Black Cauldron

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Disney's Black Cauldron: Uneven Tone and Awful Adaptation

Nov 23, 2009 (Updated Nov 23, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Some good voice work and creative moments of animation

Cons:Pretty much everything else (especially uneven tone and botched adaptation)

The Bottom Line: I would only recommend this film to die-hard animated Disney fans who are interested in the studio's history. Not for Alexander fans!

I recently viewed Disney's 1989 animated film Little Mermaid. Many people note that movie as the beginning of a "renaissance" for Disney animation. The word makes you sit up. Was Disney's animated art, prior to this, dead -- or at least dying? Having even more recently viewed 1985's The Black Cauldron, I think I can safely answer yes.

I knew a thing or two about The Black Cauldron before I decided to watch it. I knew many people found it very dark, especially for an animated film from a studio primarily known for light fare for young children. I knew that it had garnered Disney's first-ever PG rating for an animated film.  I knew that despite negative reception overall, both with critics and box office, the movie grew a cult following and that many praise its animation. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for a book geek like me, I knew it was based on Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain.

It was that last fact that motivated me to see it. Although the Prydain series was published in the 1960s, I only recently discovered it in the wake of author Lloyd Alexander's death. It's a wonderful set of fantasy novels, loosely based on Welsh mythology, that I've been happily recommending to all the eleven-and-up readers of my acquaintance. It's also what gave me hope that the film version of The Black Cauldron might not be as bad as I feared. Given the richness of the source material, and the long-standing talent of Disney animators, I couldn't help but think that rumors of its awfulness must be exaggerated. Talented animators with a great story at their fingertips! Even if the studio really was at its lowest ebb, how bad could the results be? Pretty bad, as it turns out.

In fairness, I'm going to try to discuss this film on two levels, even though the strands can be hard for me to untangle. First I'll tackle how I thought the movie worked, plain and simple, as a movie. Then I'll turn to how it worked (or didn't) as the adaptation of a good book.

The Movie: Derivation and Uneven Tone

Disney's Black Cauldron (I'll continue to call it that, to distinguish it from Alexander's Black Cauldron) is the story of a young man named Taran (Grant Bardsley) who longs to be a heroic warrior. He lives with an older man named Dallben. His very unheroic job is to take care of a small, white pig named Hen Wen, a cute animated critter. Early on Taran discovers, much to his surprise, that Hen Wen has "oracular" powers. One of her visions, glimpsed in a swirling bowl of colored water, shows the location of a dangerous weapon called the Black Cauldron.

The Black Cauldron, as it turns out, has the power to reanimate dead corpses. Clearly this is not the kind of weapon you want falling into the wrong hands. And the wrongest hands of all are the hands of the Horned King (voiced spookily by legendary actor John Hurt) who wants to raise an army of dead warriors. When Dallben and Taran realize that the Horned King has discovered Hen Wen's powers, they realize he will of course try to come after her so he too can learn the location of the Cauldron. It's up to Taran to take the pig into the woods and hide.

He does this quite unsuccessfully, mostly because he's busy daydreaming about glory. When Hen Wen is kidnapped, it's up to Taran to get her back, which becomes the main drive of the story. Along the way he meets up with some unlikely friends: a small furry creature named Gurgi (John Byner) who is constantly hungry and frequently afraid; a goofy but sweetly paternal bard named Fflewddur Fllam (Nigel Hawthorne); and a golden-haired princess named Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan). Together they end up doing all kinds of things, from storming castles (after Taran conveniently finds a magic sword) to bargaining with slapstick sorceresses to gain the cauldron and try to keep it out of the Horned King's clutches.

Part of the film's problem is that the characters feel heavily derivative of other films, Disney and otheriwse. Dallben and Fflewddur look like they belong in the sentimental Aristocats, Hen Wen could be sister to Wilbur from Hanna-Barbera's animated Charlotte's Web, Eilonwy is a not-so distant cousin to classic Disney princess Aurora (with some touches of Alice in Wonderland). Even Eilonwy's magical golden bauble, which darts and flashes ahead of her wherever she goes, feels annoyingly like Tinkerbell. Creeper, the cowering lizard-like servant creature who fawns all over the horned king, seems like a prototype for the later Bartok (Don Bluth was one of many animators who worked on this film over its long, tortuous path to final production; I have no idea if he came up with Creeper, but I wouldn't be surprised). Although many animated films feel "kin" to one another in a respectful way, the sheer number of so many visual and tonal echoes just left these characters feeling flat and unoriginal.

