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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Almost There

         Important announcement to make: about twenty minutes ago, I finished watching The Princess and the Frog.  That means that as of today I only have one more Disney film to watch before I reach that magic number of fifty.  Tomorrow, I am going to go see Tangled with my little cousin, Amanda.  I realize that we have only just reached the halfway marker as far as the blog entries go, but I assure you all that the writings are a coming and they will be a coming in a timely manner.
It's kind of crazy to think that I've managed to watch about seventy years worth of films in the space of four weeks.  Needless to say, I've learned a lot more about Disney in these four weeks than I have in the twenty something years I've been watching Disney films.  I literally can't wait to talk about some of these films because many of them are favorites of mine, and others I've gained new appreciation for as I viewed them this time around.  But one... well, we'll get to that one when the time comes.  For now though, I am glad that I managed to finish the forty-nine the same day that Disney released their fiftieth animated classic upon the world.  It's a tremendous achievement, dreamed of by only the most fearless of dreamers.  I have to wonder if Walt ever believed that what he began with a princess who accepted an apple from an old peddler woman would go on to create a legacy of films that would span the remainder of the twentieth century and beyond.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

“Hey Man, If This is Torture, Chain Me to the Wall”

            Disney had set a few films in the year that they were made by the time 1988 rolled around.  But it’s important to note that even though a film like One Hundred and One Dalmatians was obviously set in the 1960s, it still had a timeless feel to it so that audiences watching it forty years later could have just as easily believed that the story happened yesterday.  This is not the case with Oliver & Company.  When watching the film, there is no question that this film takes place in 1988.           
The clothes that the human characters wear are unquestionably products of the late 80’s.  The soundtrack includes songs by Huey Lewis, Ruth Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters “I’m So Excited” fame), Better Midler, and Billy Joel.  The vocal cast includes the likes of Cheech Marin and Dom DeLuise. Providing the voice for Oliver was one of Joey Lawrence’s first roles.  And did you see the hairstyle they gave Rita?  Does this mean the film is bad?  Not at all, but if you haven’t seen it before, consider watching it on the same night you decide to watch Sixteen Candles or Footloose, then you can make it a theme night.
Truth is that I didn’t get to see Oliver & Company during its original theatrical run.  I was barely three at the time after all.  It didn’t see a home video release until 1996 (as was the case with many pre-1989 Disney films), which was accompanied by a reissued theatrical run.  So I did get to see Oliver & Company in theatres for the first time, six years after its initial release. 
Oliver & Company falls right into that period of time where a lot of forgotten Disney movies lie.  Not helping this is the fact that this was the film released right before The Little Mermaid.  What’s surprising is that practically no one ever brings up this film when it was actually a success at the time it was released.  It made $53.2 million during its original run (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_%26_Company).  It was such a success that just prior to the release of The Little Mermaid, Jeffrey Katzenberg told the studio to be prepared for The Little Mermaid to not be as successful as Oliver & Company because Oliver & Company was a boy movie and The Little Mermaid is a girl movie.  And that is precisely why I don’t assign gender roles to Disney films.
            Actually, there’s even more of a connection to The Little Mermaid here.  This film is the first time Howard Ashman collaborated with Disney.  He wrote the song “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” the song that opens the film, performed by Huey Lewis.  It’s a decent song, but it’s definitely overshadowed by his later work with Disney. 

It could be because I’m a huge Billy Joel fan, but I’ve always loved “Why Should I Worry?”  It’s definitely a song that’s received a lot of play on my iPod.  I do enjoy watching the song sequence in the film.  The animation definitely creates a charismatic character in Dodger, and his interactions with the Manhattan landscape are memorable and creative.  I especially like his piano playing; it’s a very Billy moment. The two girl dogs that join in (“Everything goes, everything fits”) are fun to watch as they bounce into the rhythm.  In the great tradition of the Disney dog film, the scene includes cameos from other famous Disney dogs including Pongo, Peg, Jock, and Trusty.

