The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Black Cauldron (1985) – Behold! This is the movie that Walt Disney Animation tried to bury. It’s also one of the ones that I have a childhood connections to… but interestingly enough not due to the movie itself. I had a video game on my computer of this movie. It was odd and fairly impenetrable to my 6-year-old brain but I spent long hours playing it trying to figure it out. (It seems to me that after an adult life of roaming through the Fallout games, I would probably have a significantly easier time of it now.) Also Disney used to release picture books for their various animated films and The Black Cauldron was no exception. So that led to what is the primary reason I remember this movie at all: The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. The first two books, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, were the basis for the Disney film but were so much richer than I had previously guessed. I read all the books in the series (okay they were initially read to me, but I did go back and re-read them all): the aforementioned first two, The Castle of Lyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. They were acclaimed novels, and winner of Newberry Awards. I know after much effort to track down a VHS copy I did eventually see The Black Cauldron as a child. I remember very little about it. The other day I am at my friend Jordan’s apartment and I glance at the DVD shelf and what do I see? The Black Cauldron! It appears, after 25 years, in 2010 Disney decided to give it a PROPER release (though still with very little fanfare). So the question is this: as a movie that has such fond childhood associations for me but such poor reception upon its release, how does it hold up?

Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley) is a pig-keeper on a farm at Caer Dallben. (Oh, Alexander based his series on Welsh mythology so get ready for a barrage of unpronounceable names.) He is an orphan raised by the farmer Dallben (Freddie Jones) who cares for the oracular pig Henwen. Yup. The pig can show prophetic visions. It works better than it sounds. Henwen has a pretty frightening vision involving the approaching army of the Horned King (John Hurt). The Horned King wants Henwen so he can find the location of the titular Black Cauldron, with which he can create an unstoppable army of the reanimated dead. Dallben charges Taran with the task of keeping Henwen safe. Taran, who dreams of adventure, almost immediately does a terrible job at it. On his journey he meets the Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and the traveling minstrel Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), who become his allies in his NEW quest to find and destroy the cauldron.

To give you some sort of context for my opinions on animated fantasy, I will point out that I’ve never been a fan of Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings from the 70s. That being said, I kind of like The Black Cauldron. It is SLOW, especially for a cartoon, but I dig it. It feels very much a product of the mid-80s. It is also wildly tonally uneven. Disney clearly didn’t quite understand what they had their hands on. This is one of the few Disney movies that Tim Burton worked on before he was fired by Disney Animation and it kind of shows in its willingness to go dark in a lot of areas. From what I hear, it was actually much darker but it was cut down by Jeffrey Katzenberg. The attempts to “Disnify” the story kind of fall flat and end in a movie that feels neither like Alexander’s epic story or a traditional Disney movie. I enjoyed this movie but wouldn’t strongly recommend it to anyone who didn’t have the nostalgia factor going for them as I did. I would say, however, if you have kids: I have five great books I can recommend.

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