Review of The Black Cauldron (1985)
Seen in 2019.
The hero’s (brief) journey.
An atypical production for Disney, made at the moment of death and rebirth, toward the end of the stumbling years between the Disney brothers’ literal deaths and the Renaissance, just before restructuring into The Walt Disney Company in 1986. It was the last feature made at the 1940 “Animation Building” on the Burbank lot and it flopped, prompting a return to bowdlerized musical adaptations of older fairy tales. Problems with branding and management, exemplified particularly by this film, led to those boring, streamlined commercial hits, including yet more cheap live-action productions on the lot.
This is not to say that The Black Cauldron is original; it isn’t. It is a loose adaptation of two post-Tolkien children’s fantasy novels and it was made to follow a hot trend, in imitation of competing companies, including Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982), Bakshi’s Fire and Ice (1983) and ex-Disney animator Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH (1982). Thus it was Disney’s first PG rating, skewing older than The Sword in the Stone (1963). I wish things had been different. I wish Disney’s new leadership had allowed Bluth to make NIMH in Burbank the way he wanted, taking the studio on an artist-led path to maturity. It is the studio’s first use of CGI in an animated feature, and that part is tastefully done. Given that The Fox and the Hound (1981) is one of the studio’s best works, a creative Disney could have been amazing and seemed like a real possibility at this nadir.
The movie thus represents a lost opportunity at a critical moment of hope. Gurgi, for example, is not just redundant but cringe-inducing. The flattened, re-pitched sonic envelope of his voice was a terrible idea. The Horned King is brilliantly implemented by comparison—a Disney villain with dignity!—but his concept is deliberate moral naïveté: Pure evil, nothing else. The abrupt ecological transition from the sunny forest where Taran herds his solitary pig to the lifeless purple hellscape of the king’s domain is an emblem of a hundred smaller errors in continuity and planning. Each misstep is a nail in the coffin of a better alternative history of animation.