film & game reviews, the retro way.
THE BLACK CAULDRON
The film that famously flopped so hard it put Disney's animation department in jeopardy for a short time, The Black Cauldron was a doomed project from the start with conflicting visions for it pre-release ultimately leading to poor box-office results.
Loosely based on Lloyd Alexander's books, the film set out to be a kind of Lord Of The Rings meets Conan The Barbarian swords & sorcery adventure but for a younger audience. Unfortunately, between the studio chairman ordering changes based on bad initial test screenings, the producer refusing those requests and the CEO stepping in to manage things, the lead up to The Black Cauldron's release was a mess, to say the least. The big issue seemed to be a conflict in terms of what might alienate younger viewers, seeing as the film was considerably darker than most Disney animated features with the creepy Horned King unleashing an army of the dead on the world, killing some of his henchmen in gruesome ways in the process. This sequence and others were shortened and parts of the finished film, which earned a PG rating, still feel a bit clunky as a result.
The film sees young assistant pig-keeper Taran discover that the evil Horned King is seeking a mythical black cauldron with dangerous powers and he'll soon need his pig's magical powers to locate it. Taran sets out to bring the pig to safety but the latter is soon taken by the Horned King's dragon creatures so the new plan becomes to break into the King's castle, rescue the pig and set out to find the cauldron themselves in order to destroy it once and for all. On paper, this is a pretty odd folk story, so not a particularly easy one for Disney to adapt, especially since the film didn't have an easy gimmick like catchy songs or big name stars to help attract audiences. That said, the movie works a lot better than you'd expect considering the struggle that was its post-production.
For one thing, the design of the settings and the visuals in general are beautifully done. The Horned King's castle is a genuinely intimidating place and the sequence where the dragons capture Hen Wen is particularly intense. The animation on the two main characters, Taran and Princess Eilonwy, is regrettably as bland as the characters themselves and they are the film's weakest link by far. Between their lack of personality and the dull voice acting, these two are a charm vacuum and better, more fleshed-out characters would have gone a long way towards making this movie genuinely really good. Secondary characters like Gurgi, Fflewddur and the witches are very good, however, and John Hurt's Horned King is exactly as scary as he needed to be.
It may have suffered from a tough release and a bad rep but The Black Cauldron was packed with potential and the finished film, while flawed, is still well worth a watch for the often stunning visuals, the gorgeous score, the fun supporting characters, the refreshingly darker approach and the mostly great animation.
Good, if uneven.