My continuing foray into Disney's fifty official Animated Classics. As always, don't hesitate to share your thoughts/memories/complaints in the comments section below. Links to previous entries have also been included below.
Title: The Black Cauldron (1985; based on the five- part series The Chronicles Of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander)
The Plot: An assistant pig-keeper in medieval times races to find the mystical Black Cauldron, before evil-doers can use its unlimited powers to create an army of the undead.
The Songs: None (!)
A Little History: Disney optioned the rights to Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles Of Prydain series in 1971, but studio chief Ron Miller delayed the project, feeling that his staff wasn't prepared for such a large-scale assignment. The film was finally given a greenlight in 1981, in hopes that its sword-and-sorcery subject matter would lure teens back into theaters. It was the first Disney title since Sleeping Beauty to be shot in 70mm widescreen format, and the first to use multi-plane cameras since The Jungle Book. Plans for an elaborate holographic effects sequence were scrapped when production ran over budget (The Black Cauldron ultimately cost $25 million). In 1984, Michael Eisner replaced Miller as Disney's CEO, and selected Jeffrey Katzenberg as chairman of the company. Katzenberg disliked the 90-minute version of the film and ordered producer Joe Hale to cut 10 minutes from the finished product; much of the "Cauldron Born" sequence was removed, including violent footage that would have garnered a PG-13 rating. Cauldron flopped at the box office, grossing only $21 million in U.S. theaters. Because of this - and because Eisner and Katzenberg seemed to have little faith in the future of Disney animation - the entire animation division was uprooted from its Burbank, CA, offices and moved to a warehouse in Glendale, where the focus shifted to faster, cheaper projects.
How It Broke New Ground: The first animated Disney film to receive a PG rating. It was also the first animated Disney title co-produced by Silver Screen Partners II, the first to use computer-generated imagery, and the first to employ the newly-developed Animation Photo Transfer process. APT allowed artists' drawings to be transferred photographically onto cels; unlike xerography, which only had the ability to copy a limited number of colored lines to cels, APT could transfer multiple colors, and was faster and more cost- effective.
How It Holds Up Today: A quick show of hands: How many people out there actually, thoroughly enjoy The Black Cauldron? Aside from Disney's "package films" of the 1940s, it's the one title I hear so little about, as if Disney fans have no idea what to do with it. You can tell the filmmakers were trying to copy any number of things – Star Wars, Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, et al – yet the storytelling feels inert, as if they completely misunderstood what made those previous fantasy-adventures work so well in the first place. Our "hero," Taran the assistant pig-keeper, is a reactionary protagonist at best – it takes him a full 45 minutes to make the fateful decision to "Destroy that cauldron!", and even when he attempts to solve the problem at the end, a different character steps in and solves it for him! (Imagine if Leia had taken Luke's place at the end of Star Wars, because he just couldn't make up his mind, and you get the idea.) The structure's lame too, introducing characters of "great importance" only trade them away – including Hen Wen the psychic pig, a magic sword with its own theme music, and a weird little monkey creature with Geppetto's face. 14 years of production, on and off, and this is what we get? Just further proof that, in those darkest days at Disney, their reach extended fully beyond their grasp.
And with that, it's 25 down, 25 to go. Be sure to check back often - we're coming up on the legendary "Disney Renaissance" of 1989-1999, which should be fun. In the meantime, click on the following for numbers 1-24: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Fun And Fancy Free, Melody Time, The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady And The Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred And One Dalmatians, The Sword In The Stone, The Jungle Book, The AristoCats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh, The Rescuers, and The Fox And The Hound. Please comment!