When it comes to Summer of 1985 fantasy movies that might be a little too dark and scary for their family audiences, RETURN TO OZ was not all Disney had up their sleeve. They also had an animated feature about swords and quests and undead armies that tried to push their artform into new territory. It was the most expensive animated movie that had ever been made, the only one besides SLEEPING BEAUTY that was shot on 70mm, Disney’s first that was rated PG, and the first to integrate some computer generated imagery. It’s adapted from a series of children’s novels called The Chronicles of Prydain by Llloyd Alexander, and they chose not to turn it into a musical (which took some restraint, since one of the main characters is a bard who carries a harp around). It has a mostly serious tone, with a score by Elmer Bernstein and a willingness to start out quiet and ominous, with slow fades between scenes.
Its hero is Taran (Grant Bardsley, George Cukor’s THE BLUE BIRD), a dorky young “assistant pig-keeper” unhappy with his weird job of helping his boss Dallben (Freddie Jones, FIREFOX, FIRESTARTER, WILD AT HEART) take care of one single pig named Hen Wen. He thinks he should be “a famous warrior” having adventures and shit, which he practices for by swinging a stick at imaginary enemies, narrating about how fearless he is and how scared and cowardly they are.
Then, of course, a gen-u-wine adventure is dumped into his lap when Hen Wen starts freaking out for no visible reason, and Dallben knows it’s time to dip her into some water, causing them to see visions of the evil Horned King (John Hurt, KING RALPH)’s quest to find the Black Cauldron, which has the power to transform his pile of skeletons into an army of “Cauldron-Born.” Oh yeah, sorry kid, forgot to tell you this but Hen Wen is an “oracular pig” whose psychic powers are needed to find this mystical resurrection pot, and as assistant pigkeeper you must assist in keeping the pig by taking her to safety. See ya kid!
Taran doesn’t get very far before he lets his pig get stolen by two small dragons called Gwythaints and his apple by a furry little monkey man named Gurgi (John Byner, STROKER ACE, MUNCHIE STRIKES BACK, WISHMASTER) who starts following him around talking about “crunchies and munchies” and shit. But he’s too cowardly to go with him to the Horned King’s Castle, so he stands on top of a mountain lamenting that he may “never see my friend again.” (It seems like they met like five minutes ago and have mostly been arguing about the apple.)
Taran gets into the castle, but is thrown into a dungeon, where he befriends a fellow prisoner named Princess Eilonwy (English voice actress Susan Sheridan) and the aforementioned busker, Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne, DEMOLITION MAN), and they work together to save this pig. Gurgi may or may not join them.
The five books were published between 1964 and 1968, and the movie is primarily adapted from the first two, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron. I read and loved these books growing up and I can’t say I remember much about them, except that when somebody complained about Gurgi being a cliched Disney comic relief character I was able to tell them that was exactly the character from the books. (Except I guess he didn’t need to have the squeaky Howie Mandel type voice.) Looking at it now he seems clearly inspired by Gollum though, right? One interesting note is that someone refers to him as “pungent.” So if you’re ever delighted by how cute he is, don’t forget that he smells like ass.
There are other funny characters in the movie that are very Disney. The Horned King has a little henchman dude called Creeper (Phil Fondocaro, RETURN OF THE JEDI, TROLL, STEELE JUSTICE, GHOULIES II, THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE, WILLOW, PHANTASM II, DOLLMAN VS. DEMONIC TOYS, HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE, THE CREEPS, THE POLAR EXPRESS, LAND OF THE DEAD, EVIL BONG). And the three witches, Orddu (Eda Reiss Merin, “Louis’s Neighbor,” GHOSTBUSTERS), Orwen (Adele Malis-Morey, “Woman #1,” CRITTERS) and Orgoch (Billie Hayes, Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf), are like the evil version of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmothers.