It’s important to discuss the songs in Oliver & Company because the studio looked at this film as a dry run for musicals.  They hadn’t done a full musical since The Fox and the Hound (though I never really thought of that film as a musical) back in ’81, and they wanted to see how audiences would react to a musical revival from Disney, since they were one year away from releasing The Little Mermaid upon the world.    “Why Should I Worry?” is most definitely the standout song of the film, but Bette Midler’s “Perfect Isn’t Easy” is the more traditional Broadway musical number that would become the standard in later Disney films.  The song goes above and beyond the call of duty in establishing Georgette as a character and the accompanying animation is over the top and grand to watch.
I actually really enjoyed Georgette.  Vain, embodies negative female stereotypes, conniving, jealous, but at the same time kind of fun.  Not exactly a new kind of character for Midler to play, but she played it well as always.  Some of my favorite moments from the film featured Georgette not saying anything at all.  Her doing leg lifts while eating a box of chocolates was really cute (and scarily similar to the way I exercise).  I definitely laughed at her facial expression during the big climactic chase.

          We need to talk about the big chase scene.  The studio had been dabbling in using computers to assist the animation since The Black Cauldron, but Oliver & Company was the first film to have its own department created for the sole purpose of computer generated animation.  Several of the inanimate objects in the film were created with computers, but the most noticeably computer-y objects were definitely the cars and other like vehicles.  Though its use is noticeable for today’s standards, the cars are what make the big climax as exciting as it is.
Sure, the scene where they break Jenny out of Sykes’ place of business is tense and suspenseful.  But from the moment where Fagin breaks through the window on his scooter to the final confrontation on the Brooklyn Bridge, Disney gave us an over the top car chase scene on par with Jerry Bruckheimer’s finest.  Is it realistic and feasible?  Feh, no.  It does culminate in a Chihuahua managing to maneuver a very crowded scooter up the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, which I think would be very cool to see in real life but kind of hard to pull off successfully.  Does it make for an exciting cinematic showcase?  Indeed it does.    
            There are some story issues though that I have trouble ignoring.  For one thing, both Fagin and Jenny call each other by name during the more tense moments, but they never exchanged names during their brief conversation.  I mean, the dogs and Oliver knew their names, but in this film’s continuity, animals can only vocally communicate with each other, not people.  Aside from that, I enjoy this film tremendously each time I watch it. 
            The character work in this film is incredibly strong.  Oliver is definitely sympathetic and cute to watch.  His plight in “Why Should I Worry?” is almost more entertaining than watching Dodger sing to the dogs of Manhattan.  I laugh every time they cut to Oliver after he makes his way across the air grate; who doesn’t think that a statically charged fluffy cat is funny?  Joey Lawrence also manages to play Oliver as an innocent yet street hardened kid.  I especially loved his line reading when he is trying to get back his hot dogs from Dodger; the way he screamed, “Half of those are mine!” was so convincingly a scorned child.

