Between Logic and Enchantment: The Black Cauldron

1 Title

The Black Cauldron may as well be called “The Black Sheep,” as there are few movies in Disney’s canon of animated films that are treated with as much disdain by the famous House of Mouse.  Given the company’s fame for creating iconic takes on fairy tales, you’d think a fantasy epic from Disney would be a pretty solid success – they’ve been tiptoeing next to the concept since Snow White, so it would just take a little push to go full fantasy.  Since Fantasy films were fairly common and popular in the 80’s, it makes sense that the company would finally take the plunge and try their hand at adapting a Fantasy film of their own.

So they did, and it failed.  It failed pretty hard.  It failed so hard that the only Disney movie that is even more hated by the company is the one about a black plantation worker who just loves working for white folks in the Reconstruction era.

But why did it fail?

The popular theory/excuse is that The Black Cauldron was too dark for a children’s film.  People expected a happy musical adventure, and what they got was a dark, moody fantasy story with a skeletal villain who screams “KILL!” a lot.  There were plenty of “dark” fantasy stories in the 80’s though – The Never-Ending Story has a horse who commits suicide in, like, the first act, and the Rankin Bass movies coming out around this same time were just as dark, if not more so.  A “dark” fantasy story wasn’t a death sentence then, so why would it kill The Black Cauldron?

There are a lot of other external reasons for this failure we could discuss– reasons that other people can discuss far better than I can, as I discovered during my reading.  So I want to focus on what The Black Cauldron is on its own merits.  I’ll summarize its plot first (since there’s a good chance many of you have not seen it), then discuss its pros and cons like in The Hobbit (1977) review, before finally reaching a conclusion as to what The Black Cauldron is.  Is this a good movie released at the wrong time?  A hidden gem that needed some more polish?  Or is it a flawed and sadly doomed result of a story that was just wrong for its studio?

Spoilers: it’s that last one.

Also I should probably note here that The Black Cauldron is based on two books in a series of Fantasy books that I have not read.  I have no idea how faithful it is as an adaptation, but given that Disney made it, I imagine the answer to that question is “not very.”

The Plot

Our film opens with Gandalf (ok it’s actually just the voice actor who played Gandalf in The Hobbit, but let me dream!) giving exposition about the titular Black Cauldron, which was made from the soul of an evil king as a prison for that same evil king, but also makes deathless warriors, because fuck you that’s why.  Fantasy McGuffins don’t have to make sense all the time, ok?  Right off the bat you’ll notice this movie is very exposition heavy, as Gandalf’s blurb at the start is immediately followed with Generic Disney Old Man Design ™ muttering to himself about the Horned King and the black cauldron.

Generic Disney Old Man.png

“Which Disney movie is this again?  The Aristocats?  I got to be a bad guy in The Arisocats.  Most of the time I just putter around though.”

His apprentice, a whiny young boy named Taran, has to bring food to Generic Disney Old Man’s pig.  While doing so, Taran goes into a fantasy about being a hero in which he beats a real life goat with a stick.  Truly he is a lovable protagonist, this boy.

The pig, Henwen, freaks out during her feeding (unrelated to Taran beating the goat, mind you), and it turns out she has visions of the Horned King searching for the black cauldron, which Generic Disney Old Man says is bad.  It then turns out the Horned King is searching for Henwen since her visions can find the cauldron, and tells Taran to take the pig to the hidden cottage beyond the forbidden forest, which seems to be, like, a ten minute walk away apparently.

The Horned King

Sends shivers down my spine.

The movie cuts to the Horned King and he’s fucking awesome.  John Hurt’s voice acting oozes menace, and the character design is simple yet effectively creepy.  He tells a bunch of corpses how he will make them “cauldron born”, which the earlier exposition assures us is a bad thing.  Then the scene ends, being sort of a microcosm of the Horned King as a character: a lot of great build up and potential despite not getting to do much of anything.

Taran tells Generic Disney Old Man he won’t fail him, then promptly fails because he’s too busy daydreaming about being interesting to watch over a goddamn pig.  To his credit, he goes off in search of Henwen as soon as he realizes she left, but sadly he discovers…

The Suffering of Mankind

Gurgi.

