What makes a Disney movie a true Disney movie? I asked this question while discussing The Black Cauldron with Michael Ryan on the podcast, and I’m still not sure there’s an easily quantifiable answer. Some of the film’s identifying features—a fair princess, a young man who becomes a warrior of some kind fighting off strange and disturbing beasts—fit with Disney animation well enough, even if they differ in the execution. The fantasy on display in this 1985 film, based on the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, is a bit darker than anything Cinderella or Aurora ever faced in their Disney films, but in some ways, the problems of The Black Cauldron—at least for me—can be boiled down to the old saw: in theory, it sounds great. In execution, it fails.
Despite its problems, The Black Cauldron has a built-in reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve. I discussed, back in October, the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, which begins with the Walt Disney Feature Animation department at its lowest point in the 1980s. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who recently joined the company, cut most of The Black Cauldron to pieces so it wouldn’t be slapped with a PG-13 or R rating. The film was incredibly expensive. When it opened in the summer of 1985, it flopped fairly hard, an unsuccessful attempt to get teenage boys excited to see animated movies. A few years later, the animation department would crawl back to the top with The Little Mermaid, but for good or ill, The Black Cauldron is the nadir of the Disney animated-feature legacy.
The biggest critique I could levy at the film is that it doesn’t feel like a Disney movie. It doesn’t feel like it deserves its place next to classics such as Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, or The Jungle Book. There’s something intangible that’s missing from the film. The animation is, while not excellent, decent, but it never feels exactly right. The way the characters’ eyes are drawn seems like an awfully-close-but-not-quite attempt to capture the magic of past Disney glory. Some of the background characters—especially the women—don’t seem to come from any Disney movie, but a cheaper form of animation that could never fool anyone. The real issue is that the ambition present in the film, all the way from directors Ted Berman and Richard Rich to the ink-and-painters, doesn’t manifest in the storytelling in any way.
Berman and Rich steered Walt Disney Feature Animation to the brink in the early 1980s with The Fox and the Hound, followed by The Black Cauldron. Their passion for the story in the latter is present, at least in that they try to do their best version of the first two novels in Alexander’s five-book series. But the film has a choppy pace and a more exciting overall story as opposed to compelling characters. Michael has the advantage of having read the Prydain novels—and though Gabe, our other co-host, wasn’t on the show this week, he’s also read the books—but I do not. I can only come to the film as a viewer, and one who never experienced the film as a kid. What I’m left with is an admirable effort, but one that smacks of being a first draft.
Combining multiple stories into one film is a trick Hollywood has tried before—the underrated 2004 family film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events comes to mind—and it rarely works. The Lemony Snicket series was quite popular by the time of the film, but that popularity didn’t help the film do well at the box office. Even Jim Carrey couldn’t help boost the movie’s numbers. And The Black Cauldron has only a couple of notable performers, neither of whom were kiddie-movie bait. John Hurt, as the evil Horned King, and John Huston, as the narrator, are both well-suited to voice acting, but…you know, they’re John Hurt and John Huston. What kid would go nuts to hear their voices in an animated movie?
In some ways, I do agree with Michael in what he said on the show: this is a movie that suffers partly from being released at the wrong time. Imagine this film coming out in the last 10 years. Potentially, Disney wouldn’t have made just one film, but a series that could do wonders as a franchise. Think of it as Pirates of the Caribbean, but animated. The epic scope of the novels is present, somewhat, in the 1985 adaptation, but a more modern use of animation as well as tapping into the fantasy genre that’s become so massively successful for other studios in the past decade would prove fruitful. Adapting this story isn’t a bad idea—the issue is how the film plays.
Take, for instance, Gurgi, the initially cowardly character who sacrifices himself at the end of the film to destroy the titular cauldron and save all of the good characters. In doing so, he saves the world of the story and is its ultimate hero. This kind of redemption isn’t uncommon in modern storytelling, and having a cowardly character realize the error of his or her ways and then choose to become heroic is a perfectly acceptable arc. And yes, Gurgi, a silly-looking animal that pesters our lead character, Taran, from his very first scene until his sacrifice, does change, in that he does something un-cowardly at the end of the film. Unlike Michael, who found the sacrifice natural, I couldn’t help but think that the story hadn’t progressed at all. Gurgi was obnoxious, obnoxious, obnoxious, oh, wait, now he’s a hero! Again, fine concept, poor execution.
I also think that the two lead characters—Taran and Princess Eilonwy—are poorly drawn in during the actual story. Taran’s journey takes him from being a huge, self-obsessed jerk to being a slightly self-obsessed and well-meaning idiot. Michael used the word “schmuck” during the show, and you know what? That’s kind of what Taran is. He’s an assistant pig-keeper at the beginning of the film—and because I’m enough of a fan of The Office, I couldn’t help but note to myself that he was the assistant to the pig-keeper—and can barely keep track of the oracular little animal. Sure, a kid can get self-involved and maybe a pig is hard to grab, but…you have one job. Keep an eye on the pig.
These are minor variations on the major problem: The Black Cauldron never goes past being a good idea. I can see why Walt Disney Feature Animation wanted to make the stories of Lloyd Alexander into a film. I can see why it failed very quickly; who knows what a truly faithful version of the stories would look like. I’m told that there are many differences between the novels and the film, but all I can comment on is the 80-minute attempt at grandeur that falls short. It’s a good try, an A for effort, but effort doesn’t make a movie great.
So, in the end, does it matter if a movie in the Disney animated canon feels like a “Disney movie”? I’m still not sure I know what delineates a Disney movie in spirit from a Disney movie proper. As I mentioned on the show, one of the most important and financially successful films for Walt Disney Pictures over the past decade–Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl–is somewhat dark, features menacing skeletal should-be-dead-but-are-alive-somehow creatures, and has plenty of derring-do and adventure. Sure, it’s not animated, but what makes that more of a Disney movie (and I do think it is) than The Black Cauldron?
Sometimes, we can’t explain exactly why we feel a certain way about a movie, TV show, book, or piece of music. We just do. Why do some songs speak to us personally? Maybe there’s a moment in our lives to which we can relate that tune. Why do some books move us? Maybe we’ve felt as the main characters have felt. And what of film? Why are we moved or unmoved by what’s on the silver screen? Not every film I love touches me personally, yet there’s something inexorably powerful about them that I can’t deny or ignore. With The Black Cauldron, the issue isn’t that I find nothing to relate to. The issue is that I don’t get swept away in the story as I do with other Disney classics. As I watched this movie for the podcast, I couldn’t get myself as involved with it as I wanted to. I wanted to feel the adventure, but all I felt was inertia. The Black Cauldron doesn’t deserve its redheaded stepchild status; if anything, it’s a curiosity, a blip in the Disney canon that should get a bit of attention, but not heaping doses.