The Black Cauldron
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1985
More than thirteen years after its brief and disastrous showing in U.S. theaters, Disney has released on video "The Black Cauldron," its first and (so far) only PG-rated animated feature film. Produced in 1985, a time when (if you can believe this) Disney's animation studio was fledgling and on the brink of closing down shop for good, "The Black Cauldron" is a flawed, but ambitious film that was obviously aiming to draw as many adults into the theater as children.
With few exceptions, the overall grim tone of "The Black Cauldron" feels nothing like any other Disney movie. The movie's title alone is somewhat ominous, and it's a wonder Disney didn't use the international title--the lighter-sounding "Taran and the Magic Cauldron"--when releasing it in the U.S. Much of the film is darker and more intense than the usual Disney fare, and thankfully there are no songs (I have nothing against Disney musical numbers, per se, but they would have been ridiculously out of place here). The producers were obviously hoping to grab the segment of teenage boys who, at the time, were frequenting movies like "Dragonslayer" (1981), "Clash of the Titans" (1981), and "Conan the Barbarian" (1982).
In many ways, "The Black Cauldron" resembles some of the fantasy films of animation maverick Ralph Bakshi, especially "The Lord of the Rings" (1978). Technically, "The Black Cauldron" is top-notch; it was one of the first animated films to utilize digital effects, which gives some of the scenes a surprisingly effective three-dimensional appearance (one tracking shot up the side of a dark castle with lightning flashing is particularly impressive). Most of the animation, however, has the more traditionally rough, hand-drawn feel of early Disney films.
"The Black Cauldron" was adapted from two books of "The Chronicles of Prydain," a series written by Lloyd Alexander and published in the 1960s. This task took no less than seven writers, including directors Ted Berman and Richard Rich, who had also directed Disney's "The Fox and the Hound" (1981).
Despite all those writers, the film turns out to be a typical and mostly uninspiring fantasy adventure about a young boy named Taran (Grant Bardsley), an assistant pig-keeper in the medieval-England-inspired land of Prydain. Taran dreams of becoming a brave warrior, and he is offered his chance when his master, Dallben (Freddie Jones), charges him with protecting a magical pig named Hen-Wen, whose visionary powers would enable to the evil Horned King (John Hurt) to find the cauldron of the title. An narrative prologue by John Huston informs us that the cauldron is possessed by the spirit of an ancient, evil king, and it has the power to raise the dead into an unstoppable army of evil.
Along the way, Taran teams up with a typically motley crew, including a headstrong princess/mandatory love interest named Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan); an aging minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), whose harp pops a string every time he lies; and, to fill the cute factor in a mostly dark film, a fuzzy, mustachioed, cowardly dog-like creature named Gurgi (comedian John Byner, doing a mixed impression of Donald Duck and Gizmo from "Gremlins").
The movie is less than an hour and a half in length, but it aspires to epic proportions; unfortunately, the words unwieldy and under-developed are more accurate in describing it. With the exception of the brief prologue, we are dropped into the story en medias res. Some of the questions curious people might be prone to ask--How did Hen-Wen get her magical powers? How did she come into Dallben 's possession? Who is Dallben? Where did the Horned King come from? What's the deal with the magical sword Taran just happens to find in a crypt? Why did the animators make Dallben and Fflewddur Fflam look so much like each other?--are never answered.
It should come as no surprise that "The Black Cauldron" often evokes images of successful live-action movies from the late '70s and early '80s, especially "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) and "Star Wars" (1977). Remember, Disney animation was in a bad spot at the time, and they were probably desperate to ride any wave that happened to be streaming along at the time. So, Dallben becomes an obvious Obi-Wan Kenobi figure, Taran's sword looks suspiciously like a light saber in many scenes, and Indiana Jones would feel comfortably at home in several of the action sequences.
The film does have some high points, but unfortunately they are sporadic and often submerged in the murky, undeveloped plot. I liked the scenes that involved three bickering, bargain-making witches who are the protectors of the cauldron (although, once again, there is no explanation of where they came from or how they came into possession of the cauldron). One humorous scene, involving Fflewddur Fflam being turned into a frog and then getting stuck in the more-than-ample cleavage of one of the witches, could likely be one of the major reasons the film was rated PG.
However, it is the darker elements of the film that are its best assets--a pair of wicked dragons that look like they were inspired by the finale of "Sleeping Beauty," a hoard of drunken, muscle-bound soldiers advancing on a cornered Taran, and the climax, involving the cauldron belching computer-enhanced smoke and fire while an army of clanking skeleton warriors replete with decaying flesh and hollow eyesockets, slowly comes to life. Needless to say, this is not a movie for very young or especially sensitive children, although I have to admit I remember enjoying it immensely when I was in the fourth grade.
©1998 James Kendrick