THE BLACK CAULDRON (Ted Berman and Richard Rich, 1985)
THE BLACK CAULDRON was Disney’s 25th animated feature, their first to use CGI, and the studio’s first PG-rated cartoon. At the time it was the most expensive animated movie ever made.
The fantasy adventure tells the story of Taran (Grant Bardsley), a boy who daydreams of being a great warrior while he goes about his work as an assistant pig keeper. He’s not watching after any ordinary pig, though. Hen Wen is an oracle capable of seeing where the The Black Cauldron is. The Horned King (John Hurt) wishes to capture Hen Wen so he can find the Cauldron and use it to reanimate an army of deathless warriors.
THE BLACK CAULDRON is based on the second book in Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy series THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN and rooted in Welsh mythology. The source material offers a rich foundation for an epic quest not unlike THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but in attempting to spin a compelling tale for kid and adult sensibilities, the adapted screenplay struggles to satisfy either audience.
The characters, especially bland hero Taran, lack the personality found in the enduring and beloved Disney protagonists. THE BLACK CAULDRON is too frightening for younger viewers, and appeals to them, like a cutesy creature in a comic relief role that functions as a proto Jar-Jar Binks, throw off the tone in what is at heart a serious journey.
THE BLACK CAULDRON is much darker and more violent than expected from Disney or animated movies in general 25 years ago, which may explain why it was a commercial failure. In spite of its shortcomings, this is a film and series of novels ripe for remaking. From today’s vantage point, THE BLACK CAULDRON looks like it was ahead of the curve. A rip-roaring adventure that can be spread over several films and attract all age ranges fits perfectly into the franchise model that studios are following. Fantastical elements, like an army of the undead, can be better realized with today’s technology.
As is to be expected from Disney, THE BLACK CAULDRON is beautifully animated and has the added interest of using a darker-than-usual palette. It’s not a good film, but for one with the reputation of being the studio’s worst animated feature, it shows that interesting work is done in it.