I’ve been carried a little too far afield in my talk of classic Japanese arthouse cinema and contemporary American literature, so let’s change the topic to something a little more germane to the blog: something bad that Disney animation studios did in the 80s. By which I mean The Black Cauldron, a movie which was supposed to be a prestige project, but very quickly devolved into one of those long, soul-crushing production hells that deflate themselves into movie theaters before getting swept under the rug. There’s a not unlikely chance that you, the person reading this post, had no idea this movie existed until now.
The Black Cauldron is adapted from Lloyd Alexander’s series of fantasy novels, The Chronicles of Prydain, which I have not read but am willing to believe is probably of far greater artistic merit than this movie. The movie follows this one kid called Taran, who is tasked with watching over a magic pig called Hen Wen. How magical? Well, Hen Wen has the ability to reveal the location of the Black Cauldron, an evil artifact which is being sought after by the eeeevil Horned King who wishes to use it to raise an army of the undead. Unfortunately Taran is too much of an airhead for this sort of thing and hence loses Hen Wen within the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, forcing him to go on a Hero’s Journey involving a princess and an old guy and some annoying comic relief characters.
The movie’s chief failure is its lack of details such as “compelling characters” and “story”. I don’t think I’m doing the cast a disservice by saying that the description I’ve thus given of them adequately sums them up. And as for the plot, well it felt like things just kinda happened for 80 minutes or so until the bad guy was dead and the credits were rolling, with very little of the connective tissue explaining what was going on, who these people were, or why I should care.
That said, I had a good time. The Black Cauldron is a bad movie, but very much the sort I can get down with.
For one thing, in spite of some uneven character animation, the movie overall is quite beautiful: this was an expensive movie, and one of only two animated Disney movies made in Panavision, and it shows in the lushness of its imagery. It feels like vintage Disney animation in a way that other features from the same era do not.
But it’s also so tonally bizarre: this is the one animated Disney flick that is really trying hard to be another Star Wars while also keeping its foot in the door of its own traditions while also filling it with a lot of rather grim and ghoulish sword and sorcery stuff (this was long before the more elegant solution of simply purchasing Lucasfilm was a viable option). The end product feels like Disney decided to animate someone’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and isn’t that just an exciting recipe for fascinatingly bad cinema?
There’s a certain perverse entertainment in watching this beast which should not exist, especially given how the sort of streamlined quality control we see from the company nowadays prevents a spectacular misfire like this from ever seeing the light of day. Which is probably better for the sanity of the people who work on these things, but I dunno: I’ve never had a desire to see the likes of Frozen or Moana more than once, while I can see myself returning to this
cauldronwell in the future.