#25 The Black Cauldron

#25 The Black Cauldron

Dungeons & Dragons & Corporate Turmoil

We’ve been in the “Dark Ages” for a decade now, but this week, things may be at their darkest. We’re dealing with skeletons, violent kings, sacrifices, goblins, and Disney’s first PG rating for an animated film! Scandalous! It’s all in The Black Cauldron, a film loosely based upon The Chronicles of Pyrdain series by Lloyd Alexander. The movie follows a young boy named Taran who sets out on a journey to protect his magical pig while being aided by his companions: a princess, a bard, and a…um…hmmm…well I can’t find what exactly Gurgi’s supposed to be on the film’s wiki page nor the books wiki page, but I think he’s like a dog? Anyway, the group is also pursued by the evil Horned King who is creepy af. It’s sort of like The Wizard of Oz if the witch was a skeleton-esque king, the ruby slippers were a pig, and Dorothy was a dumb farmhand…well, I guess that one fits. Much like it’s characters, the film’s production would have a journey filled with fighting, power struggles, and dark turns. However, unlike it’s characters, it wouldn’t have a happy ending. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas claimed to believe that The Black Cauldron would be on par with Snow White, if made properly, and many appeared to hold tight to that sentiment. Alas, instead of being like “the one who started it all”, The Black Cauldron would go on to be “the one who nearly ended it all”.

Disney first acquired the film rights for the series in the early 70’s, but would spend the next decade figuring out the best way to adapt the books – which storylines and characters should they use. Development continued to be a rocky process with multiple directors vying to have their ideas heard (and at times supposedly making changes without consulting the others), changing designs and character concepts (Milt Kahl was actually brought out of retirement to offer up designs for the main characters), and leadership that kept switching. John Musker was originally set to direct, but wound up leaving the project altogether to work on the upcoming Great Mouse Detective with Ron Clements. To make matters worse, the constantly delaying schedule was public knowledge, and in one promotional special, producer Joe Hale even talked about the “problems” they were having. The journey was not off to a great start.

If you thought the drama had ended with The Fox and the Hound, think again! The animation department was still working through the “changing of the guard” so to speak. Disney had always relied on its standard team, so decades of power wasn’t something the older animators/producers/directors were willing to give up easily, and the younger animators were eager to try new things and show off their talents. According to Don Hahn in the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, new animators “felt like they were being held back” while older animators thought the young animators were “spoiled brats and they should just get back to work”. Even the press got involved in the fight. When The New York Times ran a piece on the film’s delayed release, they wrote “the new crop of young animators the studio has spent six years acquiring are not yet competent to handle its complexities.” Oof. Older animators tried to reign in the energy and creativity of the new, something that ultimately led to the departure of employees, like Tim Burton for example. The members of this journey were clashing and even leaving.

This period also saw a change of leadership at the highest level and corporate figures sweeping into the creative space. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took control of the company (the first non-family “outsiders” to do so) and Jeffrey Katzenberg (the man who would eventually bestow both Shrek and Quibi upon the world) became the studio chairman, in charge of film production. All three faced a learning curve with animation production and were shocked at the amount of time and money it took to produce one animated film. The fact that the first one they saw the company release flopped would go on to have repercussions for the animation studio. At one point, Katzenberg ordered several scenes to be edited, but the animators argued that editing animation didn’t work the same way in their process as editing film and that it couldn’t be done. So Jeffrey brought the film to an edit bay in an attempt to edit it himself (you can’t help but admire the hands on attitude). He was ultimately stopped by Eisner, but still required the film to be modified, delaying the release schedule even further. It should be noted, and see if you can catch this while viewing, that some of the scenes that were cut were not done so seamlessly and had recognizable inconsistencies from one shot to the next. By February of 1985, just a few months before the film would hit theaters, things were so bleak that the animation department was literally kicked off the Disney company lot and relocated from Burbank to Glendale. I told you things were getting dark – and we haven’t even made it to the box office yet. The journey was taking detours and hitting low points.

