Disney’s sword and sorcery adventure offered a macabre tale. Has time blunted its terrors?
The Black Cauldron is one of my favorite Disney films…despite the fact that it scared the bejeesus out of kids when it came out. The Mouse’s first animated film to get a PG, it was filled with dark visuals and terrifying creatures that literally scared children out of test theaters.
Despite all that, it was an innovator of animation techniques, and based on a terrific series of books. As much as I feared the Horned King, I loved Taran and Princess Eilonwy. Now that their adventure has hit Disney+, I decided to revisit its haunting grounds.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
In the distant past in the land of Prydain, an evil king had his malice imprisoned inside a black cauldron by the gods. The cauldron would reanimate any dead thing put in it, turning it into an evil wight. Centuries later, an evil warlord, the Horned King (John Hurt) hunts the evil artifact.
Living in frustrated peace, young pig-tender Taran (Grant Bardsley) dreams of being a warrior in the fight against the evil Horned King. Instead, he is tasked with keeping safe Hen Wen, a magical pig that could reveal the cauldron’s hiding place. When evil comes knocking, Taran and an unlikely band of companions must set out to seek the cauldron and stop the army of the dead from destroying Prydain.
Was It Good?
The Black Cauldron had heady aspirations. It also had chronic management problems, an alphabet soup of credits as people came and left, and was chronically over-budget. When it scared test audiences senseless, it was also butchered in the editing process.
The result is a story that struggles to tell a grand adventure (LLoyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles stand right up there with The Hobbit, so check them out if you haven’t read his work.) The deep characters of the book are whittled down to single notes. The pace whipsaws you around the kingdom to get to all of the splashier ideas. Half of the movie feels too mature for Disney. The other half feels too silly for LLoyd Alexander’s epic.
In short, embers of the original are there, but never catch fire.
Was It Scary?
Oh yeah. The Black Cauldron earns its reputation as nightmare fuel. The villains have the same deformed, gnarled look of a Ralph Bakshi adventure or a Don Bluth fantasy. The Horned King is one bad customer, given a rasping, malevolent voice by the talented John Hurt.
The film had blood, guts, and tits. Not kidding. There’s a bawdy witch who nearly suffocates a character with her giant bosom, several characters get bloodied in fights and falls, and the Horned King has his flesh torn from his very bones by the cauldron. While screaming all the while, naturally.
Some of the visuals also call back to Night on Witch Mountain from Fantasia, with serpentine dragons, ghostly apparitions, and the demonic look of the main baddy.
Caught in Time.
The Black Cauldron faced all sorts of technical obstacles, so it innovated to mixed results. The APT transfer system used to make the animation was brand new, though it sadly became a relic with computer tech just around the corner. It created layered, tapestry-like visuals that brought all of the craggy castles and ghastly crypts to life. Techniques such as using dry ice to create the unsettling green fog of the cauldron, and even early CG added to the visual flair.
This led to a strange problem for The Black Cauldron. The film looked very little like what Disney had produced to date. It also became almost instantly obsolete. Watching it these days, you see the grain and the imperfect edging around the characters who are composited on the painted sets. Add to it the exaggerated movements of characters (perhaps trying to downplay the pervasive violence with cartoonish flailing,) you get an odd duck. One that doesn’t fit in with the usual Disney mallards.
Tossed in the Cauldron.
For all its flaws, the part of The Black Cauldron that scarred my childhood the most was its unceremonious banishing from history. I loved LLoyd Alexander, I loved The Chronicles of Prydain, and I loved The Black Cauldron, warts and all. Due to losing so much money that Disney nearly went bankrupt, it was locked away in the dungeon. The film would not be re-released for 12 years, in a lackluster and degraded form for VHS.
Since then, the Cauldron has had a cult following. Pressure has led to successive releases with more content and restorations. The version on Disney+ is decent, though extras are notably absent. If you want to see one of Disney’s most infamous forays into different territory, you could do a lot worse than The Black Cauldron.