Disney’s Forgotten Treasures: “The Black Cauldron”

I am, it is no secret, a long-time passionate fan of Disney feature animation.  While I find the ostensible politics of many of these films retrograde and sometimes even reactionary, I am also of the school that attempts to find subversive pleasures in the hegemonic popular culture fed to us by media giants like Disney.  Likewise, though I am a huge fan of their most recent mega-hit Frozen (rightly celebrated for its emphasis on the bonds between and among women over and above heterosexual romance), I also think it important to draw attention to those entries in the Disney animated features canon that have been overlooked and undervalued, due in no small part to the blizzard of Princess-related merchandise that Disney constantly pumps into the market.  So, to do my small part in bringing to light some of their under-appreciated feature films, I am going to focus on some of the most under-appreciated Disney animated features, starting with the ultimate black sheep of the Disney family, The Black Cauldron.

Released in 1985, the film is based on Lloyd Alexander’s excellent young adult series “The Chronicles of Pyrdain,” based on various aspects of Welsh mythology.  It follows the adventures of young hero Taran as he struggles to keep the sinister Horned King (voiced by the inimitable John Hurt) from gaining the power of the Black Cauldron.  Of course, he ultimately succeeds, and the story ends on a happy note.

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of this film is its dark and brooding atmosphere.  Since much of the narrative action takes place in nightmarish places–such as the Horned King’s decaying castle and the labyrinthine Marshes of Morva–this makes sense, and it certainly marks a departure from almost every other Disney feature.  Even though the two preceding features, The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound were also fairly dark in tone and colouring, neither is as unrelentingly sinister as The Black Cauldron.  Indeed, this film has more in common with works such as Conan and such post-apocalyptic TV fare as Thundarr the Barbarian.  Thus, The Black Cauldron offers us a tantalizing glimpse into what feature animation–with its budget and dedicated artistry–can accomplish when it seeks to plumb some of the darker depths of the fantastic.

Further, the scenes featuring the Cauldron-born are especially terrifying, but in a way that makes you want to see more of them.  With skeletal frames eerily blurred and limned by the Cauldron’s venomous green mist, these are the creatures of nightmare, and they are simultaneously alluring and repulsive.  It is thus unfortunate that they get so little screen time, at least compared to some of the less-compelling aspects of the screenplay.  Allegedly, there were several scenes slashed out of the final cut for being too violent (hardly surprising, even if it was the 1980s, the era of Rambo and Rocky), and that is a shame, as such violence would not only have raised the stakes of the film but also shown unequivocally Disney’s commitment to diversifying its artistic output.

It is the Horned King, however, who really makes this film worth seeing.  Memorably voiced by John Hurt, he broods at the edge of the film, only rarely coming fully into the frame.  When he does, however, he steals the show.  Part of what makes him so compelling is the mystery that shrouds him; it is implied that he is a mortal man, but something has clearly gone wrong to render him a twisted perversion of human.  What little glimpses we get of his face reveal a gaunt and haggard skull, but we are never told what rendered him this way.  However, we do know that his forces have been at war with those of the rest of Pyrdain for some time, and it is the collected corpses of the fallen, presumably from both sides, that serve as the source for his army of the undead.  It is quite chilling to see them unloaded from carts into a vast chamber, yet another sign of the Horned King’s sinister and unfathomably inhuman nature.  Though seldom included in the pantheon of great Disney villains, the Horned King’s inscrutable cruelty and ruthlessness certainly put him up there with the likes of Scar and Maleficent.

Does The Black Cauldron have its flaws?  Certainly.  There are a few plot holes that don’t hold up to intense scrutiny.  The protagonists, while likable enough, aren’t terribly well-developed.  However, the film represents a road not taken by Disney.  Or at least a road that they only rarely traverse (The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another example of a so-called darker Disney).  That was a road that could have led to some truly adventurous artistry but, alas, the company chose the safer road, and we the consumers are the poorer for it.  In fact, the film disappeared after its release and did not even receive a homo video release until almost a decade later (I remember my excitement at the imminent release of something I had seen only glimmers of in trailers at the beginning of other Disney features).  Even the most recent version (the 25th Anniversary Edition as of this writing), does not do justice to the film.  It excludes, for instance, the particularly disturbing scenes mentioned earlier which, in my opinion, would have deepened and enriched this already rewarding film.  But, such are the vicissitudes of Disney’s restoration efforts.

What do you think?  Is The Black Cauldron a misfire best forgotten or an aesthetically under-appreciated gem?  Or a little of both?  Share your opinions in the comments!

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