During an era where adventure movies reigned supreme, one would think that TBC would be a surefire success. The team leaned into the dark story and created gruesome animations in an attempt to show pre-teen and even teen audiences that Disney was still relevant. However, the audience they already had (aka young children) did not take well to the film, and test screenings resulted in horrified kids. Scenes had to be taken out (like the one Katzenberg fought to edit) and those that were cut were reportedly gorey and overwhelming. There were several major actors, such as Hayley Mills, Bette Davis, and Lauren Becall, whom Disney had tied to the project at certain points, even at times publicly announcing their participation, but were ultimately not featured. One good thing that seemed to be working out for this film was pioneering new technology. A new process called Animation Photo Transfer (APT) was first used on The Black Cauldron and made the animation-to-cell process easier. This was also the first animated Disney movie “to feature computer-generated imagery”. To get the smoke coming out of the cauldron, animators used live-action footage of dry ice, which I personally think is really cool. To have success on this journey, party members had to adapt.

The Black Cauldron was the most expensive animated movie of its time, but made less than half of its cost in the US Box Office. It was a major loss, and had Disney executives considering whether or not animation had a future with the company. It is quite ironic how many ties The Black Cauldron has to Sleeping Beauty – it’s animation style was modeled from it, it was the second film since the latter to use the Super Technirama 70 film exhibition format, it was the first movie since Sleeping Beauty to feature a princess, and both films nearly shut down the animation studio. Critics across the board gave high praise to the animation, though not much else – noting that while the film had exciting elements and the characters were, at times, amusing, though not compelling, the script, overall story and humor were bland, and the movie was missing that signature Disney pizazz. Like many adaptations, the film was also very different than its source material, leaving fans of the books disappointed. The biggest blow was that it was beaten at the box office by The Care Bears Movie. The company that had once been the king of animated films had hit rock bottom. This journey did not have a happy ending.

The Black Cauldron at this point has been largely forgotten by audiences, and swept under the rug by Disney. At one time, characters from the film could be seen around the parks, but they are now retired. There was actually a restaurant in Disney World named after the character Gurgi (Gurgi’s Munchies and Crunchies), though it’s been changed over time and is now called The Friar’s Nook. Finally, Tokyo Disney had a walk-through attraction in the castle that featured the Horned King, but that closed in 2006. The movie has apparently garnered itself a bit of a cult-following, and it’s anniversary showing in 2015 sold-out the El Capitan theater in Hollywood. In the end, Don Hahn called the film a “necessary step” and “a low point to build off of”. And at least the animation studio didn’t get shut down! The journey may not have ended well, but the party bounced back and carried on.

I definitely watched The Black Cauldron as a kid and it didn’t scare me, but I did find the movie quite bleak and not very fun, so I had no desire to re-watch it. I did watch it again a few years ago as an adult and, as I’ve done with the other posts, I’ll put my current thoughts/opinions on the movie below the watch-notes. So, grab your sword and your shield and your magic pig (everyone has one of those, right?) and we’ll begin our journey to the land of Prydain!

My Thoughts on The Black Cauldron:

