I really am proceeding through the entire Disney canon, aren’t I? But kids’ movies are so rarely considered in depth. (Actually, I’ve only reviewed two other Disney films, and there’s only one other that seems worth discussing: Lilo and Stitch.) Anyway, The Black Cauldron deserves a mention because…what’s that? You’ve never seen it? Well, neither had I until now.
For the benefit of the probably-large proportion of the populace who have never even heard of it, The Black Cauldron came out in 1985, right when audiences who had been subjected to Disney’s previous animated film, The Fox and the Hound (1981), were wondering whether Disney would ever recover from the death of its founder twenty years before…and it did absolutely nothing to alleviate these fears. It was a box-office flop and its heroine, Princess Eilonwy, enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only princess excluded from Disney’s official cast of princesses (a list that includes Pocahontas and Mulan, neither of whom was in fact a princess).
And yet, historically, it’s an interesting film. It stands at the crossroads of Disney history. Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH (1982)* had already rattled Disney’s throne, and the next year his box-office hit An American Tail would threaten the viability of Disney’s whole animation studio. As you know, the story ended happily for Disney, who struck back in 1989 with The Little Mermaid (competing against Bluth’s lackluster All Dogs Go to Heaven), beginning the string of fantastic modern classics now referred to as the Disney Renaissance.
And where does The Black Cauldron fall in all of this? Smack at the low point. It was Disney’s first PG-rated film, showing that Disney was already experimenting with its formulas–a failed experiment that would not be resurrected until a decade and a half later with the more preteen-oriented adventure films Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (which didn’t perform so well either, but merit their own discussion). Still, there’s a certain cache to being Disney’s most desperate attempt.
But technically is where the movie is really interesting. While the unforgettable gears of Big Ben in The Great Mouse Detective (1989) are usually thought of as Disney’s first use of CGI, that credit actually goes to The Black Cauldron. It’s inked with an analogue of xerography, the cel-printing method that lent the distinctive sketchy look to middle-era Disney films beginning with 101 Dalmations (1961), and it makes extensive use of the multiplane camera that lent the distinctive depth of field to Golden Age films dating all the way back to Snow White (1937). It’s a showcase of virtually every important cel-animation technique.
So why isn’t this regarded as the quintessential archetype of the Disney film? Well, it’s not very good. It’s based on Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Pyrdain, which are themselves based on Welsh mythology, but unlike previous and subsequent Disney films (Sleeping Beauty, Mulan), it makes no attempt to capture the look-and-feel of that culture, falling back on a generic fantasy setting and nondescript art style and thereby missing a fantastic opportunity to dive into gorgeous Celtic art (this opportunity, missed forever by Disney, was embraced in 2009 in the magnificent European film The Secret of Kells).
The hero and heroine seem to be generic composites of every other Disney hero and heroine, and even for Disney characters, everyone comes out of nowhere with no explanation. Princess Eilonwy is princess of nothing in particular and has poorly-defined magical powers; Taran has no family for no reason; Dallben, an apparently-random peasant in the woods, has a pig with unexplained oracular abilities; the Horned King doesn’t seem to have any reason to be so evil–not even being snubbed at a baby shower. Fflam never presents any compelling reason for his own existence.
Lacking any characters with motivations, the plot (which was nothing but a macguffin hunt anyway) is forced along with contrivances. Taran happens to stumble upon the Horned King’s castle (yes, the pig gets caught by wyverns, but they are inexplicably close to the castle). Eilonwy is inside, for reasons never really explained. They accidentally get caught by fairies, who happen to have also caught the pig (at this point, the new goal being the cauldron, Taran abruptly stops watching over the pig that had been so important for the first half of the movie; macguffin hierarchy, apparently), and after they find the cauldron, the Horned King inexplicably catches them–how he did so, since they teleported there and he doesn’t have the pig, is a mystery. The movie soldiers on through a mercifully short progression of things that have to happen without providing any grounding for why they should happen.
Even excluding direct-to-video sequels, there are some other strong contenders for “worst animated Disney movie.” The Fox and the Hound? Robin Hood (1973), which handily wins “least original animation” (a problem that, oddly, The Black Cauldron doesn’t suffer from)? The Tomatometer pegs Oliver and Company (1988) as the worst reviewed. I refuse to put The Aristocats (1970) on the list; recycled animation and xerography be damned, I like that movie. But The Black Cauldron may well be the least memorable. I am probably not alone in thinking of it as a Bluth or even third-party production, because it’s so forgotten. But a film can’t sink or swim on an interesting historical position alone, and that’s all this one has to offer.
*Which I happen to hate, but that’s fodder for another review.