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Featured DVD Review: The Black Cauldron

September 12th, 2010

The Black Cauldron - Buy from Amazon

Finally. I finally get a chance to see this movie. It has been 25 years since The Black Cauldron first came out and I've been eagerly awaiting the DVD's arrival. ... And also I've been filled with a little trepidation. On the one hand, The Chronicles of Prydain book series is one of my favorites and I've always thought it would make a splendid movie. On the other hand, this film has a reputation that is not so kind. From The Jungle Book to The Little Mermaid, Disney's animation studio was in an extended slump. They did have a few midlevel box office hits that have since been regarded as classics (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) but most have been forgotten. It got so bad that there was even talk of shutting down Disney's Animation Studio, especially after this movie bombed. (It was the most expensive animated movie of 1985 costing $25 million, but only brought in $21 million at the box office.) It is arguably the lowest point of the low point of the company. (Oliver & Company could also claim that title.) But now that 25 years have past, can the film overcome its reputation?

The Show

The film is based on the second book of the five-volume The Chronicles of Prydain series, which actually gets us to the first problem. Adapting a 224 page novel into an 80-minute movie is difficult enough. Having to take the character introductions from the first novel and add them into the movie just makes the situation worse.

The film starts with the introduction to the world of Prydain, a very brief introduction. There was a king so evil even the gods fear him, so his soul was made part of a black cauldron. However, while that stopped that evil king, it created an artifact capable of creating an army of the undead, The Cauldron Born, that can not be killed by normal means. Now a new evil king, The Horned King, searches for the Black Cauldron in order to raise an army of the undead and conquer to world.

Standing in his way is Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper. Actually, it's the pig he keeps, Hen Wen, which has mystical powers to see the future. Dallben, the pigs owner, uses Hen Wen's powers to discover the Horned King has learned of Hen Wen and will try to capture the pig to discover the location of The Black Cauldron. Dallben tells Taran to travel to the forest with Hen Wen and hide her until he comes for the two of them. Unfortunately, while Taran is good at daydreaming about being a warrior, he's a failure at being an Assistant Pig-Keeper and loses Hen Wen to The Horned King nearly immediately. In his attempt to rescue the pig, he meets Gurgi, a talking dog-like thing, and Princess Eilonwy, who was kidnapped by the Horned King for her magical Bauble. While the pair make their escape they meet Fflewddur Fflam, bard to the kings, who was captured when he came to the castle to perform. (Common sense is not his strong suit, nor is his general grasp of reality. He isn't completely untrustworthy, but he is a chronic exaggerator.)

With the help of a magic sword Taran finds in a crypt, the three of them escape and catch up to Gurgi, who has seen Hen Wen's tracks. The four of them continue Taran's quest to find Hen Wen, and later to destroy the Black Cauldron, but with the forces of the Horned King on their path, will they get to the Black Cauldron in time, and will they find a way to destroy it?

This film had a troubled production and several attempts were made from when Disney first acquired the rights to the novels in 1971 till it was finally released. Unfortunately, they couldn't have picked a worst time to make the film, as there were changes in management at the studio and that had an effect on the end product. Additionally, the original cut of the film was much darker than the theatrical release, so dark that the studio feared it would be rated PG-13, or even R. With so many scenes cut, and with no time and / or money to replace them, the end result is a rather disjointed movie. This also results in not enough time being spent on the characters. We never really get a chance to get to know them, their backgrounds, their motivations. This includes the good guys, and the bad guys. The Horned King looks cool and the voice acting by John Hurt helps, but personality-wise, he's just a blank slate. Taran is little better in that regard. He wants to be a hero and a great warrior, because... At least in the book we learn more about his past, or the fact that he doesn't know his past. Princess Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflam, etc. are all paper thin and without clearly defined personalities; it is hard to care about their plight.

On the technical side, it is kind of mixed. On the one hand, this is the first Disney movie to use computers to create some of the elements (Eilonwy's bauble, for instance). The multiplane camera was brought out of retirement, while there were several excellent FX shots throughout the film. On the other hand, there are shots where it looks like the construction lines were not even cleaned up.

I do like the much darker tone the film has, and while I'm especially glad the filmmakers didn't decide the cram a few songs into the film, overall they failed to capture the magic of the original books. It's not a bad movie, but it is a waste of the source material. Even worse, because it bombed at the box office, there's almost no chance the books will ever been given a proper adaptation. If done right, The Chronicles of Prydain could be a major movie franchise in the same vein as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Maybe someone at Disney should think about doing live action adaptations of some of the short stories from The Foundling and Other Tales from Prydain to test the water for the franchise.

The Extras

Extras on the DVD include a deleted scene, or to be more accurate, an alternate scene to show how the group found the Fairfolk. There is also a large image gallery. Next up is a trivia game and if you win, you get to watch Trick or Treat, a short film with Donald Duck. (Even if you don't win, you can watch it from the Special Features menu.

The only thing new to this edition is The Witches Challenge game. You answer a series of riddles looking for the magic sword.

The Verdict

The Black Cauldron remains one of my favorite books and it is certainly the type of story that would be perfect for the big screen. However, it's a little too dark for Disney and trying to cut the original film down to a PG rating resulting in a rather big mess. It is not the worst cartoon the studio has made and it is certainly worth watching, but it is not the classic that it could have been. The extras on the DVD are not exactly substantial for a 25th anniversary edition, but considering its box office run, it's not bad either.

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