  • Time for the movie that nearly shut down the animation dpt
  • OMG this is the first time I’ve seen the Disney blue castle with the when you wish upon a star opening!!!! Classic! Nostalgic! Ahh!!
  • Ooh dark opening I’m here for it
  • Less than a minute in and we’ve already heard about this king’s “demonic spirit” and how he was “thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron” and geez we went from talking woodland creatures to this
  • I never got the whole “I want to go to war and FIGHT” mentality in male protagonists
  • Like Taran is actively worried about a war ending before he can fight, uh maybe think less about your thirst for blood and more about the safety of the kingdom, Tar
  • Ooh she’s a ~special pig~
  • Did Taran sign up to be the apprentice or was he assigned? He doesn’t seem to enjoy it, so can he not choose another career/apprenticeship?
  • “I never use her power” the pig has power???
  • She creates visions with her snout????
  • So the horned king is NOT the evil king in the cauldron? There have been TWO evil kings in this kingdom?
  • Henwen’s visions didn’t look too detailed how would they get the location of the cauldron?
  • How old is henwen? Is she like immortal?
  • How did they find out the pig could do this if you need the chant first?
  • “I’m not afraid of the horned king” “then you are a very foolish lad” lol
  • I’ve known Taran less than 10 minutes and I agree
  • This kid doesn’t seem too bright but I guess he’s the only one available ah good luck henny
  • Ooh creepy king
  • Did all those soldiers die in the castle or does he drag the bodies of all of his homies home after a battle?
  • Also is the Horned King just a creepy power-hungry figure (a la Maleficent) or is he the actual king and ruling body of this kingdom?
  • Taran’s been on the road for like 10 minutes, can probably still see his house from there, and he’s imagining all the glory he’s going to get
  • He lost the pig already r u kidding me
  • There are 2 braincells in this pair and Henwen has both of them
  • Gosh I’m so annoyed he had her on a leash and everything, one thing is daydreaming and not looking at her, but he let go of the damn rope, too?
  • This kingdom is Doomed
  • Oh what was that?
  • What is that thing?
  • Is it a talking dog? Or a hairy little man?
  • Taran’s mad that the creature has the apple and is all indignat because he didn’t mean to give it to him, but he DID offer the apple to Gurgi…he just thought it was Henwen and that’s not Gurgi’s fault
  • Oh my gosh this apple fight is going on too long aren’t there plenty of trees around?
  • Gurgi is giving me MAJOR Gollum from LOTR vibes – the talking in 3rd person, calling taran ‘master’, his weird words and high pitched voice. Both names even start with G!
  • The LOTR movies came after this, but the LOTR books came before the Pyrdain books and I’ve read neither series so I don’t know who stole from who but they are awfully similar
  • Kind of also reminds me of Dobby from HP
  • Gurgi: I’ll help you find your pig and then we’ll be friends forever! / *Henwen squeals in fear* / Gurgi: “goodbye” hahaha
  • Dragons!!
  • It just got GOT up in here
  • No!! Henwen!!
  • Poor piggy
  • Oof that dragon just clawed this child
  • Look Taran! You should have just given Gurgi the apple! Wasting precious time that got the pig taken AFTER you screwed up and let her walk off
  • That’s rude calling Gurgi a coward cuz he doesn’t want to journey with you to certain death – he’s known ya 10 minutes, I don’t blame him!!!
  • “Gurgi will never see his friend again” aww poor annoying little gurgi
  • Pet dragons in the house? That’s dope
  • Whoahhhh the horned king just appeared with his own light show and fire!! Giving Maleficent a run for her money….
  • Taran you swing a BROOM at them? 
  • This kid gives me second hand embarrassment like no other
  • Oooh shout out to John Hurt for a FANTASTIC and chilling villain voice
  • OMG they’re threatening to behead the piggy
  • The horned king sizzled when he got hit with water, i guess wicked witch rules are in effect
  • That is a BIG drop how was he so sure the pig would even SURVIVE?!
  • “swim Hen! Swim!” Well she’s already heading toward the water, Taran, doesn’t matter if she can swim or not
  • Why do villains choke their henchmen so much? Why is that the go-to move?
  • Movie, we are not even a half hour into you, we don’t need memories of what’s already been said, this dumb kid’s words are still fresh in my mind
  • So if Princess Eilonwy was kidnapped, is her kingdom retaliating any time soon? Or did they just forget about her…
  • Oooh, he has people collect the soldiers that become skeletons. Props to this movie for answering a question I had
  • He really stole the sword off the dead evil king’s tomb, this boy

