Ted Berman & Richard Rich | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG
The Black Cauldron is best remembered as an intriguing footnote in the history of Disney animation. Their 25th ‘official’ film, it was the first with no songs, the first to earn a PG (after being cut — twice — to avoid a PG-13), and flopped so badly they disowned it for over a decade. Fully-animated sequences were cut after disastrous test screenings for parents, and famed exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, who came into Disney management during the film’s production, reportedly ordered 12 minutes cut, muddling the film’s story. What a mess.
The final result… isn’t that bad. It’s not some lost classic, but nor is it an unmitigated disaster. Based on a series of children’s novels that in turn were based on Welsh mythology, it’s a dark-ages fantasy story in which a young pig keeper battles an evil lord intent on securing a magical cauldron and using it to rule the world.
Tonally it’s very odd. Segments of dark fantasy, on a Lord of the Rings-type level, butt up against childish slapstick and tomfoolery. There’s nothing wrong with being tonally varied, but The Black Cauldron features such extremes, and flits between them so carelessly, that it’s jarring. At times it’s almost like Disney’s animators forgot they were making a kids’ movie: there’s a buxom dancing gypsy, a bit where a chap is turned into a frog and gets stuck wobbling around in a woman’s cleavage, and a bunch of dark stuff with an army of the undead, which even in its cut-down form isn’t bright and cheery.
Also, one of the main characters is a clairvoyant pig called Hen.
It’s always interesting when a company like Disney break outside of the norm, and it’s certainly brought them some degree of success in recent years with the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6. Those have gone over very well with the geek audience, though I found them both severely lacking. The Black Cauldron also comes up short, but as the product of thwarted ambition rather than inherent mediocrity, I’m inclined to like it more.