rewritten, and the atmosphere was "lightened" so that a PG-13 could hopefully be achieved. The actual rating was in fact one step lower.

So we will never truly see the real Black Cauldron, a fact that fans of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles novels know all too well. In many ways, this was a movie Disney couldn't make. In fact, it was a risk it couldn't really take. Since the mid '70s, the studio has been struggling with all its film output - live action and pen and ink. While efforts like The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound were hits, the company was seen as lost in the rise of technology and audience taste. The Black Cauldron was meant to be a leap into more mature, Tolkein-like material. Instead, it was a stumbling block that would see some good (The Great Mouse Detective) and a lot of bad (Oliver and Company) before a certain little mermaid would rescue its credibility.

Honestly, The Black Cauldron is not a bad film. It's just a mishmash of half completed ideas and old school Disney smarm. It's overly edited, disconnected thematically and narratively and riddled with enough inconsistencies to make even the most attentive child feel totally left behind. Katzenberg may have thought he was saving the film (or cutting his loses, more than likely) but the odd juxtaposition of typical Uncle Walt cutesy and decidedly horrific material is a real struggle. At one moment we are with young pig keeper Taran and his quest to keep enchanted sow Hen Wen out of harm's way. The next, we are wondering how the malevolent Horned King keeps any assistants, considering his desire to simultaneously demean and/or destroy them.

The story is your typical quest - Hen Wen knows the location of the mythic title object, a vat that can be used to call up the dead. With such an invincible army, the owner would be all powerful. Naturally, the wicked Horned King wants it to rule the world. So Taran is told to take his oracular pig to a safe place far away. Naturally, his tendency towards daydreaming undermines his task and he must rescue said animal from the demonic despot's evil lair. Along the way, he picks up Princess Eilowny, who herself has a magical babble, the nervous troubadour Fflewddur Fflam, and a strange bear like animal that calls himself Gurgi. With the help of this companions and a race of elves known as the Fairfolk, Taran will take on the Horned King before he has a chance to unleash the forces of darkness.

So, where, exactly, does The Black Cauldron go wrong? What or who flummoxes the film so badly that it is at times a chore to endure? Well, it's not the band of animators in charge of bringing our chief villain to life. Though his troll type sidekick can be a bit much to take, and his mush-mouthed manpower look like castoffs from some kind of Ralph Bakshi proto-porn, the terrifying effigy itself is like Satan recast as the Grim Reaper. This is one frightening character, brought to breathy life by British actor John Hurt, and the combination of voice work and look is unnerving. Whenever the Horned King is onscreen, The Black Cauldron comes to life. Whenever he's not, things get a tad uneven.

For example, Taran is a terrible hero - weak-willed, whiny, and worthless in a crisis. Similarly, Eilowny manages to master the crew's escape from a castle dungeon, and yet once outside, she is equally simpering and silly. To say a little of Fflewddur goes a long way is an understatement. Instead, we shudder whenever he offers up his obligator "Great Belin!" scream. Oddly enough, it's the saccharine facets - the fairy like Fairfolk and the rambunctious Gurgi - that win us over. Though comedian John Byner truly tests our patience with his half-Donald Duck, half-burlesque characterization, the flibbertigibbet fuzzball is very appealing in what he does. Elsewhere, the undersized sprites are a nice counterpoint to the often unglued humans they must work with.

The biggest issue with The Black Cauldron, however, is its lack of a full narrative arc. The story here plays like one massive middle act lacking an interesting beginning or a wholly satisfying end. We are immediately thrust into Taran's tale, see Hen Wen disappear within 15 minutes, and spend far too much time trying to traverse the rotting parapets of the Horned King's castle. There's also an overlong sequence involving three witches that's meanders more than really meaning anything. You can tell that things were tampered with. Huge chunks seem to be missing, entire explanations and contextual stepping stones that are needed to make sense of the symbolism. In fact, you would never even recognize the Welsh mythology used as a foundation for this fable.

Not even this latest DVD release (notice - no Blu-ray version) addresses the missing material. Instead, we get an obligatory deleted scene, half-finished and totally unnecessary to the plot, a photo gallery of concept art, some random kids games, and Disney previews. Instead of answering the lingering questions about the Black Cauldron's troubled history, the House of Mouse just puts out the product and presses on. Of course, there is no guarantee that the original version would be better, or even more bankable, than the failed, fractured take we have now. Somewhere inside this assortment of wins and losses, successes and stumbles, lies an otherwise entertaining effort. Again, The Black Cauldron is not a bad film. It's just not a very fulfilling one.

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