            The two characters Oliver mainly interacts with are both handled extremely well.  First off is the man himself, Dodger.  Charismatic, street wise, tricky, brave, and unwillingly fond of Oliver, Dodger is a complicated man.  He was willing to dupe Oliver into achieving his own means when they first meet, but adopts him as a younger brother figure when Oliver joins their gang.  He cares about Oliver more than he would care to admit: he’s angry with Tito when Oliver is taken in the limo, he organizes an elaborate plan to get Oliver out of the house, is downright angry and hurt when Oliver reveals that he wanted to stay with Jenny, and risks his own life to save Oliver from Sykes’ maniac Dobermans. 
            Dodger is one of the film’s better characters and was more than adequately voiced by Billy Joel.  Though I suspect he was cast as the character to add a massive draw for audiences, Joel proved himself in his first and surprisingly his only acting role.  Granted he was probably just playing himself more than anything, but he still managed to play the film’s more dramatic moments convincingly.  Oliver and Dodger’s interactions are partly the heart of the emotional core of the film.
            I say partly because Oliver’s dilemma is made the more difficult when he meets Jenny.  Voiced by Natalie Gregory (her other most famous role was as Alice in a 1985 TV movie of Alice in Wonderland), Jenny would not seem that interesting since at face value she is the typical sweet but lonely girl.  Does she seem at all similar to another sweet but lonely girl that we’ve met at an earlier date?  If you said, “Well, she kind of reminds me of Penny from The Rescuers,” then know that there’s a reason for that.  In the early development of Oliver & Company, this film was actually planned as a Rescuers sequel.  Penny… Jenny?  The fact that Jenny comes across as an older version of Penny makes sense now, doesn’t it?  That said, Jenny’s interactions with Oliver are incredibly sugary sweet, and are affective at making the audience understand why Oliver’s reasons for not wanting to return to Fagin’s gang are not shallow.
Fagin’s gang is kind of awesome.  Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is the tough voice of reason.  Einstein (Richard Mulligan) is the dimwitted but lovable and loyal Great Dane.  Let’s pause on Frankie… sorry, I mean Francis.  His voice was supplied by Roscoe Lee Browne, who passed away back in 2007.  Does his voice sound familiar?  Well, taking a peek at his IMDB page (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001975/_ will tell you why.  The man had lent his distinct, noble pipes to a number of films dating all the way back to 1962.  Some of the works that I recognized him from include Logan’s Run (“Fish, plankton, sea greens... protein from the sea!”), the narrator in Babe, and in a return to Disney, Mr. Arrow in Treasure Planet.  A pretty epic voice, if you ask me.
Not surprisingly, the film’s funniest bits involve Fagin (DeLuise’s character) and Tito (Marin’s work).  When I was younger, I laughed the loudest at Tito’s antics (“Whatcho call my woman, man?”).  Granted, a Mexican character in the form of a Chihuahua is not a new concept to Disney, an idea that dates all the way back to Lady and the Tramp.  His worries about being “barbecued” are still some of the biggest crack up moments.  Now when I watch the film I find myself laughing a bit more at Fagin.   
There’s a lot of DeLuise’s shtick in this film.  Due to his bumbling words and clumsy self-conscious actions, he manages to make his rather scary and tense scenes with Sykes somewhat humorous on his end.  The film never out rightly states why Fagin borrowed money from Sykes in the first place, and that was something that used to drive me crazy as a kid.  But the scene where he and Winston watch the fight together makes me think that Fagin has a bit of a gambling problem.
On the subject of Sykes, he was a different sort of villain for Disney, wasn’t he?  Voiced by Robert Loggia (the best actor in Independence Day), Sykes is not a sorcerer bent on committing acts of unspeakable evil, or a bumbling comedic figure, or a barely human tyrant bent on world domination.  He’s a loan shark who drives around in a big scary limo with two bloodthirsty Dobermans.  He carries a handgun and all he cares about is getting the money people owe him.  If you don’t pay up, with a snap of his fingers, Sykes will make you a Doberman meal.  Sykes is the kind of villain that we know exists in real life, which only adds to his intimidation and scary factor.  It’s no wonder that Fagin was shaking just upon seeing the man’s limo.
That same limo plays such in an integral role in the film’s climax.  If it weren’t scary before, just imagine waves of sparks shooting off behind it and it becomes scarier.  Of course, Sykes learns that chasing a motor scooter on a subway track in a huge vehicle is a bad idea when he meets up with the business end of a train.  The fates of Disney villains vary from film to film, but when they actually bite it on screen, it’s done in a manner with a great amount of finality.  I have to add Sykes’ limo getting mowed over by a train in a fiery collision to the list of gruesome Disney villain deaths.
Of course, that moment would not have been as portentous as it was had it not been for the filmmakers making full use of the Brooklyn Bridge backdrop.  It’s not often that Disney sets a film in America, but when they do, they make it a mission to show off how beautiful and unique their chosen location within America is.  In this case, it’s dirty 1980’s era Manhattan.  Oliver & Company was the final film to use line overlay to make the backdrops look more in sync with the Xerox characters (it was first used for One Hundred and One Dalmatians).  The result is a gritty vision of New York City that’s so palpable you can almost smell the asphalt.  There are even real world advertisements decorating Times Square, the first time Disney would advertise within a film. 
Oliver & Company is an ode to all corners of the Big Apple and the people (and pets!) that fall in between.  It’s an entertaining, funny film that often falls in between the cracks in favor of the films that followed it (* cough * Little Mermaid * cough *).  It also serves as a point in the history of the Disney Company when the films were becoming very aware of the Disney canon.  Fagin wears a Mickey Mouse watch, and Tito sings a rendition of “Heigh Ho” before going off to be barbecued.  Fittingly, Oliver & Company was the first showing of what was to come from Disney: a savvy comedy that took classic stories and reinterpreted them with modern sensibilities with some awesome music and memorable characters thrown into the mix.  Oliver & Company would prove to be the start of many good things for the Company, films that would leave their mark on Disney forever.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

“Oh, My Dear Bartholomew. I’m Afraid That You’ve Gone and Upset Me. You Know What Happens When Someone Upsets Me”