That was even true of the Horned King, who gets dark and brooding animated scenes unlike anything in the rest of the film. I'm not sure precisely what style of animation Disney used here, but the look and tone are heavily reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the Rings (which had come out in 1978). To make things even worse, that much more realistic and dark style seems oddly out of sync next to the light-bright, sweet and sentimental tone of the rest of the film. Yo-yo'ing back and forth between dark peril and bright goofiness made me feel a bit seasick: it's like the film has a split personality.

The filmmakers didn't seem to know what kind of story they wanted to tell: something dark, brooding and fantastic, more like Tolkien? Or something bright and chipper, filled with fairies and children, more like Peter Pan? The fact that nine (yes, count them, NINE!) writers are credited for the script lends credence to the assertion that this is a ragged patchwork of a story. Even viewing just a few of the DVD extras further confirms that: when you look at storyboards and early drawings, you realize just how many visual styles and story ideas were brewing. Too many cooks spoiled this cauldron's broth.

The Adaptation: Just Awful

Which begs the question: why did they have such a hard time deciding on a story when they had such a good story, right there, on which to base it? Films and books are such different media that of course adaptation is required, but why excise and change so much of what was good in Alexander's original work, only to replace it with a substandard mish-mash of generic fantasy elements?

I went looking to see if Alexander himself had ever said anything publicly about the film. The only quote I could find was in an interview he did with schoolchildren. He charitably said the film was fun but added that it "bore no resemblance" to his book, which he hoped the kids would go on and read.

So I'm sticking with the author's assessment: if he believed it bore no resemblance to his work, I'm within my rights to say the same thing. Of course the film borrows character names and at least some character details. It borrowed the title of the second Prydain book, though it was, in many ways, more loosely based on the first book in the series, The Book of Three. Incidentally, that's the only book in which the horned king appears...he's a baddie, but a minor character, a mere minion of the real villain Arawn.

Many important characters in the first two books (never mind the whole series) are dropped entirely, including Prince Gwydion, Coll, Adaon, and Achren -- and I'm only mentioning some of the major characters from the first two books that were excised. You actually end up feeling almost glad for the characters who got dropped when you see the kind of character assassination that takes place with ones they included. Dallben becomes just an ordinary old man instead of an enchanter; mysterious but loyal Gurgi becomes a lapdog/teddy bear; and poor old Doli! He moves from grumpy battle-ax wielding dwarf to grumpy fairy with wings. The depiction of the Fair Folk was dreadful -- all smurfs, no grandeur.

Even Taran and Fflewddur, though their depictions are at least in the ballpark, don't feel fully themselves, primarily because they're given such a thin story to walk through -- and in Alexander, important story moments define character. And don't get me started on Princess Eilonwy, a spunky, tart-tongued heroine turned into a sniffling, giggling girl with pretty hair.

I tried hard to find some redeeming qualities in this movie, and I found two: Bardsley and Hurt's excellent voice work, and the scene where the cauldron born army rises up, which provides a couple of minutes of eerie, creative animation.

With all the changes made to characters, of course they changed the story drastically. Detailing those changes would serve no purpose; the important thing to realize is that the filmmakers took an epic fantasy story filled with lovely, true and even profound moments and turned it into an annoying little piece of tragic-comic fluff that doesn't even work on its own terms. The tone is all wrong for Alexander's work, but it's also just plain all wrong.

If you must see Disney's Black Cauldron, see it for its interesting place in the studio's animated history. And don't let it derail you from picking up Lloyd Alexander's excellent book of the same name, which truly does bear little or no resemblance to this film.

~befus, 2009

This is part of carstairs38's Second Annual All Things Disney write-off.

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