Gurgi is like Gollum, but without the charm and good looks.  We’re supposed to find him cute, but I mostly find him in need of a beating.  He is one of many characters whose design is too Disney Cute ™ for my tastes, and in his case it borders on the obscene.  He couples his Disney Cute ™ design with a lovable rascal habit of stealing food and justifying it with passive aggression.  Gurgi fucking sucks is my point.

Thankfully, Gurgi leaves as soon as some WICKED SWEET DRAGONS kidnap Henwen, allowing me to enjoy these GNARLY AWESOME HELL DRAGONS in peace.  They also kick the crap out of Taran for good measure.  I give these dragons an 8/10 – they’d rate higher if the movie used them more.

Dragon1

Dragon2

Dragon3

Did these guys warrant more than one screencap?  No.  Did I need to screencap them as much as possible for my own happiness?  Yes, absolutely yes.

Sadly, Gurgi comes back, and Taran tells him he’s a piece of shit before giving him an apple and heading off to the Horned King’s castle.  I will say this – Taran is much more likable when Gurgi is next to him, especially when he tells Gurgi he’s awful.   If the movie was nothing but a 90 minute scene of Taran dragging Gurgi for how much he sucks, I might think better of Taran as a character.

It turns out the Horned King’s Castle is also a twenty minute walk away from Taran’s house, and a fairly uneventful one, as Taran sneaks into it pretty quickly and easily.  The Horned King’s minions are, save for the two gnarly dragons, primarily comical in design and performance.  Most of them don’t wear pants, which is a weird fashion trend in 70’s and 80’s fantasy cartoons (see the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings for another example – or rather don’t because it’s terrible).  There’s nothing wrong with having silly, laughable forces of evil, but these guys feel really ill-suited to a villain as menacing as the Horned King.

Creeper

“Wait sire, don’t lump poor Creeper with the rest of the rabble!”

Ok, MOST of them seem ill suited.  Creeper, a little goblin minion, feels exactly on the mark – just the right mix of comic and, well, creepy.  He’s like a PG rated Cryptkeeper.  The other henchmen are just buffoonish, and not in a way that works for the movie’s overall tone.  These clods should be serving Captain Hook, not John Hurt’s devil lich.

When Taran stumbles into the main feast hall in search of Henwen, the Horned King politely asks him to make the pig show where the black cauldron is.  It’s polite the way Darth Vader is polite, of course – in that the Horned King doesn’t even need to imply a threat, as his presence is enough to tell you what will happen if you refuse.  Taran refuses, of course, and the Horned King simply says, “Very well, then the pig is no use for me,” prompting his men to cut Henwen’s head off.  Taran stops them from doing so and rescues the pig.

During Taran and Henwen’s daring escape, Creeper calls Taran “Pig Boy”, which is a moniker others in the movie catch on to.  It is also how I will refer to Pig Boy from here on out.  Pig Boy helps Henwen escape but is caught in the process, and is thrown into the dungeon by the Horned King’s troops.  It’s harsh, but to be fair they could have just as easily cut his head off.  Pig Boy mopes in the dungeon, thinking about how he’s promised a lot to a lot of people and failed pretty much entirely.

Eilonwy

“What’s that magic light ball the movie sometimes forgets about?  I should be the protagonist?  Well, I won’t argue with you on that, but we’re in the tale we’re in, now aren’t we?

Then Eilonwy shows up and things get better.  Eilonwy, unlike Pig Boy, is an unlikely hero who’s actually capable of heroics.  She pops into Pig Boy’s cell as part of her own daring escape, and asks him if he’s a great warrior.  When he tells her he’s a pig keeper, she responds, “Oh, how disappointing,” and while that’s a little dickish, to be fair, Pig Boy will live up to that disappointment.  Eilonwy is clever, brave, and selfless – even though Pig Boy doesn’t have much to offer her, she invites him to join her on her escape anyway.  She’s genuinely heroic and, oh, what’s the word… likable!  Yes, you can like her.  That’s nice in a protagonist.

Pig Boy steals a dead man’s sword, and while Eilonwy expresses disgust, he tells her that “[the dead guy]’s not going to use it.”  I’d criticize him, but to be fair, that’s standard adventuring behavior.  I can’t blame him when I gleefully loot every carcass I come across/create in Dragon Age after all.  Then we meet a bard whose harp snaps a string whenever he lies.  He proceeds to do almost nothing of importance throughout the story, and could be cut out of the plot to almost no consequence.  I cannot remember what his name is, nor do I want to look it up.

