The Black Cauldron is an animated film released by Walt Disney Productions in 1985. The 25th film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series, the movie is loosely based on The Chronicles of Prydain series. It combines scenes from the first two books and posits the Horned King as the chief antagonist, while Arawn is a spirit trapped in the Cauldron. The film is a mish-mash of Prydain characters and generic fantasy tropes, a far cry from the unique spirit of the series authored by Lloyd Alexander. Its characters are so altered and its plot so rearranged, its creators could have done little more to distance their film from the books.
The movie is nominally directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, who had directed the previous Disney animated film, The Fox and the Hound. However, the film's troubled production went through several personnel changes, and the credits may not accurately reflect the true contributions of its many co-creators. Disney's The Black Cauldron features the voices of Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, John Byner, and John Hurt. A video game based on the film was released in 1986.
Taran is a red-headed, self-centered farmboy who dreams of adventure and heroics, lives with Dallben (an amalgamation with Coll) in a small cottage, and cares for Hen Wen, a tiny, pink, oracular pig. One day as Taran gives Hen a bath, she becomes agitated. Dallben uses her powers to uncover the reason for her worry: the dastardly (and apparently undead) Horned King wants to use Hen to find the Black Cauldron and make Cauldron-Born warriors. To keep Hen Wen safe, Dallben sends Taran away with her -- into the dark woods, away from the protected sanctuary of Caer Dallben. But while Taran is daydreaming in the woods about being a glorious warrior, Hen Wen runs away.
As Taran searches for her he meets Gurgi, a tiny, squishy-voiced, bristle-mustached dog-person, who is roughly the size and shape of a newborn Pekingese, and who points the boy in the right direction for reasons unknown and unrevealed. Taran finds the piglet just in time to see her carried away by the gwythaints -- which in this version are reptilian and rather draconic, as opposed to the black birds of the books -- to the Horned King's castle. Taran decides to sneak into the castle to save her, but Gurgi stays behind out of fear for his poor tender head.
In the Horned King's castle Taran finds Hen Wen, but the boy is captured just as he throws Hen to safety. He is rescued from the dungeon by Princess Eilonwy, who in this version has blonde hair (as opposed to "red-gold"), shoes and is well kempt as opposed to hardy and barefoot; together girl and boy enter the catacombs beneath the castle. In an ancient burial chamber, Taran finds a magic sword, Dyrnwyn, which neither flames nor is in any way black, but which contains magic that allows the boy to fight the Horned King's minions, and so fulfill his dream of heroism. Along with a third captive, the comical bard Fflewddur Fflam, who is here pot-bellied and rather elderly and feeble, they escape the castle and are soon reunited with the diminutive Gurgi.
Following Hen Wen's trail, the four stumble into the underground kingdom of the Fair Folk, who in this version are eensy-weensy bug-sized fruit-moth-people, and whose cheerful, elderly King Eiddileg reveals that Hen Wen is under their protection. Taran consults Hen because sure, now he can talk to magic pigs, and finds that the Black Cauldron is in the Marshes of Morva. Taran resolves to go destroy the evil pot himself; Eilonwy, Fflewddur, and Gurgi agree to join him, and Eiddileg's obnoxious right-hand man Doli (who is nothing like the real Doli in appearance or character) is assigned to lead them to the Marshes, while the Fair Folk agree to escort Hen Wen safely back to Caer Dallben for reasons unknown and unrevealed. Doli deserts the foursome after they reach the Marshes -- a cowardly move which the book character would have disdained.
The group finds Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, blue-skinned weirdo-women who are rather unsubtle and overbearing -- a far cry from the subtle threats and cunning minds of Alexander's enchantresses. One of them here is a bawdy cougar on the prowl, who inexplicably falls in love with Fflewddur and, for reasons unknown, cuddles him between her gigantic breasts. The gang strike up a bargain with the witches; the only trade these blue-toned biddies will accept for the Cauldron is Taran's magic sword. He agrees, though he knows the exchange will cost his chance for heroism. Before vanishing, the witches reveal that the Cauldron is nigh-indestructible: its power can be broken only by someone who climbs in under his own free will, which will kill him. None of the companions will do that, so it seems Taran has traded his sword for nothing. Taran feels foolish for aspiring to destroy the Cauldron alone, but his friends show their belief in him, and it appears that he and Eilonwy will kiss.
But the Horned King's men arrive and steal the Cauldron! The ragtag group is taken to the villain's eerie castle and tied up in a spooky room with the Cauldron, where they witness the creepy birth of the Cauldron-Born (a ghoulish sequence that earned the film a PG rating). Just as the gang are giving up in despair, Gurgi arrives, having decided that his friends are worth the danger, and frees them! Taran decides that he will destroy the Cauldron by jumping into it, but Gurgi leaps in first! When the Horned King spots Taran at large, he infers the turn of events and throws the youth toward the Cauldron, but the black pot's magic is out of control. It consumes the Horned King and destroys the castle, using up all its powers in a nifty light-show that handily avoids annihilating our heroes.
The three witches come to recover the now inert Cauldron. Taran has finally realized Gurgi's true friendship, and he persuades them to revive the fuzzy what-is-it in exchange for the Cauldron, giving up his magical sword permanently. Fflewddur goads the reluctant witches into demonstrating their powers by the resurrection.
