Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Disney Discussion - The Black Cauldron

Over the course of the year, we'll be spending our Wednesdays with Walt, having a discussion about each of Disney's animated films...

Movie #25 of The Disney Discussion
The Black Cauldron (1985)
Featuring the voice talents of Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Nigel Hawthorne, John Byner, and John Hurt
Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich

Summary (in 150 words or less):
Assistant pig keeper Taran is tasked with guarding a pig named Hen-Wen that has oracular powers.  When Hen-Wen "sees" that the horrid Horned King is hellbent on finding the mysterious Black Cauldron, Taran whisks Hen-Wen to safety only to be captured by the Horned King.  After discovering the location of the Black Cauldron via Hen-Wen, the Horned King sets out to track down the Cauldron which Taran, after escaping from the king's clutches, tries to find before the evil ruler.

What makes this Black Cauldron important?  There was once a king so cruel that even gods feared him.  Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron which was shaped into a cauldron holding his demonic spirit.  Evil men searched for the vessel, knowing that whomever possessed it would have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors...and rule the world.

150 words exactly...whew...

Facts and Figures
The Black Cauldron is the Walt Disney Company's twenty-fifth full-length animated feature film and was released on July 24, 1985.

Not only was the film the most expensive animated film ever produced (at that time), but it also tied Cleopatra and Heaven's Gate as the most expensive film of all time at its release.  With a $44 million production budget, The Black Cauldron only earned $21.3 million at the box office.  The film did so horrible, that Disney didn't even release it on home video/dvd until 1998 -- more than ten years after its initial release!

The Black Cauldron is the first Disney animated film to be rated PG.

Let the Discussion Begin...
Perhaps it's just because the stench of failure that surrounds The Black Cauldron makes one think they're in for something horrid, but I found this animated flick to be a refreshing change of pace for the animation studio and a unique entry into the annals of Disney animated films.  No one will ever mistake The Black Cauldron for classic Disney, but this little seen flick deserves more praise than it receives (especially considering it's one of the "black sheep" in the Disney canon).

While I'm certain I've seen The Black Cauldron in my youth, it's been well over two decades since I'd had any exposure to it whatsoever so I was able to come at this flick with an untarnished eye.  Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the high caliber of animation on display from a new era of artists.  The past few films -- The Aristocats, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound -- while solid, weren't particularly strengthened by their animation.  That's certainly not the case in The Black Cauldron with the animation elevating the film beyond what its story brings to the table.  (It should be noted that this was the first time animators used computers to aid them for certain pieces of content and the hand-drawn and computerized aspects blend seamlessly.)  Dealing with many rich brown hues, the animators create a landscape that instantly stands out from other films in the Disney canon.
Since I just mentioned story, let's start there.  The Black Cauldron is probably more reminiscent of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit in tone rather than any other Disney film.  (I say this not being an aficionado of either of those, so don't pounce on me if that's incorrect.)  Set in a fantasy world that's even less of a reality than Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, The Black Cauldron finds our protagonist Taran facing a world that's decidedly ominous and scary.  When the film delves dark, it's actually successful -- the first twenty-five minutes is filled with both the necessary story exposition and a surprising amount of excitement   In the opening act, Taran is captured by the horrid Horned King who is cloaked in much shadow at the beginning of the film only to discover that he's seemingly not-quite human at the film's end.
It's during the second act when attempts at catering to the young'uns take over that the film falters.  Introductions to fairy sprites and a cute (though underdeveloped story-wise) sidekick for Taran named Gurgi fail to resonate.  If anything, the film's quick running time doesn't really allow for any of the characters to get much of a purpose, backstory, or reason for the audience to latch onto them.  Let's be realistic here -- this is a Disney film that introduces a female character into the mix and doesn't have her become romantically involved with the main character.  That's unfounded!  The plot certainly didn't call for a romance to develop, but it kind of points to the lack of relationship development on display.  (The film's biggest fault is that it hinges a key piece of plot on Gurgi and Taran's relationship -- a relationship that isn't really developed to a meaningful point.  Sacrifices are made by both characters for reasons that aren't believable because we in the audience don't feel that these two characters are emotionally connected to one another.)
Although the lack of character development is a significant fault, its effect is mitigated a bit by the fact that the overarching storyline isn't afraid to skew a bit more mature than the cutesy flicks that immediately preceded this one.  I imagine there may have been quite an uproar upon The Black Cauldron's release with the fact that it's premise involves a search for a demonic apparatus, but folks seem to forget that Snow White and Sleeping Beauty aren't exactly full of sunshine and lollipops.  Those old school Disney films of yore contained villains that were pure evil to the core so a character like The Horned King fits right in with The Evil Queen and Maleficent.

This is the first Disney animated film to come along that contains no songs whatsoever and I think that was definitely the right choice by the filmmakers.  A nice score by Elmer Bernstein meshes well with the visuals and any songs would've proven to be superfluous while also likely taking away from the serious tone established by the piece.

Random Thoughts
...while watching the film...
  • This is the first Disney animated film to not have opening credits detailing cast and crew.
  • I remember a quick-service restaurant named "Gurgi's Munchies and Crunchies" in Walt Disney World -- I didn't realize that not only was this an appropriate name for an eatery, but it's also a phrase that's repeated by Gurgi often.
  • "You don't mind if I pluck your harp, do ya handsome?" Sure, a horny witch said this to a guy with a harp in his hand, but the innuendo is there. 
Final Analysis
(Does It Belong in the Revered Disney Pantheon and How Does It Stack Up to Past Films?)
The shock of the following statement merits that I get it out in the open right away -- The Black Cauldron has earned a spot in the revered Disney Pantheon of animated films.  The film isn't perfect, but its status as a flick that needs to be shoved into the Disney vault and never released is unwarranted.  Personally, I would've loved to have seen what sequels could have been created to allow us to better explore this world and the characters that inhabit it.

It's certainly darker than some of its animated predecessors, but this is a flick that I must strongly urge you to rent from Netflix.  You'll likely be just as surprised as me by how much you enjoy it.

The RyMickey Rating: B

Join us next Wednesday for The Great Mouse Detective, the 26th film in The Disney Discussion.
***The Great Mouse Detective is currently streaming on Netflix, so join in on the discussion!***

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