The Black Cauldron (1985)
The late American writer, Lloyd Alexander, was the author of several fictional works for children though he is probably best remembered for his acclaimed fantasy series, ‘The Chronicles of Prydain’, a pentalogy of books loosely inspired by Early Welsh literature, in particular a cycle of tales known as the Mabinogion. Loved by generations of children (and quite a few adults) the slim novels published between 1964 and 1968 displayed a quality of writing rarely associated with children’s fiction, seamlessly flipping from pathos to wit, in the process creating a fantastical world inhabited by real people. It is hardly surprising that the Walt Disney studio decided to produce an animated feature of Alexander’s magical tales in the late 1970s, combining the first two books into a movie called ‘The Black Cauldron’ (1985).
The plot was fairly straightforward if not entirely typical Magic Kingdom fare, and bore only a cursory resemblance to the original materials. In the mythical, Medieval land of Prydain a young boy named Taran laboured as an assistant pigkeeper to the scholar, Dallben. His humdrum life was filled with dreams of fame, however his charge, an oracular pig named Hen Wen, was kidnapped by an evil lord known as the Horned King. This Sauron-like being was searching for the Black Cauldron, a magical device that could create an army of undead warriors called the Cauldron Born which he was determined to lead in a conquest of the world. Taran, with the aid of a princess called Eilonwy, a failed bard (wonderfully) 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.
The Walt Disney company staked a lot on the film, with high expectations of critical and financial success, and it was a decade in the planning and making. A new technique for transferring drawings to movie cells called the APT process was used (though that would ultimately prove too costly), 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 an enormous sum for the time (though rumour says it eventually reached an even more staggering $44 million). This was made worse when senior executives and test audiences at the studio viewed the film for the first time and were dismayed by the finished product. Much darker, and much more violent, than most Disney animated movies up to that period, several scenes deemed unsuitable for children were eventually deleted or altered, significantly altering the storyline and pacing of the film. Despite this dramatic re-editing the production received the more restrictive PG rating in the United States (the first Disney animated piece to do so) and this had a deeply negative effect on sales and the public’s perception of the film. Ultimately regarded as too sombre in tone, and with the film’s storyline knocked askew by the heavy studio-mandated edits, the box office sales were poor and the movie largely failed to recoup its initial costs (though video sales and rentals eventually helped boost the return on Disney’s initial investment).
Yet today ‘The Black Cauldron’ is rather better regarded, in no small part due to the child-unfriendly undertone that an earlier generation of viewers and critics decried. Its beautiful visuals combined with a simple story and engaging characters has bequeathed to it an air of respectability for modern fans, 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 unfailing appeal to children of all ages, and the first in the series, ‘The Book of Three’ (1964), is highly recommended.