The four friends journey back to Caer Dallben, where Dallben and Doli are watching them in a vision created by Hen Wen. Dallben finally praises Taran for heroism. Why the cranky and cowardly fairy-moth-person Doli is with him remains unrevealed.
- Grant Bardsley as Taran
- Susan Sheridan as Eilonwy
- Freddie Jones as Dallben
- Nigel Hawthorne as Fflewddur Fflam
- Arthur Malet as King Eiddileg
- John Byner as Gurgi/Doli
- Eda Reiss Merin, Adele Malis-Morey, and Billie Hayes as Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch
- Phil Fondacaro as Creeper
- John Hurt as Horned King
- John Huston as Narrator
In the late 1970s a new generation of artists entered the Disney Studios, under the tutelage of the old guard of legendary animators who included Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, Fred Moore and Ward Kimball. Those men inspired and trained the newcomers who, by the early 80s, were ready to prove themselves worthy successors to their heroes. The new generation were looking for a major challenge, and they received it when Ron Miller, the new head of production at Disney, gave the go-ahead for The Black Cauldron.
At the time there was enormous interest in fantasy and so-called "sword-and-sorcery" fiction, and Lloyd Alexander's award-winning books were very popular with a certain readership. But the young animators, skilled as they were in their crafts, had little supervision from more experienced filmmakers; worse, they proved to have a poor grasp of storytelling. Early enthusiasm for the Cauldron project descended into petty rivalries and bickering. The several production units had poor communication among them as individual members struggled for control. Well trained and ambitious effects animators, layout artists, background painters and character animators all lent their skills to what remains a visually impressive film, but one which lacked narrative logic or visual cohesion. Shortly before the film's release to theaters, newly appointed Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered several scenes from The Black Cauldron be cut, due to both the film's length and the fear that the graphic nature of certain images would alienate children and family audiences. Since animated films were typically edited in storyboard form using Leica reels (later known as animatics: storyboards shot sequentially and set to temporary audio tracks), producer Joe Hale objected to Katzenberg's demands. Katzenberg responded by having the film brought into an edit bay and editing the film himself.
Told what Katzenberg was doing by Hale, Disney CEO Michael Eisner called Katzenberg in the editing room and convinced him to stop. Though he did as Eisner insisted, Katzenberg demanded the film be revised, and delayed its scheduled Christmas 1984 release to July 1985 so that the film could be reworked.
The film was ultimately cut by 12 minutes, including whole sequences involving the world of the Fair Folk. This sequence was included as a bonus feature on the 2010 DVD as an animatic. Some existing scenes were rewritten and re-animated for continuity. The cut scenes included shots of the undead Cauldron-Born which were deemed too gruesome for the family-friendly film studio. Another cut scene depicted a guard being dissolved by mist, creating a jump in the film's soundtrack. Cels of the cut sequence were later posted online, as well as missing footage of the Cauldron-Born springing forth from the mist.
The film is notable for its early use of computer generated imagery in its animation for bubbles, a boat, and the Cauldron itself. Additionally, a new way to transfer drawings to cels was invented for the film, called the APT process. But as the APT-transferred line art would fade off of the cels over time, most or all of the film was done using the xerographic process which had been in place at Disney since the late 1950s.
Disney's The Black Cauldron was released in North America on July 24, 1985. The film was also screened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. It cost $44 million to produce, the most expensive animated film made to that time. But it grossed only about $21 million at the North American box office and it is considered one of the worst box-office failures from Walt Disney Animation Studios. It was so poorly received that it would not have a home viewing more than a decade after its theatrical release.
The film was the last Disney animated film completed at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The animation department was moved to the Air Way facility in nearby Glendale in December 1984, and, following corporate restructuring, became a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Studios known as Walt Disney Feature Animation (later Walt Disney Animation Studios).
In addition to bombing at the box office, Disney's The Black Cauldron received mixed reviews, with some critics blaming the film's lack of appeal on the dark nature of the book. It has earned a "rotten" score of 55% at Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus "Ambitious but flawed, The Black Cauldron is technically brilliant as usual, but lacks the compelling characters of other Disney animated classics." Roger Ebert gave a positive review of the film, while the Los Angeles Times' Charles Solomon praised its "splendid visuals". London's Time Out magazine deemed it "a major disappointment", adding that "the charm, characterization and sheer good humor" found in previous Disney efforts "are sadly absent".
Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was dismayed by the product and the animators felt that it lacked "the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander's work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted."
Lloyd Alexander had a more complex reaction to the film:
- First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I'd also hope that they'd actually read the book. The book is quite different. It's a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book.
Many of the animators who worked on the project reportedly look back on it as a fiasco they would rather forget.
Following many requests from fans, The Black Cauldron was first released on VHS in 1998 in a pan-and-scan transfer. A DVD release with a non-anamorphic letterboxed 2.39:1 transfer followed in 2000, featuring an art gallery, a new game "The Quest for the Black Cauldron", and the 1952 Donald Duck short Trick or Treat.
Disney released a 25th Anniversary Edition DVD on September 14, 2010 in the US and UK, containing a new 2.39:1 16:9 anamorphic widescreen transfer, a deleted scene called "The Fairfolk", and a new game called "The Witches' Challenge", along with the features from the 2000 DVD release.