Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Seventeen - Least Favorite Book Adaptation

Taran comes to the aid of  the
sweet enchantress Eilonwy.
The Black Cauldron was not the worst movie Disney ever made, but it was darn close. It was certainly the studio's most legendary failure. The film languished in production for ten years, nearing completion in 1984 at the time when the company's leadership was in upheaval. Following a series of hostile takeover bids at Disney, Michael Eisner was named CEO and Jeffrey Katzenberg was appointed head of the movie studio. One of Katzenberg's first orders of business was to check on the progress of The Black Cauldron. After previewing it, he was not impressed. His instructions to writer/producer Joe Hale were succinct.

"It's bad. Fix it."

Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew and then head of animation, admitted he didn't understand what the story was about. Even the company's own animators were split over it. Some saw the dark and violent (it was the first Disney animated film to earn a PG rating) sword and sorcery epic as the perfect vehicle to give Disney back its long lost edge in animation. Others felt it was a poor project choice that didn't mesh with the Disney brand.

The doubters were right. After its summer 1985 release, The Black Cauldron grossed a mere $22 million at the box office, significantly less than what it cost to make. Adding insult to injury, it was out-earned that year by the non-Disney The Care Bears Movie. Even Disney's re-release of 101 Dalmatians at Christmas did better than The Black Cauldron, selling $33 million in tickets.

Despite its failings, the movie had a noble pedigree. It was based on the popular Newberry Award-winning series of books, The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. In the film, a young pig keeper named Taran must protect his prized pig, Hen Wen, from the evil clutches of the Horned King. Hen Wen has clairvoyant powers that the King needs to help locate the mystical Black Cauldron, which can be used to raise an invincible army of the undead. Needless to say, Horned King + Undead Army = Bad. When Hen Wen is captured, it's up to Taran and a ragtag group of friends to rescue her, defeat the Horned King and destroy the cauldron.

Taran and Gurgi
What sounded good on paper, though, lost a lot during its execution. Despite some very attractive animation (shot in widescreen 70mm) The Black Cauldron is a mess of storytelling. It is, in turns, both dull and confusing with characters that lack charisma and a story that never really grabs your attention--except when it leaves you scratching your head (What do the pixie-ish Fairfolk do, anyway?). The movie's lone saving grace is a hyper-cute fur ball of a creature named Gurgi (voiced ever-so-sweetly by John Byner), who wants only to be Taran's friend and steal his food. That Gurgi ultimately becomes a hero is the film's sole touching moment, but it's lost in the muddle of understanding what's going on (How, exactly, were the Horned King and the cauldron destroyed? They were destroyed, right?).

The Black Cauldron was meant to resurrect Disney animation. Instead, it almost brought it crashing down.



  1. If it was out earned by The Care Bears Movie it must have been a stinker :) Can't say I've seen this one...now, I know why. Great post!

  2. Thanks MMM. The movie is very frustrating to watch because it had so much potential. I'm not big on remakes in general, but if ever there was Disney film that needed a do-over, it's "The Black Cauldron."

  3. I know exactly what you mean, I hated this movie and couldn't believe it was a Disney movie. It is the only one missing from my Disney collection. really enjoyed your blog, stop by mine. thanks.


  4. You are a great historian! I agree with Mommy- I never got to see this one, and will now keep my record intact :DM Thanks for the review.