When you play Wonderwall one too many times

  • “You’re in trouble aren’t you” he’s locked up, gosh darn it Eilonwy stop asking obvious questions
  • Ohohoho it’s a magic sword!
  • Okay so I guess it’s a good thing he took it but if he weren’t the main character, this sword could have been cursed and backfired on him
  • And now he’s just swinging it around and playing with it, like kid you’re supposed to be escaping
  • Taran don’t waste the wine like that!
  • Why is everyone just standing there while they escape? And the crowd literally parted to let the old man run through and get out…what’s with these lazy henchmen?
  • So they got a bard, Eilonwy is basically a mage cuz she got the magic ball, Taran’s a palidin (I think, tbh I don’t fully know what any of these mean) so is this just Dungeons & Dragons the movie?
  • “I got us out of the castle didn’t I?” “you? I’d say it was the sword’s magic” you’re right Eilonwy don’t let him take the credit!
  • “What does a girl know about swords?” ugh taran i hate you so much
  • Taran clearly YOU don’t know anything about pig keeping because you had ONE JOB that affected the fate of the world and you screwed it up
  • Taran is officially on my Beef List along with Donald Duck, the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, and the old widow from The Fox and the Hound
  • “If it weren’t for this girl you’d still be in the horned kings dungeon” you tell him PRINCESS
  • “He’s no friend just a coward and a thief” Don’t be mean to Gurgi!
  • I say the rest of the gang gives Taran to the horned king and goes to find the pig themselves
  • Good on Eilonwy for not being completely dense. She now holds all the braincells in this group in Henwen’s absence
  • Fairies?!!!
  • They’re so colorful and cute!
  • Henwen!! Taran is SO lucky
  • I wish this movie did better and had a better reputation because I think Disney could have done something really cool with these colorful fairies, they’re so pretty
  • And with the Horned King, actually. This could have been some kind of exciting ride
  • “Is that one of my new jobs? Remembering where the cauldron was last seen?” ahahah i like the curmudgeony fairy
  • Also, WOW not only did the fairies find Henwen, they just happen to know where the cauldron is. This is too much luck/convenience in one scene
  • I know we gotta have a mission for the movie to be a movie, but it’s so dumb to go after the powerful weapon. 1) it’s continuing being out in the open with the pig 2) how ya going to destroy it? 3) if/when you DO destroy it, it’ll just piss the already very powerful horned king off
  • This is why I’m not a gryffindor guys
  • These fairies are so nice, though I feel bad for the one that got roped into tour guiding, especially because he doesn’t want to go
  • And they’re going to watch over Henwen and get her home safely? MVP’s these fairies
  • But, where exactly are they taking her? Wasn’t Taran taking her to a safehouse somewhere?? Wouldn’t it not be safe to bring her home?
  • Oh well
  • Looks like we got a full party – let’s get this mission rolling!

The Horned King’s Henchmen bringing bodies back for the skeleton army:

  • Who turned these people into frogs? Where are they…i got a bad feeling about this
  • Witches!
  • Okay this frog stuck in boobs scene is a little much for a kids movie
  • I’m surprised no one has come to look for the black cauldron in 2000 years – no one wanted the power?
  • Ooh the Sanderson sisters here are conniving, interesting
  • I really like this scene – I don’t blame Taran for making the exchange, because he thinks he’s just fulfilling the mission, but knowing what the witches said about them not being able to suse the cauldron heightens the suspense
  • Oh my goodness what’s happening, where is everything going?
  • The black cauldron!!!
  • It’s huge
  • You gotta willingly kill yourself to stop the power, this IS dark
  • “What a bunch of blundering misfits” my new favorite insult “things just never work out when you’re dealing with people” a timeless and relatable quote! read them to FILTH fairy!  
  • He was part of the team for 10 minutes and he was already my favorite character
  • But…why do you believe in Taran Eilonwy??
  • This old musician ships the kids so much it’s kinda creepy
  • Bad guys! Ugh and now they can just take the cauldron
  • How did Gurgi get away?
  • Oh dang even the bad guys know the jump-in rule. Was Team Taran the only idiots in the realm who didn’t?
  • The Horned king accomplished his task…is HE the most competent villain so far?
  • Yay!! Go Gurgi!! Hero!
  • Taran wanting to jump into the cauldron is the best and smartest thing he’s said all day im on board
  • “Gurgi has no friends” im crying in the dungeon right now
  • A character sacrificing themselves and dying is such a BOLD move for a Disney film, especially at this point
  • I get why people didn’t like this movie, and agree that it’s a bit too dark for kids, but I like the originality
  • Alas, the HK was not above the classic villain mistake of leaving the heroes alive
  • Ohhhhhh my god the horned king with the red eyes scares ME
  • Oof the HK getting sucked in is gruesome
  • So…what does this mean? Are the dead soldiers coming back? 
  • Nope the castle is just falling down
  • This escape on the boat scene gives me another ride idea: a ride through the horned king’s castle that ends in a water coaster situation would be DOPE! Kind of like Pirates…you could ride through the country side/forest, avoid the dragons, get “sucked under water” to the fairies place, then end up in the castle
  • I kinda love that the sidekick goblin got away, he’s just vibin now, no boss, just party
  • Oh the witches are back
  • “Gurgi was the hero” true that Taran
  • Yes, come through Flewter, be useful for once!!
  • Why do the witches want the cauldron so bad? They weren’t using it, were they? And since Gurgi sacrificed himself, doesn’t that mean the cauldron’s power is done?
  • Ahh the ol’ bait and reverse psychology “bet you don’t have the power for this” maneuver…nice
  • Gurgi is so happy to be with his friends
  • Oh yeah the pig
  • Aww i’m glad Henwen is back home and safe
  • Taran should get fired
  • “you did well my boy” he did not. The people around him did well and he was just in their presence
  • Ah the grumpy fairy is there!! my dude!
  • Okay, PG-13 high fantasy, cool cgi skeleton, live action black cauldron WHEN?