Pig Boy gets separated from Eilonwy as they escape because his dumb ass dropped his sword, and in the process he learns his sword is magic.  The sword proceeds to kick all sorts of ass while Pig Boy waves it around with glee, happy to know what competence feels like for the first time in his life.  No matter how stupid he acts with the sword, like in one scene where he’s just stabbing wine barrels, its magic makes things turn up ok for him.  Layer, when they get cornered, Pig Boy lets the enemies throw weapons at him until Eilonwy reminds him to use the sword.  Pig Boy is the kind of guy who would get the invincibility star in Super Mario and still manage to die.

Following Pig Boy’s frankly miraculous escape, Creeper has to tell the Horned King the bad news, and we get a lot of nice characterization of him as a minion.  We see that, despite his sycophancy, Creeper is keenly aware that the Horned King is abusing him, and that his bootlicking nature as an evil minion is as much motivated by fear as it is by cruelty.  Creeper’s horror at his master’s temper also shows that the Horned King is a bit more than a cool voice and a wicked design – an important thing to note since the movie doesn’t actually let the Horned King do much of anything.  Luckily for Creeper, the Horned King is actually happy that Pig Boy escaped, as Pig Boy will go after Henwen, which means the Horned King’s minions only have to follow Pig Boy to get the pig.

Meanwhile, Eilonwy sews up the… harp… guy’s breeches while asking harp guy whether he was scared.  Pig Boy chimes in saying he wasn’t scared at all, to which Eilonwy says, “Not afraid?  Why, we were running for our lives!”  This shows that Eilonwy is the kind of hero who, y’know, actually acknowledges that heroism is difficult and dangerous.  Pig Boy ignores this and continues his masculine bravado, saying, “Well I got us out of the castle didn’t I?” Eilonwy accurately notes that the sword got them out of the castle, to which Pig Boy notes that only a “great warrior” could handle a sword like this, which is definitely not true.  Rather than point that out, Eilonwy says, “But still, it is a magic sword,” gently reminding Pig Boy that he can’t claim full responsibility for their escape, which is unequivocally true.  Lacking any argument, Pig Boy insults Eilonwy’s gender, at which point she chews him out and runs off in a huff.

Pig Boy fucking sucks.

Later Pig Boy sees Eilonwy crying by herself.  She notices him and starts the conversation, saying they have to work together, at which point Pig Boy finally thanks her for helping him out of the dungeon.  She acknowledges that they couldn’t have escaped without him either, and overall is pretty generous about this reconciliation.  Eillonwy is a gem, while Pig Boy did, I dunno, the bare minimum.  Fucker doesn’t even apologize but whatever let’s get this show on the road already.

Sadly, a great misfortune befalls us after this sweet moment: Gurgi returns.  He’s a bit useful this time, as Gurgi saw Henwen’s tracks, so kudos for that I suppose.  Eilonwy, a character whose major flaw is giving useless tools the benefit of the doubt, encourages the others to follow Gurgi, and thankfully for once Gurgi isn’t being a lying piece of shit.  That’s not just my irrational hatred, either – he literally says, “Gurgi isn’t lying… this time.”

child eating fairies

These creatures steal and eat children.  The movie doesn’t tell us this, and that is irresponsible.

Our heroes then meet some super cutesie fairies that talk in lispy children voices, and all my cynical ass can think of when seeing these Disney Cute ™ pixies is how certain I am that they’re the kind of fairies that steal human babies so they can eat them.  I have never been more certain of anything in my life than this fact.  While The Black Cauldron doesn’t show them eating human children, I know in my heart that as soon as they got off screen those fairies proceeded to devour a human babe down to the bone like cartoon piranhas.

It turns out these child eating fairies also have Henwen, and their King tells a grumpy fairy to get the pig so the humans will leave before they find out the rest of the fairies are eating a human child (that last part is subtext).  The fairies tell our heroes – or, rather, Eilonwy and her useless hangers on – that the Black Cauldron is in Morva, which is, like, another ten minute walk away probably.  They also take Henwen back home for our heroes while sending the grumpy fairies to guide them, which kind of makes Henwen’s role in the story seem a little pointless, but the plot’s progressing so we can’t complain.

