Black Cauldron, The (1985)
Release Date: July 24th, 1985 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Ted Berman, Richard Rich Actors: Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, Arthur Malet, John Byner
egend tells of an evil king that once ruled the mystic land of Prydain; so vile was this tyrant that even the gods feared him. Thrown into a crucible of molten iron, his demonic spirit was captured in a black cauldron and hidden away for ages. According to the myth, whoever possesses the vessel will have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors to aid in conquering the world. Years later, the current merciless ruler of Prydain, the Horned King (John Hurt), searches far and wide for the cauldron, despite his existing wealth of power and persuasion.
In a nearby farm in the middle of the woods, elderly Dallben (Freddie Jones) and his young assistant pigkeeper Taran (Grant Bardsley) watch after a magical hog named Hen Wen. When Dallben utilizes the swine’s precognitive abilities, he realizes that the Horned King will try to use Hen Wen to locate the black cauldron, and sends Taran away to the edge of the forbidden forest to hide the pig. But the daydreaming boy is incompetent and stupidly fearless; in a matter of minutes, massive dragons capture Hen Wen, forcing Taran to trek to the Horned King’s castle to rescue her. Along the way, he meets a small, hairy creature named Gurgi (with an annoying, nearly indecipherable voice, comparable to that of Donald Duck) who befriends him for an apple. Taran’s plans fail yet again when he’s nabbed by brutish guards and thrown into the dungeon. There he meets the lovely Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), a girl of an indiscernible age, similarly imprisoned for the potential powers of her glowing yellow bauble (technically a Golden Pelydryn), which hovers around her at all times.
The two manage to escape, along with a comical bard named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne). Once again stranded in the forest, they discover a kingdom of flittering fairies, governed by King Eidilleg, who directs them to the marshes of Morva. The swampland is home to the black cauldron’s guardians – three eccentric witches who reveal to the group of heroes the terrible price that must be paid in order to stop the Horned King from fulfilling his ghastly conquest.
There is still some kid-friendly playfulness to be found with the pink porker and fluffy Gurgi, but “The Black Cauldron” is still Disney’s darkest and most serious traditionally animated film. During an early scene, Taran is attacked by dragons and receives a bloody lip. Snarling dogs snap at Fflam, axe-throwing henchmen down jugs of mead, lights frequently go out, the witches threaten to turn people into frogs to be eaten, and skeletons adorn the castle. Then there’s the Horned King himself, one of the scariest of all Disney villains, with his Darth Vader-like demeanor, towering hooded frame, fleshless face, and throaty voice. He also has his own punching-bag sidekick, Creeper (Phil Fondacaro), a bug-eyed green dwarf reminiscent of Frankenstein’s Igor.
The movie has an undeniably morose, gothic environment, with Middle Ages locations and costumes, a menacing castle with burial chambers, dungeons, a throne room, a moat, and even dragons. Plenty of deathly serious situations arise, with suspenseful action that draws upon “Conan,” “The Beastmaster,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and other such swords and sorcery epics. It’s a noticeably adult kind of plot, with mature fantasy and violence (it’s the only Disney animation to receive a PG rating for scary images); but it also feels like only half of a story, as if audiences are thrust into the core chapters of an epic quest, with countless elements left undetailed, unexplained, and underdeveloped.
The film was a loose adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” novels, in turn based on Welsh mythology, which contribute to the darker themes. But it’s the character development and visual designs (is it shocking that Tim Burton was a conceptual artist on the film?) that make “The Black Cauldron” the least Disney-like Disney animated movie in the studio’s history. Thanks to poor box office performance and negative critical reception, the film’s home video release was delayed for years, leaving this morbid project to remain one of the most obscure of all feature-length animations (perhaps second only to “Song of the South”) – which, in some measure, contributes to its appeal.
– Mike Massie