In the years following the death of Walt Disney, the company were at a stand still, lacking in creativity and without a sense of direction. Their films were not performing well and they seemed to be behind the times. Audiences were changing and with seismic pop culture events in the seventies such as Star Wars, the new wave of American filmmakers and Disco, Disney was regarded as a relic of an era long gone. As the decade and a half progressed, the implication was that the company could never recover and that anything that could remind audiences of their golden era seemed unlikely. Production on their twenty-fifth feature film, The Black Cauldron began with a sense of optimism, but proceeded to plummet. The film is regarded as one of Disney’s big failures and many film and animation historians have regarded it as the film that nearly killed Disney and its animation department. But is the film really as bad as people thought? With every failure comes a story behind it and one that is both fascinating but also a case of what could have been.
Fflewdur, Taran and Eilonwy discover the “fair folk” in one scene from the film.
The Black Cauldron is Book #2, in a somewhat obscure but well-regarded fantasy series rooted in Welsh mythology, called The Chronicles Of Prydain by an American author named Lloyd Alexander. The series centers around a young boy named Taran and his coming of age journey, (all too familiar in fantasy) from youth to maturity. He starts out as an assistant pig keeper, but dreams of being a grand warrior. His companions included Princess Eilonwy, a girl his age, Fflewdur Fflam, a bard and minor king, Gurgi, a wild beast-man and Doli, a dwarf. With promise of something great, Disney under Walt’s son in law Ron Miller, optioned the film rights for The Chronicles Of Prydain. The only problem was, that although Miller was excited about the project possibilities, back in the mid seventies Ron didn’t think that the then-new guard of animators were ready to take on the big project.
Taran and Eilonwy as sketched by Disney animator Milt Kahl.
To the chagrin of the animators, Miller had them work on much smaller lower tier projects; most notably Pete’s Dragon and The Fox And The Hound. As he felt his “Walk before you run” approach, was the prudent course in restoring the company’s greatness. One of the then up and coming animators, Don Bluth, grew tired of the creative decline of the company and promptly left Disney in 1979, taking thirteen other disheartened animators with him. By the time production began on the film, things were already starting to unravel. Joe Hale, the producer of the still developing project, made changes to what was originally a sprawling story, under the pen of Lloyd Alexander and promptly capsulized characters and story elements. The direction soon began to become disjointed; what was trumped as “a classical fairytale combining the most exciting elements of Snow White and Fantasia”, now became severely over budget and inconsistent in theme.
Concept art of The Horned King by Mel Shaw.
Exacerbating things was the regime change, under the then newly appointed Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Frank Wells. Katzenberg, upon seeing the finished version, deemed the film “dark and troubled” and wanted to re-edit the film. When met with opposition, he went into the editing room and cut twelve minutes of footage. Upon release, The Black Cauldron received mixed reviews (apart from a positive review from Roger Ebert) and bombed at the box office with an overall gross of $21.3 million. At the end of the whole debacle, the animators were moved from the studio, to a warehouse where they would begin to create wonders for the company in the next four years. Watching the movie, you can see that the animators had their hearts in the right place, the visualizing arresting character animation and the sense of atmosphere is evidential, which is certainly the case in any of the terrifying scenes featuring The Horned King (originally a minor villain in the books upgraded to main villain status here).
The grisly looking concept art of the three witches by then Disney animator Tim Burton.
However story is always key, and you get an impression that there were too many cooks in the kitchen. So much that you aren’t able to distinguish what they were going for in terms of theme – a dark fantasy film or a traditional Disney film. The characters more thoroughly established in Alexander’s books, here seem to all be in search of both identity and purpose. Take for example, how the characters in the books undertake so much development and change and then compare it to the film. Thanks to how much Joe Hale abridged a great deal of the story, you don’t get a semblance of a connection or attachment to them. It’s bad enough that the only character you end up liking is the main villain The Horned King (voiced with breathy and creepy conviction by John Hurt), who also isn’t properly developed.
The Horned King summons his army of the dead from the cauldron in the film’s climax.
For all the film’s faults however, you can tell they were really trying to make a good film under a mountain of creative discord and executive pressure. Even after everything had been said and done, the film still does have its fans and may have been more ahead of its time than we thought. In 1997, after much fan demand and after years of being hidden away in the Disney Vault, the film was released on VHS and has since been re-released on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital download. In spite of its cult status, the film’s turbulent production history fated it to be the “black sheep” of the Disney animated canon. In the aftermath of the film’s failure, the company was re-shaped in the intervening years to become more Hollywood minded and since the success of the Disney renaissance era films, has evolved into the multi-media conglomerate most people know of today. As of 2017, the Walt Disney Company still maintains the film rights to The Chronicles Of Prydain. Given how much society and technology has changed since 1985, they could make a more faithful adaptation of the book series. Last year plans were announced for a possible live-action film series. Could Disney possibly achieve what eluded them back in 1985? Watch this space.
Concept art and stills are the property and copyright of Walt Disney Productions.
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