Our heroes find the pawn shop of Morva, which is run by three witches.  Pig Boy lets all the witches’ frogs out, and the grumpy fairy informs him that those frogs were people.  The witches arrive and are somewhat rightfully pissed that Pig Boy stole their frogs (to be fair, it’s less that he stole them and more that he released them, but semantics).

Witches

This shot is actually from later in the movie, but it’s the best one of ’em I got because they move freakin’ quick.

I cannot stress how fun these witches are – they are some of the best characters in the movie.  They’ve each got unique and big personalities, and the movie is a lot more fun when they’re on screen.  Design-wise they could do with being a little creepier, but they make up for it by being very expressive and, well, animated.

Pig Boy asks for the black cauldron, and then his sword starts cutting up the witches’ pottery on its own, making the head witch desire that sword intensely.  The witches scheme to trade the black cauldron for the sword, since the black cauldron is kind of useless as far as they’re concerned.  More to the point, they think it will be useless to the heroes, and thus they can eventually take it back at no cost since the heroes will inevitably abandon it.  Pig Boy, to his credit, sacrifices the sword for the cauldron.

The cauldron emerges from the earth, and the head witch tells them how a living being must climb into the cauldron of their own free will to end its evil power – and they will die if they do so.  Or, as the wackiest witch puts it: “Of course we said you could have the cauldron – we never said you could do anything with it!”  Upon realizing their quest kinda ended in a big fart, the group sulks while the grumpy fairy leaves, never developing a personality beyond “is inexplicably angry forever.”  He will be missed.  Pig Boy tries to rouse everyone’s spirits with a speech, but they get captured by the Horned King’s men while Gurgi slinks away, because Gurgi is a piece of shit.

Back at the Horned King’s place, the Horned King taunts our heroes before raising an army of the dead in a pretty badass scene, especially for a Disney film.  It’s like a miniature recreation of “Night on Bald Mountain” from Fantasia.  The stupid buffoonish henchmen run away as the skeletons rise up to replace them.  Overall, things look PRETTY BAD for our heroes.

Army of the Dead

The blur effect is actually in the movie, not from my bad screencapping.  Ok, not JUST from my bad screencapping.

Sadly, Gurgi shows up and saves Pig Boy, and Pig Boy decides to stop the cauldron.  Gurgi denies us that satisfaction, but, to make up for it, he throws himself in the cauldron instead, so all in all it kind of evens out.  Gurgi’s death unfortunately kills all the cool skeleton warriors, and the Horned King fumes at the fact that he hasn’t been allowed to do anything this entire goddamn movie.

Horned King with Eyes

Also it turns out he’s had eyes this whole time and he looks FREAKIN’ RAD with em!  I usually prefer my skeletons eye-less, but holy shit I wish we saw more of those peepers because they are RAD AS HELL.

He then goes off to see what’s up with his cauldron, and runs into Pig Boy.  The Horned King tries to kill Pig Boy, but Pig Boy manages to feebly kick him, which is apparently enough to knock the Horned King into the path of the cauldron.  The Horned King gets sucked in and dies a pretty gruesome death, which almost makes up for the fact that he didn’t get to do anything this whole damn movie.

Pretty Gnarly

If your kids are scared by this, just tell them that rotting flesh is delicious chocolate pudding instead!

Creeper realizes his boss’s death means an end to his perpetual abuse, and flies away on one of those wicked sweet dragons.  Our heroes escape, and for some reason Eilonwy has lost the spunk and gumption she had in earlier scenes, letting Pig Boy take the lead in finding an escape route for them.  And by “for some reason” I mean “so Pig Boy can look heroic.”  I dislike this.  I dislike that Eilonwy is made useless in the escape so Pig Boy can be useful.  This is bad and I don’t care for it.

The witches return to gloat, saying that Pig Boy worked so hard to get the cauldron only to find out it was useless to him.  Harp guy finally does something noteworthy by demanding payment for the cauldron.  The witches offer the sword back, but Pig Boy instead asks for Gurgi, because he’s realized “I’m not a warrior, I’m a pig boy.”  The witches reluctantly bring the great evil back into the world, and the audience is reminded that no struggle comes without a price and that wickedness shall never truly die as Gurgi returns to life.