Ah, Black Cauldron, what a messy bench you are, both on screen and off. I actually don’t hate this movie. In fact, pre-90’s, it’s one of my favorites! I admire the team for even attempting the film because while they had adapted books/series in the past, this endeavor was much more detailed, with heavier parts and more characters. While the end result was clearly not the cleanest, most accurate, best adaption, from a creative standpoint, I give them props for even trying. I enjoy how headstrong Eilonwy is and just the overall trope of “band of misfits comes together to defeat the baddie”. I love me a fantasy adventure with magic, so the story is really right up my alley, and I do think the action sequences get quite exciting, even if there are definitely points where the plot gets dull. I love the magical fairies, the cool dragons, and the overall sense of adventure.

I like that they weren’t afraid to go dark with the story, and the villain, even as an adult viewer, is creepy and intimidating. It’s such a change up from Disney’s reputation and it’s “cute animals solve mysteries and/or get into shenanigans” thing it had built up the last couple decades. That being said, I can totally understand why children were scared while watching this film. I personally think Cauldron was released at the wrong time, which is strange to say because they had already delayed it so much, but I say this because Disney hadn’t really gone scary or even very complex yet (I mean, the pink elephant sequence was terrifying but on a different level from skeleton army, ya know?). While I don’t think the 90’s movies get as dark as TBC, they still have darker elements than the movies that came before them, like war in Mulan, monsters in Hercules, straight up murder on-screen in The Lion King. They also have more thrilling and complex storylines. So, having those projects under their belt, I think Disney could have produced a better version of Black Cauldron, and I think audiences would have been set up to respond better. If TBC had been put on hold until the 90’s or even the 2000’s, who knows how things would have gone with different viewer expectations, animation styles, and technological advancements. Who knows how things would have gone if the ideas of Clements, Musker, and other young animators had been listened to the first time around, for that matter. Honestly, any of those new situations would have produced a completely different film, so I acknowledge that it’s hard to speculate, but just some things to muse on.

That all being said, and I know people have their grievances with the “live-action remakes” (I actually quite like them, but that’s another topic for another time), in my humble opinion, Black Cauldron is the perfect choice for the next live-action adaptation. Note: my comments on the live-action remakes from this point aren’t necessarily my opinion, but what I’ve seen the general consensus to be. 1) Disney wouldn’t have to worry about “messing with” a strongly beloved movie and upsetting fans, because while TBC has a cult following, as I mentioned, the film and it’s characters just don’t have the admiration that Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin, and Mulan have. 2) TBC was probably too dark to be an animated movie geared toward young children anyway. I mean, they struggled with scenes that were too violent and had to be taken out, it got the first PG rating, and it scared kids. I get some people like darker animation, and I myself just said I enjoyed the mold-breaking plunge into high-fantasy action, but it clearly didn’t work. Taking the dark fantasy story and turning it into a live-action fantasy adventure that’s PG (or even PG-13, closer in tone and style to the first Pirates movie) could be the best way to tell the tale. 3) It’s not a musical, so there wouldn’t be any worry about not-including beloved songs (Mulan) or poorly done new versions of beloved songs (Aladdin) or newly added songs that don’t go over well (Beauty and the Beast). I have not read the original book series, so I can’t offer up exact plot ideas, but to the Disney execs that for sure read this blog, I’d be happy to discuss my adaption ideas further.

This was a long post, and there was A LOT to unpack, so I thank you for reading. If you have thoughts on The Black Cauldron – maybe you’re part of the “cult following”, maybe you were traumatized by it as a kid – let me know in the comments. Next week, we go back to the animal mysteries and shenanigans with The Great Mouse Detective. And, yes, there is even more drama to come.

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