Disney may be one of the world’s most famous studios but it’s not one I’ve looked at all that much, unless you want to count all the Marvel reviews I’ve done. It’s pretty much been The Rescuers. So, let’s look at another Disney feature. The Black Cauldron was released in 1985 and it was a huge commercial failure and it’s probably the film Disney likes to acknowledge the least. Yes, even less than Song of the South. Now, I never saw this film as a kid. I wasn’t born yet when it came out and its flop status basically meant that it wasn’t one of those “classics” that was released a thousand times and made available everywhere. So, let’s take a look at the film and ask two questions. First, does it deserve its negative reputation? Second, why did it bomb so badly?
We open with an explanation of what the titular Black Cauldron is. It’s a seal for an evil being who was feared even by the Gods. And those with wicked intentions seek to use its power for their own ends. We cut to a small farm where an elderly man and his assistant look after a pig. The assistant, Taran, wants to go out into the world as a soldier and stop the Horned King but is quickly reminded of his place. He’s washing the pig, Hen Wen, when she suddenly becomes agitated. It turns out she has the power of prophesy. The old man uses her power and becomes worried that the Horned King will find out. As such, he sends Taran off to hide with her and keep her safe. He’d go but he’s very old.
This results in Taran coming up against the Horned King and embarking on a quest to find the Black Cauldron to keep it out of wicked hands.
The biggest general issue with the story is the pacing. It never gives you time to sit with the main characters and get to know them. You pretty much go from one big event to the next pretty rapidly. If the film were even twenty minutes longer and had some time to breathe, it could have been legitimately an excellent film.
The film does provide you with an adventure. Even if it is hectically paced. There’s consistently something interesting happening. It also does a good job with tone. The film is considerably darker than other Disney films of the time but it’s never over done or poorly done. I quite appreciate the sacrifice scene towards the end as well. It has some power to it. I also like the way it works to give all its major characters a place in the party and moments to shine. In terms of fantasy films for a younger audience, this is up there.
One side issue with the overly rapid pacing is that the characters don’t get as much development as I would like. That being said, they aren’t bad compared to a lot of the Disney films from that time. They’re at about the same level of complexity as Disney’s Robin Hood.
One thing I will credit the film with is having the best Disney Princess of its time. Seriously, when this came out the Disney Princess formula was basically taking a helpless damsel, putting her into trouble outside of her control and letting the hero come to her rescue. See Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty & Maid Marian from Robin Hood. Princess Eilonwy, in contrast, takes an active role in the adventure and she meets Taran when she comes to his rescue. She’s portrayed as an equal partner in the adventure. Even if you compare her to all Disney heroines that existed at the time, Miss Bianca and Alice are the only two better characters and being number three is pretty respectable.
Art & Visuals
Here’s another area where you have to give this film credit. It looks stunning. The art direction is very impressive. The movements are smooth. The backgrounds look great. The Horned King is intimidating and his Cauldron born are pretty damn creepy for the five minutes they’re on screen.
Acting & Music:
Most of the acting is decent enough. The positive exceptions to that are John Hurt, who is excellent as the villain and Susan Sheridan who gives a strong performance as Eilonwy. The big exception in a negative sense is, unfortunately, Grant Bardsley as Taran. His lines just come across as awkward and stilted half the time. It’s like he wasn’t sure whether or not to exaggerate for the film and he kind of starts to only to pull it back. And all without much of that troublesome emoting. Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is pretty fantastic.
Areas of Improvement:
- Take some more time to develop the characters and their relationships. If there’s one thing that could have benefited this film more than any other, it’s more relaxed pacing. Like I said, I’d give it an extra twenty minutes of run time.
- A different lead to play Taran. I’m sorry, but Bardsley sucked.
- Explain about the magical tools a bit. Of our main characters, three either have or acquire magical implements and there’s not really an explanation for, say, what Eilonwy’s glowing bauble actually does. Or why the bard carries a magic harp that snaps its strings when he lies.
Is this one of Disney’s worst films? Personally, I’d say it isn’t. Honestly, I thought it was pretty solid. It has some notable flaws, certainly, but it also has quite a few factors going for it. I’d certainly put it far above Disney’s shit films like The Little Mermaid. I’d also put it higher than the more mediocre films like The Aristocats. So, why didn’t it do well? I think the fact that it is darker than Disney’s other films of the time was a factor. It’s tough to pull off a departure like that. I would also say Bardsley’s performance was a part of it. It’s not easy to sell audiences on a character who sounds like that. The hectic pacing and the film’s high budget were probably also contributing factors. Still, I’d go so far as to give this one a 7/10. It’s not one of Disney’s best, but it’s pretty good. If you haven’t seen it and you like fantasy, give it a try.