Our heroes then walk off into the sunset, ready to start the thirty minute walk back to Pig Boy’s house – and, had this movie not tanked, perhaps more short, uneventful walks to other locations.

Pros

Pros

I just wanted to see my lovely children one last time.

  • Eilonwy is an excellent heroine. She could have easily been a damsel in distress to be saved, or the equally stereotypical subversion of a tomboy princess who hates dresses and don’t need no man to save her (until the final act when she does).  Instead, she’s a more subtle and nuanced subversion of the Princess stereotype – capable and independent without being stubborn or foolhardy.  I wish she was the main character.  Can you imagine a version of this movie where she got the sword?  I can and I want it.  I want that movie.
  • The Witches are excellent minor antagonists, and one of the better takes on the Trickster archetype I’ve seen in a Western animated film. I love tricksters, so they were very welcome.  They liven up every scene they’re in, and you can tell the animators loved bringing them to life.  I wish there was more of them, but I’m glad what we got of them was so good.
  • The Horned King’s character design and voice acting is magnificent. John Hurt brings a lot of subtlety and nuance to the character, taking lines that other actors would boom and shout and instead saying them with a quiet intensity.  He booms when he needs to, of course, and it’s excellent when he does, but he dials it back so those loud moments are all the more effective.  Between the voice and the design, the Horned King is a villain with great potential.
  • Creeper is an excellent villainous lackey. His design is the right mix of lovably pathetic and creepy monster, allowing him to move from nasty to sympathetic at a drop of a hat.  His dynamic with the Horned King does wonders for both their characterizations, and both his voice actor and the animators seemed to be giving 110% when bringing him to life.
  • Those gnarly sweet sick nasty dragons! I love them!  They’re like little Maleficent jr.s!  I wish they were in more of the movie!
  • The backgrounds for the movie are lovely, giving it an enchanted atmosphere. When it needs to be spooky, it’s spooky.  When it needs to be whimsical, it’s whimsical.  As far as set design goes, this movie is pretty good.
  • Since this movie was made by the ever affluent House of Mouse, the animation is better than probably any other 1980’s Western animated Fantasy film. While I vastly prefer the efforts of Rankin Bass, I have to admit that this is animated better. I mean, it’s got Disney money, not made-for-tv money, so that’s kind of a given.
  • The music for this film is great. There’s some typical whimsical fantasy tunes that you’d expect, but also some great spooky “oooOooooOOOOOoooo” type music.  If I knew music better I could probably describe that in a way that seems less childish, but you’ll get what I’m saying if you watch the movie yourself.
  • A lot of people call the whiny boy protagonist “pig boy,” and that makes me happy.
  • I also like that this story ends with Pig Boy admitting he’s not a hero, but that’s ultimately a small conciliation for the stuff we had to suffer through for him to have that revelation.

Cons

The Bad

“Nnngggnnnh, why doesn’t everyone see how awesome I am?”