It’s not surprising that Eilonwy has been ignored in the canonical Disney Princess hierarchy, but she does have a certain spark of personality to her as she keeps showing up Taran. He’s clearly meant to be a doofus when he calls her a “Silly girl. Even if she is a princess.” One of my favorite moments is when he finds a magic sword, as one would expect in a fantasy quest movie, and she walks in on him excitedly swinging it around. “Are you all right?” she asks.
He’s the Luke Skywalker character who really will become a great hero, but the story does not agree with his little boy warrior worship. In fact, his first line of the movie is “Oh, Dallben. I was just thinking – what if the war’s over, and I never had the chance to fight?”
Dallben says, “Hm. And a good thing, too. War isn’t a game. People get hurt.” And this is not a story about Dallben being proven wrong.
The part where a fairy asks, “Tell me – is the murdering and killing still going on up there?” also suggests a “these humans and their violence” theme, but he turns out to be talking about the Horned King’s activities.
In the end Taryn saves the day specifically by choosing his foul-smelling friend Gurgi’s (willingly sacrificed) life over the magic sword. Obviously that shouldn’t be a hard choice, but respect to him for not being disappointed about it. “I’m not a warrior. I’m a pig boy. What would I do with a sword?”
The Horned King’s death (SPOILER) goes further than most Disney movies – the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK influence, I suspect. Creeper sees it and says, “Oh no. Oh, how horrible. Oh, Sire! He’s gone!” I liked this Rancor-Keeper type moment of a hero killing the bad guy, followed by the perspective of someone who sees it as a tragedy. Or so it seems at first. It turns out to be set up for a joke as he transitions into saying “He’s gone! He’s gone!” in a celebratory manner. Oh well, that’s pretty good too. Nobody wants to work for an asshole like that. Not even Creeper.
The directors are the FOX AND THE HOUND team of Ted Berman (a Disney artist since FUN AND FANCY FREE in 1947) and Richard Rich (a Disney assistant director since ROBIN HOOD in 1973). It’s kind of hard to picture now, but this was a time when the future of Walt Disney Animation was in question. Many of the veteran animators had retired after THE RESCUERS (1977), and some of the new generation, led by Don Bluth, were so convinced the company wasn’t living up to their classical animation legacy that they spent their off hours making an independent short called Banjo the Woodpile Cat in Bluth’s garage. Then 14 of them quit to make THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982). Many of the people left at Disney were in their twenties and embarrassed to be making movies nobody their age would want to see. So they saw THE BLACK CAULDRON – which had been in development since ’73 – as a chance to make a darker movie that might broaden their audience to include teens and adults.
In 1980, two artists with drastically different styles – Tim Burton and Andreas Deja – were assigned to work together on conceptual drawings. Both say none of their work was used. According to Disney’s Art of Animation by Bob Thomas, Burton was given complete freedom. “I enjoyed that, but there was the feeling they’d say, ‘This is wonderful but let’s not show anybody.’” He says that Disney had “a foot in the past and a foot in the future and no firm footing in either. THE BLACK CAULDRON was one of the things that steered me out of animation.”
Though Burton’s work was dismissed as too weird to use, you could never argue that his years at Disney weren’t productive. During his stint of being locked in a room to draw whatever he wanted he came up with the concept and characters for THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and directed the excellent stop motion short Vincent, the live action Disney Channel short Hansel and Gretel, and best of all the live action Frankenweenie. Disney didn’t know what to make of any of those and let him go, but when Paul Reubens saw Frankenweenie he hired Burton to direct PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, which was released only a few weeks after THE BLACK CAULDRON.
Deja did get credited as a character designer, and did stay with the company.
Some at Disney talked about the project as a “new SNOW WHITE.” Their plans were so ambitious that for a while they included projecting holograms into theaters during the Cauldron-Born sequence. (Obviously they didn’t get the tech figured out. They needed James Cameron or somebody.)
