Black Cauldron Update

As an update to my Black Cauldron review the other day, I’d like to pass along this wonderful video that actor John Hurt was kind enough to pass along. It provides a behind the scenes look at his Horned King voice. Somehow this didn’t make it on the 25th Anniversary DVD…maybe Disney is holding out for a future Blu-Ray release? We can only hope.

The Black Cauldron

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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.

Teenage Mutant NinjaTurtles 2012 Series

When I first heard about the new Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, I was admittedly skeptical. Watching a small sneak peek on YouTube my initial reaction was that the show looked like a video game, and graphically resembled the abomination 2007 film release, TMNT. I prefer not to acknowledge its existence in the Ninja Turtles canon.

Regardless of my initial impression, watching the re-boot was inevitable. “Eh, what the shell,” I thought. Might as well DVR the first episode at least. So I threw on my Donatello Snuggie, poured myself a cup of French press coffee, and dusted off my 1987 Ninja Turtles TV tray. Since then, as when I was a kid, watching “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” has become an integral part of my Saturday morning routine.

The first differences you’ll notice are undoubtedly the theme song and animation. While watching, try to keep in mind that the show is an update, not a replica of the original. The new theme song is a hip-hop piece with slightly different lyrics. Presumably they altered it to fit an era when pop-rap is more popular than rock power ballads. It still goes through each of the turtles, explaining what each specializes in, and even preserves the original intro of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Heroes in a half shell, Turtle Power!”

As to the animation, hand-drawn cartoons are such a rarity these days that the CGI shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Sure, I’d have preferred hand-drawn graphics, but I’m willing to concede changing times. After all, the most important part isn’t presentation, it is on-screen portrayal. Thankfully, the turtles are pretty much the same as in the original series. They devour pizza, make corny jokes, have the same distinct personalities, and stumble through the episodes true to their goofy, fun-loving roots.

If you’re familiar with the original storyline, there are some slight alterations. Splinter’s history is a little different, while generally staying the same. His mortal enemy is still Oroku Saki, aka The Shredder. As in the original series, Shredder controls a group of ninjas, the Foot Clan, which he sends to hunt down the turtles and Splinter. It seems like most of the memorable heroes and villains will at least make an appearance, albeit in altered roles. Unlike the 1987 series, April O’Neil is not a news anchor, but the teenage daughter of a scientist. Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of this change, but I don’t really dislike it either. I guess I’m kind of neutral. Krang, the brain, is not one character but now an alien race which resides in robot bodies. Although the Krang lack Pat Fraley’s distinct high-pitched voice from the 1987 iteration, the new series compensates for this by lending the race an automated, computer-like speech pattern.

Other villains crop up, both old and new. Baxter Stockman makes a re-appearance, alongside several new malicious mutants. The new series adds Snakeweed and Spider Bytez, a plant and spider respectively. Each of their episodes shows the transformation from human to mutant, and features the Ninja Turtles providing a nickname.

Voice actor Rob Paulsen’s return to the franchise kind of sums up the new show as well as lends it some credence. On the 1987 series, Paulsen voiced Raphael and while he doesn’t appear in his original turtle form, he does grace the screen as Donatello. Same turtles, different audience and times. Overall, the show isn’t as good as the original series, but if we are honest with ourselves, nothing will ever be. This comes about as close as any re-boot. If you want to relive some totally radical awesomeness from your childhood, check out this worthy series. I mean, if is good enough for one of the original turtle voice actors, is good enough for any fan. And if you’re jonesing for your fix of the original series, you can pick up every season on dvd separately or the soon to be released complete collector’s set which comes packaged in the Turtle Van.