            The time before The Little Mermaid and after The Black Cauldron is interesting because it seems like the majority people forget about the films that occurred then.  Which is a shame because both of the films released just before The Little Mermaid proved to be very entertaining, solid outings for Disney.  In 1986, the world was treated to The Great Mouse Detective.  In same vein of The Rescuers, The Great Mouse Detective is a mystery that must be solved by some extraordinary mice.
            The caper: sweet little girl and daughter of talented toymaker, Olivia Flaversham’s father is abducted the night of her birthday and she has no idea why.  The suspect:  London’s most notorious, brilliant, and ever so elusive criminal mastermind, Professor Ratigan.  On the case is London’s premiere eccentric detective with affinity for violin playing, pipe smoking, deerstalker hats, and hangs out with a doctor.  What?  No, not that Holmes guy.  Basil of Baker Street, of course.
            Disney’s answer to Sherlock Holmes originated out of a novel called Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus.  She named the character after the legendary Holmes actor Basil Rathborne (narrator of “The Wind in the Willows” segment way back in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), whose voice makes a cameo appearance in this film.  The mouse version of Basil is very much a direct interpretation of the Holmes character.   Dare I say that Basil here gives Robert Downey Jr. a run for his money at times?
            Basil is an enjoyable character to watch from his entrance to his final frame.  Just when he begins to walk the line of coming across as too cold, the audience is treated to glimpses of how compassionate and feeling Basil can be.  When he first meets Olivia and tries to brush her off with a “Surely your mother knows where he is,” and she sadly replies that she doesn’t have a mother, his reaction is amazing to watch.  His eyes bug out, his violin screeches, and he looks uncomfortably guilty.  It was smart on the part of Disney to not make him so self absorbed that the audience could not possibly like him.

            That isn’t to say that Basil doesn’t live in his own world.  Some of the film’s best moments come from when Basil is simply thinking.  His first appearance in disguise when he’s comparing the two bullets and when he talks to himself about how to use the trap to free him, Dawson, and Olivia are both examples of what makes Basil so charming.  Even during the scene when Dawson feels responsible for Olivia’s capture, Basil catches himself before he places the full blame on the good doctor.  
            Dawson is admirable filling in the designated Watson role.  Since he finds more than one crucial clue and is the source of inspiration for Basil when searching for a means of escaping Ratigan’s clutches, Dawson serves as a bit more than a mere sidekick.  I loved the scene where he meets Olivia; the way he helps her without even thinking about it illustrates a kind of kindness that unfortunately does not happen often in the world today.  Dawson serves as the person who can be sympathetic to people when Basil cannot, balancing out the two.
            Olivia and her father were both very sympathetic characters.  Hearing Olivia’s echoing “Daddy!” at the end of the film’s opening scene (one that I admit I couldn’t watch as a kid because I thought it was too scary) definitely tugs at the heartstrings and causes the audience to form an attachment to Olivia and her plight.  Some of the funniest scenes were the ones where Toby would not listen to Basil but to Olivia.  I’m sure more than a few of you have figured this out already, but the same actor who voices Scrooge McDuck, Alan Young, voiced her father, Hiram Flaversham.  Did you know, though, that Alan Young famously played Wilbur on Mister Ed
            But the source of Olivia’s problems is the Moriarty to Basil’s Holmes.  Professor Ratigan is the main reason I really enjoy The Great Mouse Detective.  Not only was he animated by Glen Keane, and is he a powerful, wicked, and memorable villain, but also he was voiced by one of the most famous, identifiable voices in the history of the planet.  Star of everything from House of Wax (original Paris Hilton free version) to The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby Doo, he is the late, great, irreplaceable Vincent Price. 

            This movie should be watched multiple times for Vincent’s performance alone.  He killed it.  He absolutely killed it.  His big song and dance number told the audience everything that the audience needs to know about Professor Ratigan and then some.  He’s big, over the top, calm, composed, and charismatic one minute, and a vicious, horrific rat the next.  Originally, the animators had conceived Ratigan as a thin and weak villain, but quickly changed his appearance when Price was cast.  A lot of Price’s gestures when he performed his line readings were worked into the animation.           
            One of the more interesting aspects of Ratigan’s character is the inferiority complex he has about being a rat and not a mouse.  It makes the audience draw conclusions about the kind of life Ratigan had lived.  The way he freaks out whenever someone says the ‘r’ word in his presence gives him an Achilles heel that plays heavily into the film’s climax inside of Big Ben.  Throughout the film he tries to give himself this air of refinement and polish but in the final battle, he finally loses it and succumbs to his true nature as a rat.  To see him prowl exactly as a rat does is actually really horrific.            

