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Movie Reviews: The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron was Disney’s “lost” movie of the Eighties, a groundbreaking release but also a deeply troubled one. It was the first animated Disney production with no song score (a profound break from tradition that was not to be repeated, it seems), the first of Disney’s animated productions since Sleeping Beauty to use true 70mm widescreen rather than matted Super 35, the first to use computer graphics—and the first to receive a PG rating, at a time when anything other than G was the kiss of death for a Disney feature. Small wonder: this was a harkening back to the days of the Isle of Lost Boys in Pinocchio, when the Disney crew was less afraid to peer into dark corners.

A shame the risk-taking didn’t pay off commercially. The film suffered from post-production tampering (courtesy of then-head of Disney Jeffrey Katenzberg), was poorly promoted, and laid an egg in theaters—showing once again showed that American audiences didn’t respond well to animated films aimed at anything other than kids. It also scared Disney off from doing anything remotely removed from the tried-and-true “Disney formula”. This habit would allow more adventurous folks like Pixar to eat its lunch in the long run. Cauldron didn’t even get released to video for decades, making it a sought-after commodity on the order of the equally-lost The Thief and the Cobbler. Like many movie companies, Disney seemed determined to treat some of its most interesting and groundbreaking work with utter contempt.

Taran's mission is to bring the pig Hen Wen to safety, but he's sidetracked by the sniveling likes of Gurgi.

That said, the movie has at last been given a decent treatment on DVD (if not in the best possible edition), and seeing it after almost twenty years is both delightful and unsettling. Delightful, because it’s a genuinely good movie, even if (and maybe because) it doesn’t follow the lockstep path laid down by so many previous Disney movies. And unsettling, because it hinted at how Disney could have done so many things so differently in its career since, and chose not to. Watching it, it’s not hard to imagine a Disney that embraced the lessons of people like Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka—themselves self-proclaimed disciples of Disney films—instead of spurning them.

Cauldron was adapted from a series of young-adult fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. The movie rather heavily condenses the events of the first two books in the series; fans of Prydain have pointed out that in this post-Lord of the Rings era, a more faithful live-action version of the series would be more than worth it. This is also one of the few times an animated Disney movie was taken from a relatively current work rather than an public-domain folk legend or fairy tale; the only other example that comes readily to mind is Peter Pan. The books weren’t widely known outside of fantasy/SF circles, either, leading people to assume this was a wholly original Disney creation (and an aberrant one at that).

While in the dungeons of the Horned King, Taran joins up with Eilonwy and the nattering Fflweddur Fflam.

Like most Disney films, Cauldron opens with a young hero, Taran (Grant Bardsley), in the care of the aged Dallben (Freddie Jones). Taran doesn’t much care for life with the old fellow: his duties consist of taking care of Dallben’s pig, Hen Wen. Then Taran learns that not only is Hen Wen is a magical creature capable of divining the future, but that the dark forces of the Horned King are after her. Taran is to take the pig to safety—exactly the sort of adventure the boy has been thirsting for, even if he has no idea how to actually protect himself or the pig. And so it isn’t long before dragons swoop down on him and Hen Wen (in one of the best-animated sequences in the film), and spirit them away to the Horned King’s fortress.

Along the way, and within the bowels of the castle, Taran picks up a few allies. There’s Gurgi (John Byner), the most explicitly Disney-esque character in the whole of the film—a pathetic, cowardly dog-like creature always scavenging for food (or, as he puts it, “munchings and crunchings”); Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), also a prisoner of the Horned King, and possessor of a magic bauble that may have oracular power of its own; washed-up bard Fflweddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), and a whole slew of little sprite-like creatures with smart mouths. Along the way they run into some even odder characters, including a dizzy trio of witches who have a tendency to turn people into toads as a prelude to snacking on them.

A trio of witches stand in Taran's way. His sword will be put to use, but not in the way he expects.

The plotting isn’t as tight and compelling as the best Disney movies (Beauty and the Beast comes to mind), and there are a number of sequences, like the one with the witches, that drag more than a bit. But they take more risks with the story than normal, making this one of the darkest movies ever to come from the Disney stable. This runs through both the story and the production design, since most of the story takes place in the dank grime of the Horned King's castle , but especially towards the end, when one of the characters chooses to sacrifice himself for the sake of his friends. Something like this would be unthinkable in one of today’s Disney films. Ditto the complete lack of a song score, which keeps the film’s runtime from being artificially padded and spares the adults in the audience from having to plug their ears every seven minutes.

The look they created for the film isn’t like anything else I’ve seen in a Disney movie. Aside from the dark and lush color palette, Cauldron makes vigorous use of its widescreen aspect ratio. Most Disney movies simply dump all the action into the dead center of the frame. Here, the action’s often on the far edges of both sides of the screen, surrounding the audience and allowing their eyes to roam back and forth, making it highly immersive. Then Disney went back to using the more conventional 1:33 and 1:85 ratios (probably because they transferred better to TV), but used CGI to make up for the narrower frame gauge with more adventurous camera movements.

The heroes look on in horror as the Horned King resurrects an evil army of the undead.

Watching the older Disney animated films can be a little jarring. It’s something akin to the sound of a vinyl record as opposed to a CD—the flaws stand out all the more, but they also make the whole product that much more endearing. The brushwork can be seen on many of the cels, shifting from frame to frame like the film grain itself. Even more fascinating is how the movie became Disney’s first big foray into melding cel animation with CGI: the graphics are rudimentary, more in the vein of accentuations to existing images than anything else, but they’re striking and creative.

If The Black Cauldron had been a success, Disney might have become more adventurous with its work, in turn making American audiences more receptive to animation as an art form for more than just younger audiences. But audiences weren’t ready for this Gothic and unsettling tale—it slid through the cracks, became for Disney an object lesson in what not to do, and almost everything from Disney’s animation division since then has been one long slide into banality.

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Movie Reviews, Movies, published on 2004/09/09 15:00.

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