Animated April, Retrospective Review: The Black Cauldron

Year: 1985
Runtime: 80 minutes
Director: Richard Rich, Ted Berman
Writers: Lloyd Alexander, David Jonas
Stars: John Hurt, Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne

By Mique Watson

Kids entertainment was so much better back then. “The Black Cauldron” is a film which bombed supposedly due to it being deemed ‘too dark’ by audiences of its time. I must admit, I hadn’t seen Disney’s “The Black Cauldron” as a tyke–today, however, I’ve rectified that (for those of you who haven’t been following, this month’s theme is animation; I love Disney, I love darkness–so this only seemed befitting). 

Many flicks for today’s kids substitute characters with archetypes, plot with colour, and wit with doubt-entendres (I’m looking right at you with a pulsating anime vein on my forehead, Angry Birds). Why oh why has the next generation been so woefully deprived of such delicious danger?

The films I grew up with–despite admittedly not being as gloomy and dark as this–challenged young audiences. They didn’t cradle or coddle them–they presented fantasy settings with some very real-life advice: the world can suck, people can be cruel jerks, but you’ve got all the tools you need to survive. In cruder, but oh-so-very essential terms, those animated films helped ensure that kids grew up with balls. 

black caudron
Grant Bardsley and Susan Sheridan in The Black Cauldron (1985)

“The films I grew up with–despite admittedly not being as gloomy and dark as this–challenged young audiences. They didn’t cradle or coddle them–they presented fantasy settings with some very real-life advice: the world can suck.”

Be not confused by the wide-eyed youthful protagonist and his adorable animal sidekick (with eyes so expressive it seems to have the ability to convey a sense of understanding of what its human counterpart is saying), for under the animated veneer of it all is a sharp-fanged bite. How sharp, might you ask? Allow me to shed some light on this query: (1) the film’s antagonist, The Horned King, is a cloaked being with a skull-like, demonic face and antlers, (2) blood drips from our hero, Taran’s, mouth as he is accosted by two frightening dragons, (3) beasts are shown indulging in lots of alcohol and behaving drunkenly, (4) a sweet and innocent pig is threatened with hot coal, (5) Taran has a sword jammed onto his gut, (6) the aforementioned innocent pig is nearly beheaded with an axe.

Meanwhile, “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6”. No shade to these films! They’re both great; but damn, the films kids nowadays consume don’t even hold a candle to the sense of danger and dread the children of yesterday felt with the films they’d grown up with. 

black
John Hurt in The Black Cauldron (1985)

“Disappointingly, the strong setup and haunting visuals (clearly designed to keep the parents just as invested as their kiddos) aren’t enough to make this top-tier Disney. It feels longer than its brief 80-minute runtime.”

All this, and I haven’t even gotten to the film’s premise: “The Black Cauldron” follows Taran, a rip-roaring young lad with aspirations of being a heavily-armoured, noble soldier. Within mere minutes of the film beginning, he’s set on a quest to search for the titular magic cauldron which, if found first by the Horned King (voiced by John Hurt!), could be used to resurrect an army of undead fiends who would wreak havoc on the world. 

This quest harkens back to the traditional hero’s journey in an effort to depict Taran’s progress toward becoming the soldier he constantly claims he wants to be. Along the way, he is joined by a young and vivacious Princess Eilonwy and an old harp-playing minstrel, Fflewddur Fflam (no, this is not a typo). 

the black cauldron
Grant Bardsley and Susan Sheridan in The Black Cauldron (1985)

Disappointingly, the strong setup and haunting visuals (clearly designed to keep the parents just as invested as their kiddos) aren’t enough to make this top-tier Disney. It feels longer than its brief 80-minute runtime, and it devolves into a series of plot contrivances which chip away at how seriously one may take this story (the pig doubles as a fortune-teller, among other things). How Taran and co. happen to learn about the cauldron’s whereabouts only happens because of accidental dumb luck. None of this is helped by a sacrifice a character makes in the third act which is frustratingly fixed lickety-split just a few minutes after it happens. 

Despite these clear flaws, however, “The Black Cauldron” should be satisfying to Disney completists who crave traditional hand-drawn animation in the context of a high fantasy setting. Taran’s journey may end quite abruptly, but the film is, nevertheless, an important footnote in Disney’s ever-evolving entertainment saga.

3 stars

 

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