It’s impossible to watch Ratigan and not see Price in the character.  It’s amazing to hear that out of all the roles that Price had played over his extremely long career, his role as Professor Ratigan was his favorite.  Voicing a character in a Disney film had long been a dream of his; for me this only adds to his character.  It makes me happy to think of The Great Mouse Detective as a means of immortalizing Vincent Price’s instantly recognizable pipes. 
This would not be Price’s only experience with the Disney Company.  For the Disneyland Paris version of The Haunted Mansion, Phantom Manor, Imagineers created an elaborate back-story for the attraction, something they hadn’t done for the previous versions of the attraction.  The story revolved around a conflict between the Bride and the mysterious and terrifying Phantom (want to hear the whole story and more about The Haunted Mansion?  Check out Jason Surrell’s book, The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies).  When Imagineers put together a temporary track for the attraction, they used Vincent Price’s laugh at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as the resonant laugh of the Phantom.  This inspired them to cast Vincent Price himself as the new Ghost Host for Paris, the Phantom.  Unfortunately, the operators requested that the attraction’s narration be in French, so Price’s narration was replaced with a version read by French actor GĂ©rard Chevalier.  The one thing they did keep of Mr. Price was his distinct laugh, which is still heard throughout the attraction to this day.  Interesting though is that one of the most memorable aspects of Price’s performance as Ratigan was not his voice, but a bell.
I don’t think in the history of film has a tiny little bell jingle been so terrifying.  Then again, I probably would not have thought that an overweight cat with a tiny little bow adornment would have been very scary either.  But when Ratigan is angered by poor Bartholomew’s drunken rat comment and rings that dainty bell, his henchmen (anyone notice a cameo by Burt from Alice in Wonderland?) start shaking for their intoxicated buddy.  Thankfully, we don’t actually see Burt’s fate but we see and hear enough to know exactly what befell him.  Ratigan expecting the song to resume after such a horrific scene was indicative of how his lackeys know better than to disagree with Professor Ratigan.
I did love seeing Toby be the one who gave Felicia her comeuppance.  Actually, I kind of love Toby in general.  His interactions with both Basil and Olivia were some of my favorite scenes, especially when Basil is trying to bait him into finding Fidget.  Toby’s big LOL moment is when he is told that the Queen is in danger and he manages to shape one of his floppy ears into a flight of stairs.
When compared to The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective is a vast improvement especially considering the conditions it was made under.  Because The Black Cauldron was such a big financial disappointment, the studio needed to make some money on a cheap picture.  Well, thanks to the new technology made available by computers, they were able to churn out The Great Mouse Detective in a year (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Mouse_Detective).  Computers also aided in the final chase through Big Ben, marking one of the earliest uses of CGI and animation in the same scene.  Even though many cite this film as the first use of CGI in animation, technically the very first occurrence was in The Black Cauldron
This film was also notable for being Ron Clements and John Musker’s first directing assignment.  The Great Mouse Detective proved to be successful for the studio, earning over $25 million on a $14 million dollar budget.  Because of this film’s success, the company gained new confidence in the Disney animation department in that Ron and John received another assignment placing them in the director’s seat.  Had Mr. Clements and Mr. Musker not solved this mystery with Basil, they might not have received the chance to go under the sea with a little mermaid.

“Its Evil Power Will Course Through My Veins, and I Shall Make You Cauldron Born.”

