The Black Cauldron is something of a cinematic curiosity. Released in 1985, it was the only Disney animated film to receive a PG rating, and it came at a very dark time in the history of Disney's animation studio. To date, it has only been released on video in England, and Disney has not announced any plans to release it in any other market. Thus, The Black Cauldron has a certain reputation as a "lost" Disney film (along with Song of the South).
The basic reason Disney hasn't released it on video is that it was not very popular with either audiences or critics when it came out. Many critics have blamed the financial and popular failure of this film on the fact that it is too depressing and violent for typical Disney audiences. While we can understand those arguments, our take on The Black Cauldron is that it's simply not that good a movie.
Based on the book (actually two books) by Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron features a young boy, Taran, who is an Assistant Pig Keeper in the mythical realm of Prydain. His caretaker, Dallben, is something of a wizard, and the swine in question is Hen-Wen, the oracular pig. Taran dreams of someday being a great warrior and engaging in battle with the requisite Forces of Darkness.
Those Forces of Darkness are led by the Horned King, a demon-like dude with no particular personality, other than the fact that he's evil. The same was true in the book, and, quite frankly, of the villain Sauron in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as well, so it's not really that big a complaint. Still, most of the villains in Disney films before and since have really colorful personalities, and the Horned King seems a bit unremarkable in comparison.
The Horned King plans to use the Cauldron to create an army of undead soldiers. Over the course of the film's 80 minutes, Taran must retrieve Hen Wen after her escape from her pen, befriend a furry sidekick character named Gurgi, fall in love with Princess Eilonwy, and somehow destroy the power of the Black Cauldron. Plus, there's a trio of witches to outwit, a clumsy bard to recruit into the quest, and a dungeon from which to escape.
Dallben chastises the Assistant Pig-Keeper.
We couldn't help but feel disappointed in the results once we saw the translation of Alexander's characters to screen. Despite the fact that quite a bit of time is spent in the development of each personality, we never really felt like we were seeing the characters we'd come to know through the novels. The film's Taran was every bit as immature as his counterpart in the books, but his sense of nobility and duty never seemed to come through. Gurgi seems a bit too cuddly for a wild thing that slinks about begging for "crunchings and munchings," and whoever thought up that goofy little sidekick for The Horned King should be forced to sit in a corner to think about just what it is that he's done.
Our dissatisfaction with the treatment of Alexander's characters aside, The Black Cauldron is not a terrible film. It certainly ranks higher on the animated entertainment scale than some recent efforts that come to mind, like Thumbelina and Ferngully. We don't doubt that there are children who would be captivated by the adventures in a dark castle, or delighted by Gurgi (who is, after all, darn cute). There may even be those who are entertained by the overly-caricatured trio of witches, despite that scene involving a frog and some cleavage. Certainly there are plenty of adults now who saw this film as children and have fond memories of it.
The animation is certainly up to snuff, given Disney's standards of the time. Its hand-drawn appearance may look a bit rough to audiences used to Disney's current super-smooth, computer-enhanced style, but this is cutting edge stuff, and it marks Disney's first use of computer animation -- Eilonwy's bauble and the Cauldron itself being the prime examples. Unfortunately, the world being animated here isn't particularly colorful or remarkable (lots of swamps and fields and such), which makes for relatively dull backgrounds and a rather bland viewing experience. The most interesting animation takes place at the end of the film in the Horned King's castle, during the creation of his undead army. Those of you with small children may want to note that this scene involves skeletons and is particularly dark and spooky (and probably the source of the film's PG rating).
When all is said and done, The Black Cauldron will probably remembered for what is isn't, not for what it is. What it isn't: available for people to see and judge on its own merits. What it is: a mediocre example of a Disney animated film based on another source. If The Black Couldron were widely available, it probably wouldn't enjoy one-tenth the reputation it has today.
Addendum 6/29/98: Much to our surprise, Disney announced plans to release The Black Cauldron this fall on video, hailing it as a classic. Hmmmm. Maybe it did better in England than they expected. This is good news, though; soon you'll be able to rent it and judge for yourself.