Week 25: The Black Cauldron

First Theatrical Release: July 24, 1985

First Home Viewing Release: August 4, 1998

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection — I watched the 25th Anniversary Edition. And the copy didn’t skip ONCE! (Which is probably a testament to how popular The Black Cauldron is …)

Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Admittedly, this one straddles the fence a bit. Female characters include Hen Wen, Princess Eilonwy, three witches, and a busty gypsy who dances on the table in a tavern scene. The witches are the only women who talk to one another, mostly about the male characters. One could make an argument that this movie squeaks by with a passing score because of a few lines of dialogue in which the witches discuss what they want in return if they bargain away the black cauldron — but since they are clearly planning to negotiate only with Taran and he is the party they are considering for this bargain, I decided this conversation also revolves around a male character and flunked it. Sorry, BC.

Ah, The Black Cauldron, that most mysterious of all Disney movies. I remember poring over its entry in my The Art of Walt Disney tome, yearning to see this lost, forgotten foray into epic fantasy. I was certain its box office failure was a product of it being misunderstood. If only Disney would release it for home viewing, so that the TRUE fans could weigh in.

I got my wish in 1998, when I was 17. After all the hype, I was a little disappointed. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, watching it again now, I can sense that something about the movie feels disjointed and unfinished, despite some of the gorgeous art and animation that remains up to snuff. It all comes across as rather experimental, much as Atlantis and Treasure Island would be later, eschewing the typical Disney formula and lacking solid footing because of it. So although I agree that these are not among Disney’s best films, it makes me sad that such a media giant is punished by poor box office turnouts and mediocre reviews for trying something new. This curtailed Disney from ever getting good at telling true science fiction and fantasy stories, and that is a real shame. Because I still think animation is the right medium for making a beautiful fantasy story come alive.

Ancient_CastleAnd now, the time has come for a confession.

Despite reading a lot of fantasy throughout my life, I never read the Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain.

Not even for this project.

I gave myself a free pass because I tried. And I tried. And I tried. (Yes, I tried at LEAST three times.) And even though I hardly ever give up on a book without finishing it, I just could not make it through The Book of Three — I always got stuck around chapter seven.

So even though I don’t have firsthand experience with the book series, this movie plays out the way that you might expect a five-book series crammed into 80 minutes might — everyone is underdeveloped, and too much is left unexplained.

Eilonwy, We Hardly Knew Ye

EilonwyI thought there might be some hope for this movie even if it technically failed the Bechdel test in the first scene with Eilonwy. She finds Taran when he is locked in a cell and asks if he would like to “help” her escape, implying that she plans to lead the endeavor. She brings him through dungeon tunnels, explaining things as they go, remarkably cheerful for a prisoner. Taran seems happy to let her take the lead.

Until he finds a sword.

taran swordOnce he has the sword in hand — which, by the way, happens to be magic — Eilonwy quickly devolves into a damsel. Suddenly the girl who led Taran through the dungeons is being pulled up stairs and through halls by Taran, whose magic sword apparently also came with a map of the castle. She demands that he “Do something!” when they arrive in moments of peril, even though she was perfectly capable of “doing things” before. And at this point she pretty much does stop doing things. (Oh, except she mends the bard’s pants. That’s something.)

After their escape, Eilonwy and Taran bicker like an old married couple about who does more work around the place, which leads to Eilonwy rushing off in tears. Although they make up, this scene seems to be her last bit of resistance, as she doesn’t do much except simper over cute things for the rest of the film. She may give Aurora a run for her money when it comes to the prize for Disney Heroine with the Least Personality.

Also, where the heck is her kingdom? What is she a princess of, exactly? What’s up with her floating flashlight? I guess these questions are the price I pay for not reading the books.

A Few Additional Head Scratchers

The Black Cauldron displays a strange tension between hints of a fully developed world, and a sense of terrible abridgment. The Horned King is Disney’s only royal figure so far who seems to have an active army and court — we see lots of random guards drinking together and later chasing Taran around the castle. The existence of the Black Cauldron, which was created to contain an evil king of the past, is explained in the prologue. We also see early on that The Horned King wants the cauldron so he can raise an army of “undead,” Cauldron-born soldiers. Basically, this guy wants to be King of the Zombies.