            When I first decided to do this marathon, my first thought wasn’t, “Boy howdy, how am I supposed to watch all of these films in a timely manner?”  It wasn’t “Oh goody, that gives me an excuse to watch Disney movies!”  No, my first thought when I decided to write this blog was - word for word - this: “Oh crap.  That means I’m going to have to watch Black Cauldron again.”  I’ve tried to let y’all know up front when I have a bias towards a film.  Well, to give you an idea of how I feel about this film, let me tell you that I each step I took towards the DVD player with The Black Cauldron DVD in hand, was a step filled with all despairing dread.
            In case you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m not a huge fan of The Black Cauldron.  If you’ve been following Waking Snow White pretty regularly, you know that I’m the kind of person who can find the positive in any Disney film.  With Black Cauldron, I can find the positive, but I have to look really, really hard to find it.  Normally, I couldn’t even wager a guess how many times I have watched any particular Disney film, but with Black Cauldron I know my number exactly: twice, once by myself when I was curious about it, and then the second time with my sister when she was curious about it.  After both occurrences, I said “never again” after each viewing.
            And yet here I am watching Black Cauldron for a third time.  I know that The Black Cauldron has fans; if you need proof, check out the IMDB message boards. I have noticed that these viewers call regular Disney films a “gooey-mess” with “happy characters” and “a long line of happy-go-lucky songs.”  Well, obviously this person has yet to see The Fox and the Hound, but the point is I think that the majority of fans of The Black Cauldron are not true fans of Disney. 
            These fans might appreciate how supposedly dark The Black Cauldron is.  We’ve talked quite a bit on here about how dark Disney films can go: Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and The Fox and the Hound all contain elements that are decidedly adult, horrific, and yes, dark.  To simply say The Black Cauldron is a good film because it’s a dark Disney film is kind of silly, because there are a good many Disney films that contain dark elements and are not entirely “happy-go-lucky” as some might allege.  In fact, I would say completely happy films are kind of in the minority since some of Disney’s finest films are decidedly more adult than people give them credit for.
            So what is it about The Black Cauldron that rubs me the wrong way?  Because I want to like it; it’s not a famous Disney film and I’m all about giving credit to the films that don’t normally receive enough attention from the Company.  I appreciate when Disney films go darker and take on more mature storylines that don’t talk down to their audience.  But unfortunately, I think people who love The Black Cauldron for its dark imagery and tone are overlooking some serious problems the film has.
            For one thing, I don’t care at all about the characters.  They all seem very shallow and there are few moments that really give their personalities a chance to shine.  They’re more stereotypes than actual human beings, and if there’s something that Disney has always done right, it’s create characters that the audience can relate to and care about.  In The Black Cauldron its cast of characters is its biggest flaw.
            Taran should be the hero that the audience roots for; he should be relatable, likeable, and a better person come film’s end.  Instead he goes through the whole film fantasizing about becoming a great warrior and complaining to anyone that will listen – including his pig – that he’s not.  He finally goes on the kind of quest that turns boys into heroes and manages to get a magic sword so for a while he feels like a great warrior, but then he loses the sword to witches.  So he decides to sacrifice himself to save the day and maybe become a martyr but Gurgi chooses to die in his place.  His great moment of heroism finally comes when he pushes the Horned King closer to the cauldron and inadvertently defeats the tyrant. He’s all depressed and down on himself because Gurgi’s dead.  When he receives the chance to become a great warrior, he comes to the realization that he’s not a warrior and accepts his station as a pig keeper.
            So essentially the film ends right back where it started with Taran now happy being a lowly pig keeper.  One of the biggest themes in Disney films is always follow your dreams no matter how big they are, so for Taran to just accept his station in life is almost as though he is doing the exact opposite of what the Disney Company believes in.  I get that the message of the film is that one doesn’t always need strength and brawn to become a great hero, but “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed” from all the way back in Melody Time had a similar message and pulled it off beautifully.  It’s hard to believe in Taran, and if he’s going to be the leading man of the film, then believing in him is everything.
            Of course, Taran is not the only problematic cast member.  Eilonwy is the typical feisty princess that tends to make her merry way into fantasy stories, but she doesn’t offer much besides serving as a romantic interest for Taran.  Her one source of power was that random bauble that floats around, but that mysteriously vanishes d after the group breaks out of the Horned King’s castle the first time and doesn't reappear until the end.  If you ever want to wow your friends with obscure Disney trivia, you can tell them that a lot of the so-called Disney princesses aren’t.  Princesses, that is, at least not by birth.  In fact, the really famous ones (like Cinderella, Belle, and Tiana) married into royalty.  Then say that Princess Eilonwy from The Black Cauldron is one of the few true princesses who received her title by being born into royalty.
            And of course they give the required girl stereotype of cooing over all of the adorable creatures they meet, like the elves and… Gurgi.  God, I’m hesitant to even get started on Gurgi.  I’m usually the kind of person who doesn’t mind the cutesey characters geared towards the smaller children; I get sad when the one ewok dies in Return of the Jedi and I didn’t mind Orko on He-Man.  There have been only two silly sidekick characters that have genuinely annoyed me: Jar Jar Binks and Gurgi. 
            Firstly, his name sounds a lot like the kind of noise a baby would make.  Secondly, his voice. 

