Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 24 July 1985
Yet again, fans of the Disney Animated Features had a four-year wait between films. And for many, the result was not worth the wait.
In 1984, the Walt Disney Company hired Michael Eisner as CEO/Chairman of the Board and Frank Wells as President/CFO. Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney's nephew, took a more active role in the company as well. And Eisner soon hired Jeffrey Katzenberg to head up the studio's feature animation business. These significant management moves most likely saved the company, which had been in decline since Walt died in 1966. Coupled with the still-young Disney Channel and the successful launch of Touchstone Pictures (with Splash in 1984), the Disney company seemed to be back on track.
The one thing missing was a successful animated film. But of course, making such films is very time-consuming, and The Black Cauldron was nearly complete. Although Katzenberg tried to salvage the work, there was only so much that could be done with the existing material. The result was, like so many of its recent predecessors, less than stellar. Not bad by any means (it's not like Disney was doing anything wrong, just not doing it as well as they once did), it's just uneven and a bit unfocused.
Despite being a decent movie, the film was seen as too dark and scary and did horribly at the box office. The film was so much a departure for the company that it was the first (and only, until 2001) Disney Animated Feature to receive a PG rating. Coupled with the relative scarcity of animated films from Disney (thus unable to maintain much loyalty amongst audiences) and the complete lack of songs, these factors resulted in a film that could only be called a financial failure.
It would seem, as Roger Ebert reflected at the time, that audiences had forgotten the numerous more-frightening scenes found in earlier Disney films, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. For the record, Ebert gave the film three stars.
Artistically, then, the film is decent. Based on the novels by Lloyd Alexander, it's a pretty standard Hero's Journey in a sword and sorcery setting. Young Taran dreams of becoming a brave knight, but his current profession as 'assistant pig keeper' on a small farm seems set in stone.
The odd thing is that there is only a single pig on this farm, one named Hen Wen. And Taran soon finds out why Hen Wen is so special -- she's psychic. Taran's master, prompted by a foreboding prophesy from Hen Wen, sends him and the pig off to safety. He explains that the evil Horned King, who is in pursuit of the Black Cauldron, knows of Hen Wen and will try to use her to divinate the location of that dark artifact.
The Cauldron, you see, was created when an evil sorcerer was defeated and his soul imprisoned. The Horned King wishes to use the Cauldron to raise an army of undead warriors and take over the world. Well, Taran, being somewhat inept, manages to lose track of Hen Wen, who is carried off to the Horned King's castle. Displaying a complete lack of regard for his own safety, he embarks on a quest to save the psychic pig -- and the land of Prydain -- from the Horned King.
Along the way, as this is a Hero's Journey, he finds a fine group of friends and overcomes numerous obstacles. When his quest is finally over, he's not only saved the world, but more importantly, learned more about himself. Like the idea that one doesn't need a big sword and a muscular body to be a hero.
The voice cast is composed almost completely of unknowns, with a few exceptions like John Hurt (as the Horned King) and John Byner. Oh, and Brandon Call, later Hobie on "Baywatch" and JT on "Step By Step," had a small part.
The film received no award nominations of any kind, particularly not from the Academy. This was, of course, unusual for Disney films, and probably undeserved. Another departure for Disney was the lack of songs -- this is not a musical, but an action-adventure film.
Still, overall, while the Black Cauldron is clearly the low point in the history of Disney Animated Features, such a measure is relative, and on its own, it stands as an enjoyable, if formulaic, movie. Even at its worst, Disney seems unable to make a truly bad animated film.
And under the leadership of Katzenberg and Eisner, things were beginning to turn around...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.