Why is this army ...

Why is this army …

better than this army?

better than this army?

As creepy as he is, in a movie that strives to move beyond some of Disney’s more simple motifs (girl meets boy, girl dies/falls asleep/boy kisses girl/happily ever after), I find myself wanting a stronger motivation for the Horned King as well. It seems as if he wants to raise an army of the dead so that he can conquer the world, but he already commands a perfectly good flesh-and-blood army, not to mention a bunch of dragons, and the world outside his castle appears to be sparsely populated with peasants ill-equipped for war. I don’t see how a bunch of animated bones are really going to help his cause much.

I came to the conclusion that he really just wanted the Godlike power it would give him over life and death.

Are those real horns, or just your Elk Lodge hat?

Are those real horns, or just your Elk Lodge hat?

Also, why the heck DOES the Horned King have horns? Is he human, or a demon, or some mythological creature? He has hooves and horns, but his face looks like Skeletor’s. As far as I can tell, his court is made up of mostly normal looking burly men, one exotic dancer, and one goblin. What is the common factor tying all these things together? I may never know. (Because I didn’t read the books.)gypsy dancer

Taran’s random discovery of his magic sword is also weird — I suddenly feel as if we’re in a Prydain/King Arthur crossover. If the Horned King is such a war-monger, why aren’t his soldiers collecting all the good weapons off of corpses? Does the Horned King know this magic sword exists? Why does no one seem to care about it all that much? Is it last year’s model or something?

And if the Horned King is so obsessed with finding the cauldron that he’s tracked down an oracular pig and a magic glowy ball (where does that go after the first scene with Eilonwy, anyway?), why doesn’t he know about the fairies, who conveniently know exactly where the cauldron is? Apparently it’s not a big hairy secret after all. [By the way, the best part of the movie is probably hearing The Horned King say “Oracular Pig” in all seriousness.]

oracular pigAnd finally … WHY IS GURGI able to come back from the dead? The cauldron could only be broken by a living creature’s willing sacrifice, which it obtained.  But then the Witches of Morva apparently can reverse that sacrifice? Does this make the cauldron “active” again? Does it make the witches more powerful than the cauldron? Perhaps the Horned King should have spent his life trying to woo them instead.

witches of morvaYeah, yeah, so I should have read the books.

Is It Really That Dark?

Back when The Black Cauldron was still locked in the vault, the only things I knew about it were that it was a flop, and that it was the “darkest” of all the Disney movies. This aspect had been so hyped that when I saw it I was actually disappointed that it wasn’t “darker” — after all, by then Disney had already shocked and captivated me with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But watching it as an adult, in context with everything that came before it, and especially following on the heels of the perhaps-too-adorable The Fox & the Hound, I can see why it’s “darkness” was so jarring.

deathThe Horned King is certainly menacing, as the score will clue you in to every time he appears on screen. He is scarier at the beginning of the movie, when he is mostly in shadows, than at the end when we witness his rather lengthy death-by-cauldron. His keep is grittier than any villain’s abode thus far. His soldiers are coarse and bawdy. Skeletons are a normal part of the scenery, and in one scene we see a wagon of (covered) corpses. The adorable Hen Wen ends up moments away from having her head lopped off on a bloodstained chopping block. The three witches are a bit on the creepy side, with enough attention spent on the chunky one’s cleavage to make the movie uncomfortable to watch in mixed company.

And I can see how parents bringing their children to this movie in the theater might feel shocked, offended, or even betrayed by Disney. One scary scene ends only to be replaced by another. The movie maintains a pretty even level of “darkness” throughout, meaning it doesn’t get worse as the movie goes on — but nor does it get better. The parent of a crying four-year-old could easily find the movie to deliver one blow after another.

And this is where the movie really goes astray, I think — it is too scary for little kids (and thus will draw the ire of their parents), but it has too many plot holes to satisfy the adult viewer. So we’re left with some stunning background paintings, an intriguing atmosphere, and a longing to have it all put to better use.

For Further Reading

  • A blog post about why The Black Cauldron was such a flop — from someone who actually read the books!

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