After four years of production, and just a few months before the planned release, there was a regime change at the company, handing the reins to two Paramount executives with no animation experience. New chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg thought THE BLACK CAULDRON was too scary, and wanted to edit it. This horrified producer Joe Hale and others, who tried to explain that every frame of every shot, scene or transition in an animated film is planned in advance – there aren’t a bunch of outtakes and alternates they can cut in. So Katzenberg took it and started editing it himself, until CEO Michael Eisner made him stop. Still, they cut either 2 or 12 minutes (depending on where you read) and had to rewrite and animated some scenes to make sense out of it. It was worth it, since it delayed the release from Christmas 1984 to Summer of 1985, so that it could be included in this series.
Still, it was considered a disastrous flop, making back less than half its budget in theaters. Most critics wrote it off as boring crap. Variety wrote that, “The characters, though cute and cuddly and sweet and mean and ugly and simply awful, don’t really have much to do that would remain of interest to any but the youngest minds.”
The Washington Post’s Paul Attanasio was one of the few who were mostly positive: “Technically brilliant though short on narrative, ‘The Black Cauldron’ is a painless, old-fashioned way to take out the kids, and a triumph for the animation department at the Disney studio, where it has been in development for almost a dozen years.” He calls it “sort of ‘Conan the Destroyer Jr.’” and admits “the story could use more twists, and the good kids could use some characteristics besides good kidness.”
Roger Ebert seemed really into it: “Now comes a new Disney animated film in the old tradition… a rip-roaring tale of swords and sorcery, evil and revenge, magic and pluck and luck… it takes us on a journey through a kingdom of some of the more memorable characters in recent Disney film… the key to the movie is in the richness of the characterizations… By the end of ‘The Black Cauldron’ I was remembering, with something of a shock of nostalgia, the strength and utter storytelling conviction of the early Disney animators.”
I think he’s right! But in ’85 I was at an age where I didn’t want to be some baby that would watch a Disney cartoon. I have a memory of watching Siskel & Ebert and being angry that Roger gave a cartoon a thumbs up, but not some other movie that I assumed was better. Going to the tape I was relieved to discover that I had to have been mad on behalf of EXPLORERS. I was afraid it was gonna turn out to be EUROPEAN VACATION or something.
Not long after that I started reading the books and regretted not having seen it. There was actually no way to see it, because it went unreleased on video for years, becoming somewhat legendary as the “dark” Disney movie. Much like HEAVY METAL, the mystique pretty much disappeared as soon as it was finally released on VHS in 1998. When I saw it then I liked the cool skeletons and shit, but thought it was kind of boring.
This time I liked it better. The SNOW WHITE comparison is apt. To me it feels more in keeping with the craftsmanship of the Disney classics than the ones they made in the ‘70s. But I admit that I’m an easy mark for these crisp remasters of hand drawn and painted animation. I find myself just staring at the background paintings in awe. Look at these!
Those newbies knew what they were doing! There are so many beautifully creepy settings. And it gets a tinge psychedelic in the oracular pig visions. Weird colors, hypnotized eyes, light beams reflected on faces. I love seeing them pushing the effects animation envelope. I spotted live action dry ice fog coming out of the cauldron, which looked cool. One scene has Taran in front of what looks like live action footage of clouds (tinted red), and there are little pieces of white on some of the edges of the drawings that made me wonder if they printed the frames out and cut around them with X-acto knives. Whatever it is, I like that hand-crafted quality of it. At the same time, the digital effect of a three-dimensional boat that they ride in is really well integrated. I didn’t realize that particular technology existed before the ’90s.
Admittedly, it’s all that surface stuff that they did the best job with. I won’t deny that there’s a certain blandness to Taran, and a lack of eventfulness to the story considering it comes from multiple books. But it’s quick and likable and it pays off with all the cool, scary shots of the Horned King and his Cauldron-Born, classic Disney horror imagery in the tradition of FANTASIA’s Chernabog. You don’t get that in most of ‘em. Good job, 1985.
Summer of 1985 connections:
One of the character designers, Mike Ploog, designed the weird aliens in EXPLORERS. Must’ve watched Siskel & Ebert with interest that week.