  • Taran, AKA Pig Boy. As you may have gleaned, I do not like Pig Boy.  To be most accurate, though, what I really don’t like is the archetype Pig Boy’s following.  Pig Boy is the “whiny boy adventurer,” a petulant little twerp who shows up in far too many sci-fi and fantasy stories to count.  The Whiny Boy Adventurer expects adventure to find him, and begins the story angry that his adventure hasn’t started yet.  He feels that people should already see him as an epic hero, that he should be respected and feared and admired even though he’s just a (insert humble backstory here).  The Whiny Boy Adventurer doesn’t really want to save the world – he wants glory.  He feels entitled to a marvelous life of daring do and fame, and doesn’t realize that the adventure he covets involves a lot of other people’s suffering until it’s too late.  The Whiny Boy Adventurer differs from other Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey-style protagonists in that his motives are primarily and often exclusively selfish, and while sometimes a story will humble the Whiny Boy Adventurer a bit, he ultimately always becomes the hero he felt entitled to be – his selfishness is rewarded.
    I call this trop the Whiny Boy Adventurer for a reason, as this fantasy is almost exclusively a male one.  Fiction expects little boys to be selfish dicks who don’t care about others’ feelings – this shit goes all the way back to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, if not earlier.  We encourage this behavior in young boys, and while there are some stories of Whiny Girl Adventurers, they aren’t nearly as prominent.  As a person who was a young boy and thus was the target audience of these movies, I have hated this trop since I was very young.  I hate that my childhood ideal of heroism was expected to be so self-serving.  I hate that the likes of Pig Boy were the role models I was expected to look up to.  Child me would have much rather followed someone like Eilonwy, who’s a good example of how you do the “young person who loves adventure” trope without making the child in question a selfish asshole.
    To Pig Boy’s credit, he is humbled more than most, and he ends the story realizing he’s not really meant to be a hero.  He goes back to being a pig farmer.  That’s a better message than most Whiny Boy Adventurer stories have, but at the end of the day we still had to sit through a whole story of some selfish dick learning that he was a selfish dick, while a much more interesting hero sat in his backseat, never getting to take the reins.
  • I also hate Gurgi. Like Pig Boy, I understand that this is an irrational hate, and more a case of me hating an archetype than just the character itself.  Gurgi is so odious in how blatantly he’s designed to be “lovable.”  Haha, what a scamp he is, stealing food and running off when trouble rears its head!  Aw, how cute he is, with his weird dog face and ape body and hair that makes him look sort of like a tiny little old man as he crawls around this preteen’s body searching his crevices!  What a delight it is to watch this lovable rascal scamper about talking in the third person and occasionally rhyming words!  Gurgi is a fucking Hallmark card, a calculated ploy to manipulate our feelings on a shallow level, designed by people who have never genuinely felt warmth or laughter in their cold, calculated lives.  Gurgi sucks.
  • A lot of the characters in this movie have nothing to do. It’s not a case of there being too many characters, mind you – it’s more that there’s not enough plot to go around.  The story is “boy takes pig into woods, loses pig, finds pig, loses pig again, escapes castle, finds pig, sends pig off, goes to pawn shop, gets taken back to castle, escapes castle.”  Some of the other characters are involved in those scenes, but overall there’s not much going on.  Harp Guy does nothing of note till the last minute.  Gurgi does little of note except for finding pig tracks one time and sacrificing himself for the greater good.  Even Eilonwy – sweet, wonderful Eilonwy – is robbed of anything to do once they get out of the castle, and doesn’t get much more to do than be around while Pig Boy stumbles into more shenanigans.  There was a fairy who did nothing more than announce a scene transition before taking off because he felt the story was pointless.  Worst of all, though, is our poor antagonist, who for all his wicked design and excellent voice acting has little more to do than sit in a chair and watch stuff happen around him.  If Creeper wasn’t around for the Horned King to strangle occasionally, his villainy would be entirely something we are told rather than shown.  Speaking of…
  • This movie violates the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule of storytelling, and it violates it bad. Why is the Horned King a Villain?  Well, because everyone says he is.  Why is his scheme bad?  Well, because we told you he’s bad, obviously.  What’s he gonna do with those skeleton warriors?  Bad things, you can imagine I’m sure.  I kept making jokes about how things were only a brisk walk away because the movie never really takes the time to show the scale of Pig Boy’s journey, and as a result it really feels like he’s taking at most an hour’s walk from his house.  The scale of the setting and the conflict is never really established.  It’s never felt.  The Horned King looks scary, but he doesn’t do much, so he’s really not that frightening in the end.  The scenes we see are lovely, but they don’t feel like they have weight.  We’re told what we’re witnessing is important and dangerous and fantastical, but rarely if ever are we shown it.  The witches, for all their goofiness, are more established as a source of conflict and intrigue than our villain, and they’re minor characters!
  • Compounding this issue, much of what we’re shown doesn’t fit what we’re told, specifically when it comes to character design. The Horned King looks the part he’s playing – he’s the Sauron of our story, and he looks like the kind of villain who would scare the world.  His minions, though?  Well, Creeper gets a pass because of the archetype he’s playing, and the dragons are excellent, but the rest of the Horned King’s army are as threatening as a wet paper towel.  They’re the bad guys heroes would meet early on in the story, trounce easily, and never think of again, except here they hang on till the climax as the Horned King’s most powerful henchmen.  They’re too silly and goofy for their roles, and while that kind of explains why the Horned King wants to replace them with skeletons, it still leaves us with a main threat that’s way too comic for the dire stakes the story claims to possess.  Contrast them with the goblins of Rankin Bass, who, while comical at times, are still intensely threatening, even when they’re singing!  Similarly, while I love the witches in this, I feel like their deisgns could have been so much more interesting if they had been allowed to get a little creepier – once more I wonder what it would have been like if Rankin Bass had done the character design instead.  For all the claims that this movie was “too dark,” it really needed to go darker.  It needed to embrace its creepiness, and instead it dials it back.
  • A lot of the other character designs just feel so… stock. I swear Pig Boy’s mentor has been in at least a dozen other Disney movies – he’s, like, their standard Old Man design.  Harp guy even uses basically the same design, except slightly ganglier and with a slightly rounder face.  There’s a cat early on in the film that I had trouble realizing was a cat until it meowed because it just had, like, the stock “fuzzy fat cute animal” body, with, like, a short bushy squirrel tail?  Pig Boy, Eilonwy, the Horned King, and Creeper are the only characters whose designs really feel like they fit what the characters were going for, rather than repurposing some stock Disney character design tropes that kinda sorta not really fit.  Well, ok, we’ll add the dragons to that list too if we count them as characters.  And, yes, technically Gurgi’s design fits his character too, but Gurgi is an awful, wretched, treaclely sort of character, so I refuse to award points for that.

