Every studio has its bomb. In the 1980s, Disney’s one real animated stinker was The Black Cauldron (1985). Still, there’s some history to this film that makes it interesting.
At the time the film was made, Disney itself was going through its own transition. The men who were to lead the studio out of its doldrums, Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg, had only taken over Magic Kingdom the previous year. As it happened, Black Cauldron had originally been greenlit by the previous administration, and had already poured a ton of money into its production. The new regime had two choices, either kill the movie and take a hit Disney really couldn’t afford, or finish the darn thing up and hope for the best. The obviously chose the latter.
What really mattered though was both the old and current regime had forgotten a lesson Walt Disney himself had to learn the hard way 25 years earlier, when he produced Sleeping Beauty(1959). It took Uncle Walt nearly a decade to create the third major princess movie, and he lavished just about every expensive technical innovation and lavish illustrated detail possible in his day. The end result was one of the dullest movies in the entire Disney canon. It did so badly the studio had to declare its first financially losing year in its history.
The Disney management of the first half of the 80s repeated many of those same errors in the 80s. For example, Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature film to feature computer-generated effects. It also apparently took forever to get the story into a working script. To top it, a lot of the old guard Disney masters who had come up with Uncle Walt were starting to disappear. The only one of the legendary 9 Old Men whose name appears here is Eric Larson. After that, there was Walt Stanchfield (a truly great animator, but not one of the 9). Anyone who pays attention to credits might notice the likes of Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Ron Musker, John Clements and Don Hahn in the credits, but they were all young bucks still, not yet of the current generation of Disney Masters.
Also like Sleeping Beauty, one has to admit one can see every buck spent on the screen. The character design stands right up with the best of post-World War II Disney. Some of the backdrops are as dark and terrifying as the “Night On Bald Mountain” sequence in the first Fantasia. There are even some highly notable names in the voice cast, including John Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne and John Huston.
Where the whole thing really falls apart is two-fold.
The first is one would be hard pressed to find a single interesting character throughout the entire film. Its main villain, the Horned King is about as terrifying as weak tea. Even though Hurt, who voiced the King, does come up with a magnificently malevolent voice for the character, he really is nothing more than a bag of bones adorned with a funky Viking helmet. The comic relief, provided through the characters of Gorgi and Fflewddur (Hawthorne) are poorly defined and quite frankly quite boring.
Worst still are the two main heroes, Tarrin and Princess Eilonwy. Quite frankly, it sounds like the actors who did the roles phoned them in. The emotional range is rarely above tepid.
The other point is this had to be the darkest movie Disney had done up to that time, and the Magic Kingdom only does dark in short, sharp shocks. The overall grim nature of the movie combined with the lackluster acting of the characters makes for one very uninvolving movie, no matter how pretty the darn thing looks.
Apparently, when the film came out its performance was so bad it made Eisner actually weigh whether he should close Disney’s once lauded animation department altogether. Luckily for all, the Hollywood mythos states that Clements and Musker basically got down on their knees and begged their new boss to give them one last chance. Eisner relented, and gave them that one shot. Now armed with a much more experienced young staff, the next venture, The Great Mouse Detective (1986) did well enough that the new management saw there could be money made in animated feature films. Each subsequent film would get consistently better and make more money, ultimately busting the doors wide open with Clements and Musker’s next effort, The Little Mermaid (1989).
Admittedly, probably the key reason Disney has reissued Black Cauldron on DVD is to capitalize on the movie’s 25thAnniversary. At the same time, one wonders if that was the only reason. Quite frankly, this release lacks anything really special about it. Yes, there’s the original animatic of a sequence that had been greatly changed by the final film, and there is also a new game. Yet it feels like the Mouseworks decided to get this one out fast and get it over. They’ve lavished more attention on other such releases of minor films, such as The Fox And The Hound (1984).
So, about the best one can say about this movie is it’s only for extreme Disneyphiles and not many others. If you want to have a complete library, then no one will fault you. Personally, I’d wait for the planned Beauty & The Beast reissue, due soon.