The Black Cauldron – animated film review

Theatrical teaser poster for "The Black Cauldron".
Theatrical teaser poster for “The Black Cauldron”.
I remember reading one or two of the Prydain Chronicles books when I was younger, and I enjoyed them. Walt Disney’s animated film, The Black Cauldron, is based on the first two books in that series. August marks 50 years since the first book, The Book of Three, was released.

The evil Horned King (voiced by John Hurt) is searching for the Black Cauldron, an ancient artifact said to have powers to raise an undead army. In order to find it, he must find the oracular pig (she’s called that multiple times in the film), Hen Wen, who just happens to be tended by our protagonist, assistant pig-keeper Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley).

After Hen Wen runs off into the woods, Taran goes to search for her, only to be captured along with her by the minions of the Horned King. While in the Horned King’s dungeon, Taran meets Eilonwy (voice by Susan Sheridan), an erstwhile princess being held captive in the dungeon (but who also seems to have free rein of the place via various secret passages). The rest of the film deals with them trying to stay ahead of the Horned King and his minions while trying to find the Black Cauldron and stop the Horned King.

The animation is pretty typical for early- to mid-1980s. Some aspects of it are of lesser quality than Disney films 40-50 years older (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty come to mind, for example), which disappointed me. While still better than television animation of the day, it seemed to me that shortcuts were taken.

Some of the optical effects seemed odd, as well. After doing a little research, I found that this was the first Disney animated film to incorporate some CGI into the film, and it definitely showed in how jarring those effects were. I understand that animators need to experiment to push their abilities and tools farther, but I think these effects were not quite up to snuff to the traditional animation used in the rest of the film.

I was frustrated with how they treated Gurgi, too. The books refer to him as a small, hairy creature that is humaniod in appearance, but the animators here made him look like a dog. They also made him into the comedy relief in a story which isn’t really all that humorous. It just seemed wrong, somehow.

The pacing was off in a few places, and this appears to be partly the fault of Disney then-CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. According to the book DisneyWar, Katzenberg took it on himself to override both the producers and directors of the film and tried to edit the film close to the end of production (rather than in storyboards, as is common), and eventually about 12 minutes was removed through various processes. I don’t think the film ever recovered from this.

Regardless of those issues, The Black Cauldron is a fun adventure film good for most of the family (some imagery may be too scary for the younger crowd). I hope Disney cleans up the DVD transfer and releases a remastered Blu-ray at some point.

Release Date: July 24, 1985 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG

MySF Rating: Three point zero stars
Family Friendliness: 100%

Content:

Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (drinking among bad guys)
Language: 0
Nudity: 0
Sexuality: 1 (blatant flirting, some innuendo, a brief kiss)
Violence: 2 (undead, images of battle, peril)


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