The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Black Cauldron

TOMATOMETER

AUDIENCE SCORE

Critic Consensus: Ambitious but flawed, The Black Cauldron is technically brilliant as usual, but lacks the compelling characters of other Disney animated classics.


Movie Info

Walt Disney Pictures produced this ambitious, animated tale of sorcery and swordfighting. Taran (voice of Grant Bardsley), is an assistant to Dallben (voice of Freddie Jones), a pigkeeper in the mythical land of Prydain. Taran longs to be a knight, and he's given his chance to live out his dream when he is sent out in search of a magical black cauldron which can either be a powerful instrument of good or a bottomless fount of evil, depending entirely upon who should find it. However, Taran is … More

Rating: PG
Genre: Action & Adventure, Animation, Kids & Family, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Directed By: ,
Written By: Lloyd Alexander, Ted Berman, Roy Edward Disney, Rich Hale, Rosemary Anne Sisson
In Theaters:
On DVD: Oct 3, 2000
Runtime:

Cast


as Fflewddur Fflam

as King Eidilleg

as Gurgi/Doli

as Fairfolk

as Orgoch

as Fairfolk

as Horned King

as Creeper

as Henchman

as Henchman

as Henchman

as Narrator

as Henchman

as Henchman
Show More Cast

News & Interviews for The Black Cauldron

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Critic Reviews for The Black Cauldron

All Critics (29) | Top Critics (6)

The characters, though cute and cuddly and sweet and mean and ugly and simply awful, don't really have much to do that would remain of interest to any but the youngest minds.

Full Review… | February 5, 2009
Variety
Top Critic

It's quite good, though by the impossible standards the film sets for itself it inevitably falls short.

Full Review… | September 5, 2008
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

As usual it is technically excellent, but the charm, characterisation and sheer good humour that made features like Pinocchio and Jungle Book so enjoyable are sadly absent.

Full Review… | February 9, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

This is the 25th full-length animated feature from Walt Disney studios, and professionally put together as it is, many of the ingredients may seem programmed to those who have seen some of the others.

Full Review… | May 21, 2003
New York Times
Top Critic

The backgrounds are as richly textured and detailed as in any other Disney film.

Full Review… | January 1, 2000
ReelViews
Top Critic

By the end of The Black Cauldron I was remembering, with something of a shock of nostalgia, the strength and utter storytelling conviction of the early Disney animators. The Black Cauldron is a return to the tradition.

Full Review… | January 1, 2000
Chicago Sun-Times
Top Critic

Audience Reviews for The Black Cauldron

The words 'Disney' and 'cult classic' are very rarely seen together. Disney has had its fair share of commercial failures over the years, but for the most part these have been in some way down to the product itself, rather than an inability to market it. Likewise Disney's reputation as the bastion of all that is bright, charming and safe is a million miles from the lexicon of cult classics. These are, by and large, films that you can't evoke without using words like 'dark', 'strange', 'edgy' or 'weird' - in short, they are often films that you wouldn't show to children.

In this respect The Black Cauldron is pretty much unique. It flopped on its original release, being beaten by The Care Bears Movie on opening weekend (ouch). Since then it has gained a small but devoted following, which hold it either to be an underrated Disney effort or a minor classic in its own right. The film is still riddled with problems, like many of the cult films I've reviewed in the past, but in the end there is enough interesting stuff in there to make the experience worthwhile.

It's fair to assume that a large amount of The Black Cauldron's cult appeal stems from its visual departure from the Disney norm. For people of my generation, who grew up during the Renaissance, you wouldn't look at this film and automatically assume that it came from the same people who made The Little Mermaid. Even when we take the paler aesthetic of the 1970s into account, The Black Cauldron still feels on first impression, like it has crept into the Disney canon under the radar.

The animation is reflective of the film as a whole, containing several pockets of brightness and invention which are struggling to get out of a greyer, more ordinary environment. The film was one of the first to utilise CG animation alongside conventional hand-drawn work, with most of the cauldron's movements being mapped with a computer. The hand-drawn style itself is somewhere between Ralph Bakshi and The Sword in the Stone, using pinks, purples and especially greens to create a ghoulish, unsettling feel.

