When you set out to watch a Disney film, you’re probably looking for cartoon dancing animals, frequent songs, and a predictable plot. That’s the Mickey Mouse Mold. And it doesn’t apply to “The Black Cauldron,” by any stretch of the imagination.
As a child, I had the oversized Disney board book of “The Black Cauldron,” but it wasn’t until almost 20 years later that I watched the film. And that’s probably for the best. Before delving into this surprisingly entertaining fantasy narrative, be warned that it is NOT intended for younger audiences. Accordingly, the MPAA awarded this movie a PG rating, a rarity for animated Disney films.
The plot is a classic fantasy tale which works quite well for the Disney model. The narrative froths over with unlikely heroes and friendships, sinister villains, and enough dramatic tension to keep you on the edge of your seat despite your knowledge that everything will work out in the end. Based on Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, the film follows a young pig-keeper, Taran, who dreams of becoming a courageous knight. Supposedly, the film deviates substantially from the book, but I can’t speak on that having never read the novel. Taran is charged with protecting a psychic pig from the demonic Horned King and, naturally, accidentally releases the pig into the Horned King’s eager grasp. In his attempt to rescue the pig Taran himself is captured, though escapes with the help of Princess Eilonwy, a young girl who acts a foil and love interest for Taran, a bumbling minstrel named Fflewddur, and a magic sword. During their journey they team up with Gurgi, an ambiguous, hairy creature with an affinity for apples.
The story is driven by the Horned King’s quest for the Black Cauldron, a device he plans to use to resurrect his army of undead warriors, dubbed the “Cauldron Born.” The quartet of Taran, Elionwy, Fflweddur, and Gurgi search for the Cauldron themselves in the hopes of destroying it to save the land of Prydain. In this respect, the ragtag gang of heroes pitted against a frightening cast of purely malevolent foes presents itself as a very Disney film. Yet here the Disney ties cease.
Unlike most Disney animated pieces, there are no songs. That’s not to say there isn’t any music. The score, composed by Elmer Bernstein known for a slew of films including “The Ten Commandments,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “Animal House,” provides an appropriate backdrop to the film. During the lazy sequences where Taran and his pig Hen Wen stroll through rolling green hills the music waltzes along with them. When the Horned King appears, Bernstein queues the ominous bass notes to induce tension. If you’re looking for sing-alongs, pull out the rest of the Disney catalog. Not even Fflewddur the minstrel sings.
Further differentiating the film from the Disney cookie cutter is the animation. It’s very experimental, comparable to “Fantasia.” The Cauldron Born rise out of this glowing green mist the same color as the Slimers from “Ghostbusters.” The mist actually looks pretty realistic, for fluorescent-green mist that is. Perspective changes and color choice also help to set the atmosphere of the movie. The majority of “The Black Cauldron” backgrounds are comprised of brooding purples, burnt oranges, muddy browns, and velvety blacks. The Horned King, appropriately named for the antler horns atop his helmet is a skeletal creature with glowing red eyes and a raspy cough-like voice brilliantly executed by actor John Hurt (“Alien,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,”). Scenes of the Horned King, particularly close ups of his face, and his army of Cauldron Born are sure to scare small children. Or your middle-aged mother if she’s in the room.
Perspective changes experiment with animation and add depth to various scenes. As Taran and Hen Wen walk away from the Forbidden Forest (yes, this predates Harry Potter so not sure what to make of that…) the tree-lined path in the foreground is flat and provides the feel of a long distance shot with Taran and Hen Wen in the background. Possible the most amazing scene in the whole film is the dragon chase scene were Hen Wen is captured. The animators played around with angles to provide a 3D feel and even feature some shots as if a camera were attached to the underbelly of a dragon.
With the psychedelic colors, a gripping fantasy tale, and arguably the most impressive hand-drawn animation of any Disney film, “The Black Cauldron,” is certainly a movie you won’t want to pass over. Unfortunately it isn’t on Netflix Streaming, but throw it in your queue or pick it up on dvd. The special edition retails for about 10 dollars, and this is definitely one to own.