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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?"

Thursday, November 18, 2010

“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.


  1. I'm not sure if you know this, but the Black Cauldron (movie) was based on a series of fantasy books for children by Lloyd Alexander called the Prydain Chronicles, which was based on Welsh mythology. The movie took elements from books 1&2 without really staying faithful to the characters. Also, if you've read the books, they're not really Disney material, at least not Disney animated material. In any case, the whole point of the books was that Taran accept the fate of being an assistant pig-keeper (not least because the final ending hinges on this), but also because one of the messages of the series was that anyone could be a hero/warrior when called upon, even those who weren't princes, or of noble birth.

  2. I mostly like Black Cauldron, though it is obviously flawed. I think it might have been better had they focused on just the first book instead of trying meld several; the marriage doesn't feel right. The stuff from "The Book of Three" works reasonably well. I agree though that the way our characters are introduced and sometimes played makes them feel flat. Taran needs a little more. His "I wanna be a warrior" stuff doesn't quite play right. But I really like him when he's doing his job and trying to protect Henwen. She's a great character, even though she completely drops out of the story. I like her animation. That's the problem with the film in general is that halfway through, half of the elements drop out. It just wasn't structured properly. Though how much of its choppiness is due to Katzenberg's scissors I can't say. I like Eilonwy, though she has little to do here. Her design is very appealing though. I agree the Horned King is awesome. All hail John Hurt, who's done some very good animation work in his career. This movie's design is pretty strong, and it has some great effects work. Some of the rotoscoped explosions feel off, but the smoke effects and stuff are really cool. And I like Gurgi. Sorry, I do. I like the gwythaint chase, and the color scheme. But they get to the witches and it all sort of stops dead. I would LOVE to see the original ending uncut. The end feels weakend here. The film would never have been perfect, but would have definitely improved from more darkness and the gore that was originally planned for it. Also of note is the size of the film. They made it a big widescreen picture, the first since Sleeping Beauty. They spent a lot of time and money on this project, and I think an uncut re-release where the intent could really be seen would be nice, if impractical.

  3. What can I say? I've got a bit of a soft spot for this one. I read the books and they were very good. I feel like the flow somehow gets messed up in this. If they could have fixed that in the beginning of production, it might have managed to become a classic.

    Taran is especially hurt. It makes him seem almost insincere. Though I feel when he was planning on jumping into the cauldron, that he gets a more positive light shone on him.

    As for your reaction to Gurgi. I can't really say much seeing as I laughed when Dobby died in Harry Potter. (That makes me seem awful.) As for Gurgi though, he never annoyed me, but he never had me feel bad for him either.

    The relationship between Eilonwy and Taran seems to be a bit underdeveloped as well. While it's obvious they like each other, there's no real growth to it.

    I'd be really interested in seeing it before they cut it all up. I can't even imagine the Horned King being any more creepy than he is now. Too bad that there's no way to find that stuff. Maybe it will be released one day.

  4. Well, I have a big soft spot for the films of the "Disney Dark Ages". I find them all to be really fun, entertaining...except this one.

    To be fair, I never read the books, so I'm working blind here. But Taran annoyed me, and Gurgi made me want to toss something at the TV. I didn't laugh when he died...but according to my mom, I did say "Finally!". Taran always seemed whiny to me. And after all that, he's still the guy who feeds the pig in the end. That's a new take on the Disney formula, as far as I can tell.

    All I can say is I'm curious as to what the 'uncut' version would've been like. Disney's done dark in many different venues, but this had the groundwork to be its darkest work of all...and possibly better for it.