I remember enjoying The Black Cauldron (Rich & Berman, 1985) at the cinema on its release and I was so entranced I even remember cryng a bit during one sad bit. Some time after I discovered that it was based on the second book in The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander's excellent fantasy series for younger readers, based on old Welsh mythology. So I read these, only to find that the film had done little justice to the story of Taran the lowly pig-herder and his quest to save his land from the forces of evil. So I started to question the quality of the film. All these years later, was I right to doubt it?
Well, yes. It's not that it's terrible, just terribly muddled. but that is no great surprise given its troubled production history. Stalled attempts to make it during the 70s had so frustrated chief Disney animator Don Bluth that he left with his team to set up his own studio. In the early 80s, it was hoped that new-fangled computer technology would make it the 'new Snow White', but the ambition of the project proved too much for the young animation team left behind. By 1984 new Disney bosses Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner were ringing the changes and the animation department, now splintered into several disjointed groups, was in danger of being axed entirely. So a lot was riding on the success of The Black Cauldron, which was now the most expensive animated film ever made, with a budget of anywhere between $25m and $40m, depending on your sources. But perhaps the new film, the first Disney film to be rated PG in an attempt to appeal to an older audience of kids, would cash in on the popular dungeons and dragons phenomenon?
Well, no. The first test screenings were a disaster. The lack of teamwork in the animation department was clearly evident in the variable animation onscreen and the deliberately darker tone proved too much for younger viewers, who were left in tears. Allegedly, Katzenberg was so apoplectic that he himself marched down to the editing room and started to cut scenes from the film before a frantic compromise was reached. In the end about 12 minutes were chopped, making an already choppy film even, well, choppier. The resulting film flopped at the box-office, limping home with less than half its budget recouped. Only the influence of Roy Disney (Walt's nephew) kept the animation department in place, a decision which would eventually return the studio to the glory days in the early 90s with the likes of Beauty & the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin. But it was a close run thing. For a while The Black Cauldron was the film that almost killed Disney animation for good.
Viewed over 30 years later, the problems seem not so much the animation, which is actually quite impressive in parts, not least in the 'Cauldron-born' sequence - the heavily cut bit that freaked out those young kids. It's the storytelling, which develops both plot and characters poorly and with none of the charm we would expect from Disney. There's little logic to the repetitive chase-capture-escape action, the villain is a poor man's Skeletor and the magical pig which kicks off the story is all but forgotten about halfway through. Little wonder Eisner demanded that script-to-storyboard would now be the method employed by the animators in future, rather than the decades-long tradition of doing it the other way round. So that was that. But wait! The source material still holds promise and still belongs to Disney. And with the sword-and-sorcery fantasy bandwagon showing no signs of slowing down, recent reports are that Disney are planning a live-action adaptation of the Prydain chronicles. For all its faults, The Black Cauldron may yet get a second lease of life as people seek it out for curiosity while they are munchings and crunchings on their popcorn.
The Kids are All Right?
No.1 (10yo): "It was good, except for the stupid bits"
No.2 (7yo): "Meh....I'm watching Wipeout instead"
No.3 (3yo): Left after 1 minute, dragging Peppa Pig toy. Unavailable for comment.
A full list of films in Kids Corner can be found here.