Over the years there have been limited edition pins, Happy Meal toys, beanies and Funko Pops of BLACK CAULDRON characters, but the only vintage 1985 toys I’ve found evidence of are plush dolls from Tomy and a PVC set.
There were some Little Golden Books, and of course a re-release of the book with the movie poster on the cover.
PC game makers Sierra On-Line (known for the King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series’) made a BLACK CAULDRON video game that was released in 1986.
After the disastrous release, Eisner and Katzenberg gave the historic Burbank animation building to the live action department and moved the animators into a warehouse in Glendale to work on lower budgets. Somehow it worked out in 1989, when THE LITTLE MERMAID became a giant smash and they followed its G-rated-musical-fairy-tale-without-skeletons template for years.
Before that, while Disney was still in disarray, co-director Richard Rich left to make Mormon entertainment like The Joseph Smith Story and The Animated Book of Mormon. During that time the success of THE LITTLE MERMAID not only revitalized his former employer, but the entire industry of animated features, so he pulled a Don Bluth and directed the Disney-fairy-tale knockoff THE SWAN PRINCESS (1994). Since then he has directed theatrical features THE KING AND I and THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN, plus various Bible and Koran based shows, nine DTV sequels to THE SWAN PRINCESS, and four to the computer animated ALPHA AND OMEGA.
Rejected concept artist Tim Burton became, you know – Tim Burton. He eventually returned to Disney and his pile of old drawings to produce THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. He was still somewhat misunderstood by the suits until years later when they realized it was impossible to make too much Jack Skellington merchandise. Their association continued with the live-actionish ALICE IN WONDERLAND (both his worst and most profitable film), the feature length stop motion remake of FRANKENWEENIE (beautiful, but not nearly as good as the short) and DUMBO (haven’t seen).
Character designer Andreas Deja became one of the top animators of Disney’s ‘90s renaissance, as supervising animator for King Triton, Gaston, Jafar, Scar, Hercules, Lilo, and more. He hasn’t had a credit since Tigger in 2011’s WINNIE THE POOH, because Disney abandoned hand drawn animation for computers. But he’s directing a short for them now.
Michael Eisner oversaw the triumphant rebirth of Disney feature animation in the ‘90s, but by the time he stepped down in 2005, almost half of the company’s shareholders had rebelled against his leadership. In his post-CEO life he became a fill-in host for Charlie Rose and had his own show called Conversations with Michael Eisner. It hasn’t shown up on Disney+ so far. In 2007 his investment firm bought the Topps trading card company, and he never had to buy dry pink bubble gum sticks again for the rest of his life.
Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to get promoted to president of Disney, but was blocked by board member and nephew of Walt, Roy E. Disney, who thought he was a prick. Shortly after Katzenberg was forced to resign in 1994 he cofounded DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, becoming the most serious rival for Disney feature animation since Bluth’s movies had turned irredeemably wack. Katzenberg is the creator of Father of the Pride, a computer animated sitcom about Siegfried & Roy’s lions, and this year he introduced Quibi, the asinine streaming service that hired A-list talent to create 10 minute “quick bites” that he honestly believed brain damaged dipshits would pay money to watch on their phones. After reportedly spending $1.1 billion for its first year of “original content” and advertising the shit out of the stupid thing, it was released to universal mockery, the app quickly fell out of the top 1000, they admitted their 2 million subscribers were far below the 7.4 million projected, they laid off a bunch of people and Katzenberg said “I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus.”
Interviewed by Scholastic Students, author Lloyd Alexander said that he found the movie “to be very enjoyable” and “had fun watching it,” but that “there is no resemblance between the movie and 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.” From 1986 to 2005, he wrote six books in the Holly Vesper series, which sounds alot like Tomb Raider to me. He died in 2007, about a week after his last book, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, was published.
In 2016, Variety reported that Disney had re-acquired the rights to the five Chronicles of Prydain books, presumably to be adapted in live action. Maybe they can do the hologram this time. And smell-o-vision.