So Is It Good?

So Was It Good

I want to say yes.  I want to say this is an underrated classic, a tragic tale of a story that was good but was released at a bad time by producers who didn’t know what to do with it.  I want to say it’s another The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Iron Giant, and that history will vindicate it.  I want to be on this movie’s side.

But it’s not.  Sadly, it’s not.

There are a lot of faults in Disney’s approach to animated films, but to give credit where it’s due, they’re very good at telling tightly written fairy tales with light comedic tones, genuine intrigue, and moments of real emotion.  When they do that well, they do it better than almost any other animation studio.  The Black Cauldron is darker than what they normally handle, but it’s not the only animated Disney film that went dark.  Two of my favorite Disney movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Great Mouse Detective, are at least equally dark as this film.  While both of those weren’t huge successes when they premiered, they’ve become beloved cult classics, and there’s a reason for that: they’re good stories.  While they had darker tones than other Disney cartoons, they kept up the well written characters, the tight storytelling, and the sense of scale and grandeur.  They’re both stories where every hero, antagonist, and supporting characters gets to do something, where every scene has a purpose and builds a sense of a grand adventure.  They’re well told stories.

The Black Cauldron isn’t well told.  The scope of the conflict is never really felt, most of the named cast members don’t actually effect the plot that much if at all, and the protagonist is kind of insufferable (that last bit may be my bias, admittedly).  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s bad – you won’t come away from it feeling you wasted your time, or angry that someone forced you to see this garbage.  But it’s not good.  It’s good enough where you can see the story it could have been, and flawed enough to make you furious that it isn’t that better story instead.  The real tragedy of The Black Cauldron is that it could have been better than it is, but it never reached that lofty goal.  I don’t know if that explains its failure, but it does justify it – I can see why few people went to bat for this.  It’s not worth hating, but most of what you can defend about it lies in its potential, rather than the story it actually is.

I’ve read that the movie was edited quite a bit – that test audiences hated the rough cut, and that it might even have gotten an R rating for its gruesome imagery.  Maybe this was a movie that was killed in the editing room.  Maybe there was at one point a version of this story that could live up to its underdog status – a cut that was the hidden gem that Disney just didn’t understand.  But that’s definitely not the cut we got.

I know this review is ending on a rather negative note, but I would like to say that this movie is worth checking out.  If you ever watched a Rankin Bass fantasy movie and wondered what it might look like with, y’know, a decent budget, parts of this movie will feel a bit like wish fulfilment.  It will also give you an idea of the movie it could have been, and that idea is a pretty good one.  Finally, it has Princess Eilonwy, Creeper, the Horned King, and those wicked sweet dragons.  They deserved a better story than they got – don’t add to their indignity by forgetting them.

This entry was posted in Between Logic and Enchantment, Creepy Columns, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Between Logic and Enchantment: The Black Cauldron

  1. Pingback: Between Logic and Enchantment: Labyrinth | Horror Flora

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