Film Reviews

The Black Cauldron: Retro Scary Animated Film

This film was made in the 1980s and it is a well-known cult classic film by The Walt Disney Animation Company for being too scary for kids.

This film is based on two books of the book series The Chronicles of Prydain, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron, by Lloyd Alexander. The story is based on Welsh mythology. The book series is noted for being influential literature for children while the movie is remembered as a financial bomb for Disney that almost destroyed the company. It was known as the most expensive animated movie ever made when initially released.

The Black Cauldron is about an evil Horned King looking for a black cauldron with ancient powers that he hopes to take over the world. But a young swineherder Taran, a bard with a hard and a princess have a mission to stop the Horned King.

The making of the film was very problematic with the preliminary animation of the characters being first realistic too difficult to do for an animated film, then too comedic for the story, too many characters to animate, too scary for kids and cut to pieces to salvage the film for a Christmas release. There were many errors in the making of this film, mainly not understanding the source material. The constant changes to the animation team were not smart. The main leads who started working on this film ended up working on The Fox and The Hound (1981) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986); both films were produced at the same time as The Black Cauldron but had better reviews and are considered classics. The result was very choppy especially in the sound at the end where a lot of “scary” scenes were cut. The production ran out of time to polish up the film to look like a modern-day Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Pinocchio (1940) with airbrushing.

The story suffered from condensing two books with a multitude of characters and story building into one film. The book series is fairly complex with character development and detailed storytelling but if you think about how many characters were dismissed or condensed into one character it seems mishandled. Maybe you would still find it interesting but the film would seem that it could have been so much better. I could blame the director but I really blame the final edit, producer interference and pre-production for changing their minds a lot with the animation style.

The Black Cauldron has plenty of gothic horrors and medieval settings. This film may not be suitable for sensitive viewers because of the macabre imagery from the magic scenes to skeleton spookiness. The use of dark magic with unforgivable circumstances to return from makes the film darker and even more Gothic in tone.

The illustration style of the whole film looks like it was influenced by Ralph Bakshi and other adult experimental films of that period like The Hobbit (1977) and Fantastic Planet (1973). The character designs were one of Don Bluth’s first films he did for Disney. It was a hand-drawn film and has great special effects with the green magic scenes from the Horned King. The green magic scenes were computer-generated. This film was Disney’s first attempt at computer-generated imagery (CGI) with live-action mist from dry ice incorporated in the film. The animation looks very rough around the edges because of the shortcut of photocopying cells to create some scenes quickly.

Screenshot of The Black Cauldron (1985). The Horned King awakens the black cauldron.

Horned King is dark gothic. He is a skeleton king in a black robe with green magical powers. The character is a composite of multiple villains in the book. He was voiced by John Hurt and was a good menacing character with dimension for an animated villain. The character has the most memorable scenes in the film even though he starts doing menacing things in the last ten minutes of the film. Even the notorious deleted scene of a man having his body melt with dark magic was memorable.

The end credits are beautiful and stylized. It keeps the medieval style of flipping through illuminated pages of a picture book until the end.

Funny characters with a great villain. Gergi is somewhat a kleptomaniac and had an annoying voice. In my opinion, the voice had a weird nasal voice which was irritating to me. The three witches were funny with a weird boob joke. The heroes of the film are okay. Taran is angrier and irritated more than most Disney counterparts who are too nice and sometimes too altruistic. The pig, Hen Wen, was cute and not irritating. It was like a pet dog but a pig. I like that the pig is psychic, that’s just weird.

Screenshot of The Black Cauldron (1985). Hen Wen, the pig, looking inside an enchanted bowl getting an oracle reading with Taran, the pig-keeper.

Disney could do a remake of this film as a live-action film truthful to the original story. It wasn’t the original story that made it a bad film, it was execution. Disney has been converting a lot of their animations to be live-action right now. The film can go scarier or gorier with new technology and might find blockbuster success just like its live-action remake predecessors like Maleficent (2014) or Beauty and the Beast (2017). This would be a weird and challenging attempt that might work out because of how censorship is completely different now, technology would make it cheaper to make and if it was released to streaming, it can go dark even more as a five-part series. Or completely bomb (again.)

Genre: Family / Fantasy / Animation
Year: 1985
Duration: 80 minutes

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Two and a half out of five stars

All screenshots are from the film

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