Reaching their 25th animated feature film was a huge milestone for Disney Studios. As far as I can tell, very few other studios have yet to reach that point even today. Sure, there are studios with more animated movies behind their belt than 25, but many of those are straight to video, whether it’s a popular kid’s series like Vegie Tales or mockbuster shock studios like Vídeo Brinquedo.
Disney’s Animation Studio banked hard on The Black Cauldron, released in 1985. Based on the book series by Lloyd Alexander, Chronicles of Prydain, it’s a pure fantasy movie. Not only was it their first animated movie with a budget of more than $10 million, but their budget reached $44 million. They hired famed film composer Elmer Berstein for the soundtrack. They used new methods of animation that would process the animation directly on celluloid using a photo process.
Also, a lot of people mistake Beauty and the Beast as the first Disney Animated movie to use CGI. It’s not even the third. The Black Cauldron was the first, adding in bubbles, a boat, a floating orb of light and the cauldron itself using computers. Producer Joe Hale was so excited about the possibilities of CGI animation that he made sure Disney’s next animated feature, The Great Mouse Detective, would also include it somewhere. It’s also the first Disney Animated movie that wasn’t a musical at all. All of the previous animated movies had at least one or two songs.
The result is a very technically impressive movie for its time, and the more ambitious scenes still stand up well today. The soundtrack is very well regarded and for good reason. It often sounds epic, matching the intended tone of the darker action scenes very well. As Disney’s first PG rated animated movie, it also featured more frightening visuals than ever before, like walking skeletons and some actual on-screen violence. Some of the scenes they cut might have even pushed this into PG-13 territory today.
Despite all the ambition and technical achievements, the movie bombed hard. It earned less than half of its budget. It nearly bankrupted Disney Studios, and it sparked major restructuring in the company. It even lost to the Care Bears movie. It was so poorly received that it didn’t release on video until 1998, 13 years after its theatrical release. Shortly after, the studio closed their original Animation building in Burbank, California. They’ve opened a new studio there in the mid-90’s, but still. Critics praised the ambitious technical side of the film but blasted the storytelling, leaving the overall reception as mixed. The author of the book it was based on, Lloyd Alexander, had a bit of a complex reaction to the movie himself. He acknowledged the many changes made from the book and hoped that those who saw the movie would read it and discover its emotional depth, but he enjoyed the film anyway.
I’ve never seen the movie until today, although I do remember seeing a couple commercials for its first ever video release in 1998. I also remember at least hearing a lot about the book way back in grade 5. I’m not sure whether we read it for class or not, and if we did, I don’t remember it at all, but I will say that watching this movie kind of makes me want to read the book sometime. Maybe after I finish this massive Disney project and the unread books on my shelf I’ll look into it.
So what did I think about The Black Cauldron? Well, the soundtrack is awesome and it’s probably worth listening to on its own. A lot of the action is well-choreographed, with impressive visuals throughout. The CGI in this movie doesn’t overstep its boundaries, to the point where I didn’t know it was CGI until I read that this movie contained it. But as for the movie itself, yeah … I can see why it didn’t do so well.
The story is about a magical black cauldron, and a young assistant pig-keeper, Taran, trying to stop the evil Horned King from finding it. Somehow, one of the pigs under his care can see the future, and the Horned King wants the pig to try and find the black cauldron. It turns into an adventure that introduces both Princess Eilonway and Gurgi, a talking dog.
The first problem with this movie is the characters. Taran keeps bragging about being a brave warrior when he really doesn’t anything that brave. He eventually wises up by the end of the movie, but it takes too long and he gets annoying after a while. Princess Eilonway is the least princessy princess in Disney Cannon, to the point where she might as well be a peasant. There’s also a moment where Taran and Eilonway are arguing, and for some reason, Taran calling her a silly princes is enough to make her cry. This is after she escaped from a dungeon and pretty much won the argument through superior logic. She’s not a bad character. She’s certainly the smartest member of the group. Considering how badly this movie did and how the writing behind some of her dialogue still sucks, I fully understand why she’s not a member of the official Disney Princess line.
And then there’s Gurgi. Until the climax, Gurgi contributes very little to the movie. He’s a coward who never shuts up. Although Gurgi didn’t really bother me that much, I can see why a lot of people find him annoying. He talks kind of like Gollum but without any of the amusing English fails or the dark humour … or any humour of any kind. The Nostalgia Critic compared him to Jar Jar Binks during his first Disneycember marathon.
There are other characters, but besides the three witches guarding the Black Cauldron, none of them really add much to the story. The Horned King is just your average, stereotypical fantasy villain who wants power and that’s all I have to say about him.
As much as the action is ambitious, the story just feels kind of flat. There are no real surprises. There are few if any emotional moments. Because Gurgi is kind of annoying, you don’t feel anything when he sacrifices himself to weaken the Cauldron. It all kind of adds up to a whole bunch of nothing. It’s hard to feel anything after watching this movie. It’s like a typical Zack Snyder movie – all style and no substance.
That’s not to say that nobody will like this. The Black Cauldron does have a dedicated fan base. When they released it on VHS in 1998, it was because of massive fan requests, and they’ve re-released it a couple of times since. The movie eventually made back its money through these video releases and its multiple soundtrack releases. In a way it’s Disney’s ultimate cult favourite.
That’s not enough for me to recommend this movie, but I won’t say anyone’s wrong for liking it. The characters ranging from mediocre to annoying didn’t do it for me, especially for someone who values characters in fiction more than story and action. I didn’t necessarily dislike this movie. It wasn’t as bad as I dreaded it could be. It’s just bad by Disney standards, and that makes it mediocre.
Disney has since fully bought the rights to the Chronicles of Prydian, which suggests they’re working on remaking this movie. I kind of hope they do, because as much as this movie isn’t all that good, I can see massive potential behind the story and some of the characters.
Next up is The great Mouse Detective, the movie that saved Disney’s Animation Studio, followed by Oliver and Company (which I’ve never seen), and then the movie that kick started the Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid also marks the half-way point in Disney’s animated cannon, so I’m considering a one week break after that.