Disney is known for its great animated movies, the majority of which take place in the fantasy genre. Classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone have all the right elements of a great fantasy movie: wizards and witches, dragons and knights, good versus evil, etc. There is one, however, that was a beautiful adaptation of a classic fantasy novel that Disney decided was too dark and scary and swept it under the rug of forgotten classics. I am, of course, referring to The Black Cauldron.
Released in 1985, The Black Cauldron was adapted from the 1965 Lloyd Alexander novel, the second of the five books from The Chronicles of Pyrdain. The movie was Disney’s 25th animated film. It was the first Disney animated film to receive a PG rating and the first to use computer-generated graphics. It featured the voices of Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, John Byner, and John Hurt.
The Black Cauldron is set in the mythical land of Prydain during the dark ages. The film centers on the evil Horned King who hopes to secure an ancient magical cauldron that has the power to raise an army of the dead, but to do that, he needs a pig named Hen Wen who has “oracle” powers. He is opposed by a young pig keeper named Taran, the young princess Eilonwy, the bard Fflewddur Fflam, and a wild creature named Gurgi who seek to prevent him from ruling the world by destroying the cauldron.
The imagery in this movie was quite dark and spooky, especially for a kid’s animated movie. The Horned King looked like a walking corpse. It had all the earmarks of a Disney movie with the boy hero, a beautiful princess, the evil villain and his henchmen, and of course, the comedic sidekick; but even with all that, Disney had problems with the film. After its initial audience screening, the Disney Studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered massive edits and cuts in the film, particularly in the “cauldron born” scene where the Horned King brings his army of the dead to life. There was even scenes where one of the “cauldron born” monsters sliced the neck of one victim and the torso of another. It was very gruesome indeed.
It was scenes, like that, that gave children nightmares from the pre-screening. Though most of it ended on the cutting room floor, it left the film quite jumpy and left a certain lapse, especially in the final act. In the end, after its release, the film only managed to make $21.3 million of its $44 million budget domestically. However, it did manage to score big internationally, especially in Europe.
Rotten Tomatoes called it “ambitious but flawed” while only giving it a 55% rating. Even the author, Lloyd Alexander, had mixed feeling about the movie. He said, “First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I’d also hope that they’d actually read the book. The book is quite different. It’s a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book.”
Disney even misused the film for its initial release to home media. It was finally released on VHS in 1994. This was mostly done due to fans wanting the film released on video along with other Disney classics. It was again released on dvd in 2000 and again in 2010 for a special 25th-anniversary edition. All of this was more “fan-driven” than anything else.
The Black Cauldron may not have the love of some of the other Disney classics, but to those who love the fantasy-genre, it is a forgotten classic that deserves a little more respect. Or as Gurgi would say, “Oh, poor miserable Gurgi deserves fierce smackings and whackings on his poor, tender head. Always left with no munchings and crunchings.”