It's time for one of the big ones, the ultimate Disney black sheep....

The Black Cauldron (1985)

Soundtrack/Score/Music: 3.5

Story/Screenplay/Narrative: 7

Characters/Characterization/Voice-acting: 8

Art Direction/Design: 7.5

Themes/Archetypes/Artistic Interpretation: 6

From Wiry:

You can give The Black Cauldron a lot of flack for being so different from the book(s) upon which it is based, but I do find one major similarity between the film and The Chronicles of Prydian on the whole. I was a huge fan of the book series - my fifth grade teacher had the entire set available for borrowing (along with the Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, mmm), and I was a huge fan. So, when Black Cauldron was finally released on VHS on 1998, I snapped it up and watched it right away. However, unlike the L'Engle works, and much like the books upon which it was based, I haven't ever felt the need to revisit The Black Cauldron.

And maybe I'm wrong in this. Maybe re-reading some of those Prydian tales would be an utter delight. But probably not. It's not so much that they're just second-rate fantasy that could never hold a candle to Tolkein per se... the books are excellent. But they're also rather simple and straightforward. You've seen much of what it does before, and you'll see it done again, sometimes better and sometimes worse. But, in a world where there are fantasy works that stretch so much further outside the territory one finds in The Legend of Zelda games, I wouldn't really feel comfortable recommending The Chronicles of Prydian to anyone over the age of thirteen. There's just not a lot of substance, but I must stress that they're not bad. Just pretty good.

But we're talking about the film here, not the books upon which it is based. But I have to say that, despite the differences too numerous to mention here, I have similar issues with the film. Gurgi aside (this is true of the books too), there's no character I can really call "iconic." They're all adequate and fun, with the possible exception of the cherub-faced kid fairies. Taran's sort of like Wart from The Sword and the Stone, but maybe a little less interesting. And as far as Disney women go, Eilonwy isn't the worst in the bunch. So we've got a good team of characters, with no Eddie Murphy-esque sidekick issues.

What's interesting here is how driven by the plot (that is, the quest for the titular cauldron) the story really is. Taran, the assistant pig-keeper to old man Dallben, spends his days fantasizing about action and adventure while scrubbing the most womanly swine this side of Miss Piggy. This morning, though, Hen Wen freaks and Dallben reveals to Taran her oracular piggie powers, which reveal that the Horned King is seeking the cauldron in which is sealed some evil king thing blah blah. Anyway, the dishwater shows that Horny's on his way to steal Miss Bacon, so Dallben sends Taran away with her to go into hiding. Things don't turn out so well, though, because Hen Wen is abducted by two dragons while Taran is busy playing "hide the apple" with the furry, Smeagolesque Gurgi. Taran rushes to Castle Plun-Darr to liberate Hen Wen, but ends up imprisoned. He manages to escape, meeting a spoony bard and a bauble-boasting princess along the way. They meet up again with Gurgi and some fairies, who point them in the direction of the cauldron and send grumpy gold prospector fairy to guide them. They find the cauldron in the possession of three sex-starved witches in a swamp, but of course it does them little good since Taran bargains away his magic sword to get it and the cauldron can only be destroyed by a willing living sacrifice anyway. Whoops. Looks like they lead ol' Horny to it too. Back at the castle, Horny ties up everyone except Gurgi (who ran away at the first sign of danger), and starts brewing up himself an undead army. Fortunately, Gurgi arrives to rescue everyone, and reasons that he's a better sacrifice for the cauldron than the well-liked Taran. The undead army is stopped before it can even cross the castle drawbridge, the Horned King gets sucked into the cauldron's WMDish death knells, and Gurgi is brought back to life by the witches in exchange for the defunct cauldron. There's a kiss between Taran and Eilonwy, and the friends walk away into the golden fields that suddenly appeared outta nowhere. Yay!

So, yeah. Lots of plot. But, something that may not be apparent is that we never actually meet anyone except our principals, the villains, and the witches. Who exactly is the Horned King sending the undead army out to destroy? Where's the stakes there? And, the army's put out of commission before they even get to the destruction part. There's no climactic battle with the Horned King, he just gets flushed. So, while the scene of the army being created is disturbing and superb, there's not much payoff. And everything else pretty much goes as expected - the castle is destroyed, the two get together, yadda... I know Disney films are not bastions of surprise plots, but some of the best ones at least take the time to dwell on the little moments (like the wooden objects in Geppetto's cottage, or Ratigan's death machine). The Black Cauldron marches through its plot with little whimsy (save Gurgi and some fun bits with the witches), focusing on action at the expense of any rich nuance. And that, I think, is why it feels fun but ultimately a bit hollow and unmemorable.

From RM:

Wow. So that's what everyone was talking about. Welcome to one of the three or so movies in the Disney lexicon I HADN'T seen before starting this blog. I have to say, it is very different from anything else Disney has ever done. And, not unlike how I can't shake that maybe Don Bluth was a factor in choosing Great Mouse Detective, I can't get this Hobbity smell out of my nostrils while watching this. It's not bad. Most great art is inspired by works which precede it. Let me make myself clear. Great art this is not. But this film is nowhere near as bad as the reputation that proceeds it. It's artistically solid.

The art itself has more "Wow" moments than any Disney film I've viewed for this so far, which is a shame, because much of the character animation has that sketchy, somewhat sloppy feel of the films of the decade before it, like Robin Hood or Jungle Book. So you're viewing these amazing skies and castles and really cool visuals, with these....well, the characters in the world that is created around them fall artistically short.

The Horned King would have been more effective if I had known more about him: Who is this creature? (who?) What is he? (what?) How did he come to be? (How?). Unfortunately, the movie answers none of these questions, which is a shame, because I feel that if I had known more about The Horned King, I would have liked him, because he certainly is one of the scarier looking bastards ever to roll through Disneydom.

Also, this is the first movie we saw that didn't have a traditional musical element to it in some shape or form. Which wasn't bad, I was preparing myself to ignore that and focus on the score. That was a mistake on my part. The score is repetitive and drab, and sounds like something your goth high school classmate wrote for his musical "A Love Song for Vlad the Impaler", but it ISN'T ironic. He thinks it's deep and adds something to the story. He is wrong, and so was the composer of this film.

Can't play up Gurgi enough though. He's like a cuddly, lovable Gollum. Which I think is a concept we can all get behind.

Final Grade: C+

Final Rankings:
1.) The Lion King
2.) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
3.) Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs
4.) Lady and The Tramp
5.) The Great Mouse Detective
6.) Pinocchio
7.) The Jungle Book
8.) The Black Cauldron
9.) Mulan
10.) Fun & Fancy Free


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