Today I’ve decided to take a retrospective look at Disney’s 1985 redheaded stepchild The Black Cauldron. This fantasy flick was a box-office bomb that almost bankrupt the company, in part because of its record-breaking budget of 44 million. Nobody went to see this movie when it was released, and most who did were highly disappointed. The movie garnered Disney’s first PG rating, lacked any whimsical songs, and contained major differences from its literary source material. The Black Cauldron is now nicknamed “the film that almost killed Disney.” My question today is, does it show?
The Black Cauldron has this Lord of the Rings type plot to it, but with a pig and teenager instead of a ring and a hobbit. Andy Serkis actually took inspiration from a Black Cauldron character named Gurgi for his portrayal of Gollum in Fellowship, but I digress. The plot is straightforward and doesn’t require much explaining other than a kid named Taran (Grant Bardsley) goes looking for a magic cauldron to stop a villainous being called the Horned King.
Characters talk about how evil the Horned King is frequently, and his presence is always so dramatic and morose that it’s almost comical. He’s so over the top evil he even sounds like Sinistar when he speaks his slow, menacing dialogue. Joking aside, the Horned King was actually voiced by actor John Hurt, who brings more personality to the role than anyone else in the cartoon.
The Black Cauldron is all too sparse in its story and characters. The relationships we build with each character all feel very surface level and in passing, as their personalities came second to the art direction. Many triumphant moments for the protagonists happen too quickly and lack any emotional weight. As soon as I started to feel like I knew who they were and what they valued, the film was already over. It doesn’t help that The Black Cauldron clocks in at just under 80 minutes of content, and yet there’s still plenty of fluff and filler. The Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings cartoon packed much more plot depth in a single hours’ time while also having more fleshed-out protagonists, and that was made almost a decade earlier.
The overall mood of the picture is off too, jumping between visually dark and grim to awkward and lighthearted humor that’s occasionally sexual. The film is geared towards families and children, but is this appropriate or relatable content for the demographic their aiming for? Well, apparently families didn’t think so in 1985, and I don’t think they would today either.
Yet, despite the mad ravings of critics and movie-goers for over thirty years, The Black Cauldron still has its dedicated fans, and it’s easy to see why. The film is wildly imaginative and has nicely detailed animation that makes you want to pause the flick and just admire the hard work put in. I love the march of the skeletal army, and the Horned King is an intimidating and formidable foe. I would’ve liked to see some epic battle between our heroes and the army of skeletons, but the ending is a tad anticlimactic.
The Black Cauldron is a by-product of what happens when the visual style trumps the writing of a cohesive plot or passionate characters. It fails to stand out among other Disney films made in and around the same decade as it, with The Great Mouse Detective being released only one year later to save Disney a fate worse than death. A film with much more adventure, heart, and wit to satisfy families.