The Black Cauldron (1985)
The late American writer Lloyd Alexander was the author of the acclaimed children’s Fantasy series, ‘The Chronicles of Prydain’ (1964-1968), which was loosely based upon Welsh and Celtic mythology (in particular the Welsh Mythological cycle, the Mabinogion).Loved by generations of children (and quiet a few adults) the five books in the series displayed a quality of writing, seamlessly flipping from pathos to wit, rarely associated with children’s literature.
It is hardly surprising then that Walt Disney decided to produce an animated feature based upon the first two books in the sequence, titled ‘The Black Cauldron’ (1985). The plot was fairly straight forward if not entirely typical Disney fair, and bore only a cursory resemblance to the original material. In the land of Prydain a young boy called Taran was an assistant pigkeeper to the scholar Dallben. His humdrum life was filled with dreams of becoming a famous warrior and hero. However, his charge, an oracular pig named Hen Wen was kidnapped by an evil lord known called the Horned King, who was searching for the Black Cauldron, a magical device that could create an army of undead warriors called the Cauldron Born, with which he could conquer the world. Taran, with the aid of a princess called Eilonwy, a failed bard named Fflewddur Fflam, and a strange creature called Gurgi, set out to prevent this, and along the way encountered witches, elves, magic swords, and the Cauldron itself.
Disney staked a lot on the film, with high expectations of critical and financial success, and it was a decade in the making. A new technique for transferring drawings to movie cells called the APT process was used (though that would ultimately prove less than cost-effective), as well as early computer-generated imagery (a first for a Disney animated feature), and a whole new catalogue of sound effects. However, the movie budget soon spiralled to around $25 million dollars. This was made worse when senior executives at the studio viewed the film and were somewhat dismayed by the finished product. Much darker, and more violent, than most Disney animated movies up to that time, several scenes deemed unsuitable for children were eventually deleted or altered. Despite this post-production re-editing the film still received the more restrictive PG rating in the United States (the first Disney animated piece to do so) and this had a bad effect on sales and the perception of the film. Ultimately perceived as too dark and sombre in tone, the movie box office sales were poor and the movie largely failed to recoup its initial cost at the movie theatres (though video sales and rentals eventually helped).
Yet today ‘The Black Cauldron’ is rather better regarded: in no small part due to the very dark nature that an earlier generation of viewers and critics decried. Its beautiful visuals combined with a simple story and engaging characters has given it a new air of respectability, pushing it into that indefinable category of ‘cult’. Several websites are devoted to the film, and Disney has promised a new 25th Anniversary Edition restoring some of the lost elements.
As for the original books upon which the movie was based, Alexander’s ‘The Chronicles of Prydain’ remain in print, a sure testament to their quality and unfading appeal to children of all ages, and the first in the series, ‘The Book of Three’ (1964), is highly recommended.