            … Not going to say anything more than that.  Thirdly, his whole reason for joining the party is kind of weak.  Taran let him have an apple that he stole a bite out of, so now they’re BFFs.  I’m not sure that an apple should warrant a person sacrificing his or her life for somebody but that’s Gurgi.
            Granted, most of the party’s reasons for questing for the cauldron are kind of weak.  For one thing, what is Fflam doing there?  He’s a minstrel who provides absolutely nothing to the party besides comic relief.  He also happens to be the best character of the four but that’s not saying a whole lot.  The man who provided his voice, Nigel Hawthorne, would actually go on to voice another Disney character in a much more successful film: He was Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, Jane’s father, in Tarzan
            I know I’m being incredibly harsh towards The Black Cauldron, but I feel so strongly about it because when I watch it I see so much potential for what could have been.  The animation looks incredibly sharp and there are some really amazing visuals in the film particularly in the scene where the evil of the cauldron starts pouring out.  The backgrounds are beautifully rendered and are successful in creating a new world within the film.  If there was one thing that The Black Cauldron got one hundred percent right, it was creating a chilling, memorable, downright terrifying villain. 
            If there was one positive aspect that came out of The Black Cauldron, it was the Horned King.  His design was downright intense: he looked skeletal and yet the flesh that covered his body was so thin and discolored that he more resembled a decaying corpse.  His presence was felt in whatever scene he was in; he reminded me somewhat of a male Maleficent.  The great John Hurt supplied the Horned King’s voice and outdid himself as one scary baddy.  But sadly, he was underutilized in the film and his fate was rather abrupt (yet graphic) and unsatisfying.
Recognize a Horned head above Lady Tremaine and Frollo?
            The Horned King left such an impression, though, that he is the one character to see an appearance outside of the film.  I bought a poster a few years ago from Disney World that celebrated the Disney villains.  So what you ask?  What grabbed my attention about this poster was that it included all of the Disney villains, including the Horned King.  This proves that if there was one aspect of The Black Cauldron that had a true impact on its audience, it was the Horned King.
            The rest of the film, though, unfortunately failed to resonate with the audience when it was released on July 24th, 1985 (A little over four months before the date of my birth!).  Disney Animation had invested five years and over $25 million on the production of The Black Cauldron, but it only grossed $21 million at the American box office.  In other words, Disney animation had found itself in trouble again much like the studio was back during World War II.  I think I have an idea about what went wrong.
            There was no Disney magic in this film.  The characters felt flat and there wasn’t a sense of urgency in the story.  The first time I ever watched The Black Cauldron – and I’m going to sound like a horrible person when I say this – I laughed when Gurgi died.  Seriously.  I literally went, “Yes!  He’s dead!  Finally, this film does something right.”  And I was a bit disappointed when he was resurrected. 
            The reason I mention this isn’t because I want people thinking I’m a terrible person, but because Gurgi’s death should have been absolutely traumatizing for the audience to watch.  As we all know well, Disney is no stranger to crafting emotional character deaths.  Like its predecessors, The Black Cauldron’s death scene should have moved its audience to tears.  But it didn’t because there was no emotional attachment to these characters. 
            Audiences should have responded to the plight portrayed in this film, but they didn’t.  It was too dark for the whole family to enjoy but it was not dark enough to appeal to an older audience.  For this, we do have someone to place blame upon: Jeffrey Katzenberg.  The management team for Disney changed during the film’s production (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088814/trivia) and Katzenberg decided to cut out some scenes and images to make the film more family friendly; the last time fully animated scenes were cut from the finished was in Snow White.  This film has the notorious distinction of being the first Disney animated film to earn a PG rating, but without the edits, it could have earned a PG-13 or even an R rating.
            That’s right.  The Black Cauldron contained elements that could have warranted an R rating.  I don’t know about the rest of the world, but that’s the version of The Black Cauldron that I want to see.  I think Disney should stop trying to market this as a film the whole family can enjoy and realize that The Black Cauldron could appeal to a whole new and hard to please demographic if they marketed it properly: 18 to 28 year old males.  I would love to see Disney stick to this film’s true convictions and release an uncut, unrated version of The Black Cauldron on Blu-ray and market it towards adults and curious Disney fans. I don’t know if that would solve the characterization problems that The Black Cauldron suffers from, but I admit that I would love to see the version of The Black Cauldron that could have made it a landmark film for Disney: their first animated R rated film.  But there is something good that comes out of this viewing of The Black Cauldron: since it was Disney’s twenty-fifth animated film, it marks the halfway point for Waking Snow White.  Almost there.