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The Black Cauldron 25th Anniversary Special Edition
September 13, 2010

I’m a little put off by any movie that opens with a static image and narration explaining the conflict to me. Thankfully, it’s a short film — an hour fifteen before credits — and historically important. The Black Cauldron was the first widescreen animated Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty, and the first to use computer technology, although the main characters are classic cel. Also, it almost was rated a PG-13 due to its darker content, although it was recut to get to a PG, which was still a departure.

The Black Cauldron 25th Anniversary Special Edition cover
The Black Cauldron
25th Anniversary Special Edition
Buy this DVD

At times, I found its depth, colors, and backgrounds simply beautiful. It features what I think of as traditional animation, with comfortable-looking characters and animals. There’s nobody I’ve ever heard of in the cast, which was also refreshing, not to be distracted wondering “who’s that now?” Wait, I take that back — 70s favorite John Byner is Gurgi, who’s a bit more animal than I expected. I thought he’d be a hairy trollish person, but he looks like an anthropomorphized dog.

Based on the books by Lloyd Alexander, in this story, Taran, assistant pigkeeper, dreams of fighting in the war against the Horned King. He’s charged with protecting an oracular pig, who knows the location of the Black Cauldron, which the evil King wants to create demon soldiers. Because it’s based on a longer series, it tends to the episodic, without a strong, consistent plot.

I missed songs; this is the first Disney cartoon I’ve watched in a long time that wasn’t a musical. And it took a while, over half an hour, for the other characters — Princess Eilonwy, especially, but also the bard — to join up into one group. My favorite cast member was actually the non-speaking pig; she’s got neat attitude. The other characters are a bit too generic in design and temperment: the guy, the girl, the wacky artistic older guy, the scary robed bad guy. KC called it — he said some of the earlier bits looked like the work of Mike Ploog, and lo and behold, he’s credited as one of five character designers.

At times, we noticed visual artifacts that we expected would have been cleaned up, plus cut lines around the characters when they were positioned in front of complicated computer-generated or photographic backgrounds. It appears that the animators hadn’t quite worked out how to integrate the two different styles of art well at that time. But the glowing sword Taran uses is astounding, with lighting effects even cooler than a light saber.

I didn’t expect much from the movie, after hearing some of my readers’ reactions, and it didn’t entirely hold my interest, but it has very impressive fantasy sequences, such as an attacking dragon. This film may have been before its time. I can see today’s kids really enjoying it, especially for Halloween, as Disney suggests. The concern at the time of its release (1985) was that it was too dark and scary, what with the animated skeletons and all, but today, Pirates of the Caribbean is worse. Now this seems like the right amount of fear and menace and wonder.

Special Features

A deleted scene where the gang falls into a whirlpool before meeting the Fairfolk, new in this edition, is told via storyboards and uncolored pencil tests. It didn’t mean much to me, but I found the colors easily the best part of this film, so black-and-white was less interesting. It’s quite lengthy, almost 10 minutes.

There’s also a trivia game. Brought over from the previous edition (thank you, Disney, for making it easy for those who want to trade up) are another game, an art gallery, and “Trick or Treat”, a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon featuring a witch (voiced by June Foray) and other Halloween-y stuff. His nephews come to Unca’ Donald’s house for the holiday, dressed up adorably as a ghost (the cutest, with a sheet over his round head!), a devil, and I think a hobo. And this eight-minute cartoon had wacky songs I found quaintly charming.

In contradiction to earlier mentions, I couldn’t find the original movie trailer on the disc. Shame. I’d be curious to see how it was introduced back then. Strangely, this DVD opens with a trailer promoting how cool Blu-ray is, plus it ships with an upgrade flyer, even though this movie isn’t available in that format. (The publisher provided a review copy of this DVD.)

10 Responses  
Caroline writes:  

I know I liked that movie when I was a kid but I doubt it would hold up. Also, kind of a shame, because I loved and still love the Alexander books, and you could make a helluva musical out of them!

 
Reeve writes:  

Never seen the movie itself, but the trailer terrified me as a kid.

 
Nathan writes:  

I guess I was wrong about the music in my previous comment. It has been over two decades since I saw it. I distinctly remember a song toward the ending, which stood out in my mind. I don’ t know why I remember it that way.

 
Johanna writes:  

Reeve, that was why I was curious to see how it was presented. But maybe it wouldn’t look the same to much older eyes.

Nathan, I did wonder about that when I reread my previous post on this movie, that you said there was a song. Isn’t memory interesting?

 
Jake Forbes writes:  

I love the books but haven’t seen the movie since I was wee. I remember it only played at our art house theater, which is pretty weird for a kids movie in the 80s. When I was 18 and went through a 2 year obsession with animation art, I bought original cels of Henwen and Creeper and a pencil of Taran — the extent of my Disney collection. Now that BC is back in a new edition, it’s high time I give it another look (and look for the fraction of a second that I own!)

 
AS writes:  

Yeah, well, I’d say the animation is the only good thing it has, as far as story goes it’s paper-thin characters going through Star Wars motions…IMO one of the weakest Disney films.

 
Heather writes:  

I could not wait to see this movie when it came out orginally. The Alexander books were some of my favorites. I did not even mind too much that they combined 2 books out of 5 for this one movie. One of my favorite memories was of the Main Street window displays in Disneyland before the movie was released, seeing the book scenes come to life were priceless.

AS –
Calling this movie a Star Wars wanna-be is completely off. The five books were written before 1970 and the last book won the Newbery Medal. The books cover like six years of character growth during the teenage years of Taran and Eilonwy. That Disney tried and was able to give an entertaining story was awesome. I think thanks to Star Wars success Disney risked a more adult animated movie, but unfortunately audiences were not ready.

 
Caroline writes:  

I agree with Heather. There’s some Joseph Campbell-esque heroes’ journey stuff going on in the original Alexander novels, just as in Star Wars, but they developed independently. Not that the film is that faithful to the novels but I think the core team dynamics + the good/evil conflict are the part that is reminiscent of ‘Star Wars,’ and that was all definitely present in the books.

Possibly a downside to this film having been made is that, to the extent it’s in the public mind, it’s as a Disney property; otherwise, I think it might have gotten picked up for a more faithful/grown up treatment in the wake of ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Which I suppose is still a possibility (and I’d also be down with a musical!)

 
AS writes:  

I’ve read the books, and know them to be older, but still think that the film went for Star Wars wave in terms of adaptation. Part of it no doubt comes from Campbellian hero’s journey and the similarities might have helped to push the project forward, but still…
Anyway, I too would have liked to have songs here. They don’t necessarily move the story forward but they help establish the characters and give a good opportunity to look inside the singers’ minds.

 
Waking Sleeping Beauty » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[...] The Black Cauldron was a key touchpoint. Its production was marred by culture clashes between the young kids, who wanted the darker material, and the old guard focusing on story. When it flopped, that was seen as the low point for the animation department. The team was kicked out of the historical Ink and Paint building and put off the lot. The Great Mouse Detective is another point of contention, mainly over its retitling from “Basil of Baker Street”. [...]

 

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