What's ironic about The Black Cauldron's reputation is that it is probably the most closely-rooted in fairy tales that Disney has been since the Golden Age. The film is based on the first two books in Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, which drew strongly on Welsh folk tales and the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien. Even though its adaptation is characteristically loose, all the familiar hallmarks are there - creepy woods, dark magic, spooky castles, princesses, young warriors and plenty of good music to both offset and accompany the action.

The film is also notable for its relatively stellar cast. While other Disney films of the period were lucky if they could secure one big name star, The Black Cauldron has a very solid and rounded supporting cast. Nigel Hawthorne, just before his defining role in Yes, Minister, is a very good fit for Fflewddur Fflam (try spelling that on a pub quiz). He brings an entertaining combination of cowardice and eloquence, playing off his lie-detecting harp very well. And then there's John Hurt, who is no stranger to fantasy, having played Aragorn in Bakshi's Lord of the Rings and later being the host of Jim Henson's Storyteller series.

Hurt's performance as the Horned King brings us on to the next big plus: the film has a genuinely scary villain. In my review of Oliver & Company, I complained that Sykes was never really convincing as a villain: his methods were illogical and his end seemed totally improvised. The Horned King is a lot scarier, in both his ends and his means; while Sykes was ultimately holding a cat to ransom, he wants to enslave the world with an army of deathless warriors. Hurt doesn't often play villains very often, but he is quite adept at it, using his gravelly voice to compliment the King's intimidating physique. His death scene is one of the most graphic in Disney history: he doesn't just fall off a cliff or get stabbed, he gets his skin ripped clean off his bones and his body disintegrated by pure, concentrated evil.

Somewhere in The Black Cauldon, there is a genuinely dark, creepy and interesting story. Coming in the year that gave us Re-Animator and George A. Romero's Day of the Dead, it is effectively a zombie film for children. The film departs from Romero's template in several ways: it doesn't introduce the zombies right away, there's a conscious attempt to moralise the heroes' actions, and the zombies are not overtly symbolic of anything. But nonetheless it is striking how close to horror the film treads, and how straight it plays its subject matter.

Unfortunately, the intrigue caused by this realisation also illuminates the film's many shortcomings. For all the moments in which it takes a brave step forward into grown-up horror territory, there are at least as many moments in which it retreats into the safety of convention, or stands around wondering what it really is. The film can't quite decide exactly how dark it wants to be, or even what it wants to be about.

A lot of the blame for this can be laid on Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was appointed as Disney Chairman during post-production. Upon seeing the rough cut, Katzenberg demanded that the film be severely cut, feeling that its more graphic scenes would deter Disney's target audience. When he encountered resistance, Katzenberg pushed the release date back six months and personally removed 12 minutes of footage, shortening the 'Cauldron Born' scenes and omitting several deaths. Not only are the changes obvious from the jumps in Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack, but they also make no sense considering that the Horned King's death remains in all its glory. If Princess Mononoke can have decapitation scenes and still get a PG, it's hard to see how removing these scenes would have helped the film's chances.

Even without Katzenberg's changes, however, the storytelling in The Black Cauldron is all over the place. We get vague inclinations of the Horned King's plan in the opening section but then the film wanders off into light-hearted slapstick and awkward character drama. From here on in, the horror elements feel like a more interesting film, running parallel with ours and occasionally trying to break in. We stay with our leads for so long that the 'Cauldron Born' aren't introduced until the end, and they don't hang around long enough to demonstrate how monstrous they are.

The film also suffers from having too many characters. While Fflewddur Fflam is enjoyable in his own right, the main protagonists are barely developed and largely unlikeable. Taran spends most of his time either moping or showing off, and Princess Eilonwy is pretty bland. Gurgi, Doni and Eilonwy's bauble all fight for the role of official sidekick, but the film never finds a good enough use for any of them, and so they come and go according to plot convenience.

While the visuals of The Black Cauldron are creepy in places, they are also quite derivative. Like the Wolfgang Reitherman efforts of the 1970s, there are numerous examples of Disney ripping off its own back catalogue. The shots of Henwyn the pig in water are clearly inspired by Dumbo getting drunk, while many of the landscape shots are borrowed directly from Snow White. But to be fair, accusations about the bauble being a rip-off of Navi are misplaced, since the first Legend of Zelda game was still a year away.

The Black Cauldron is a flawed but interesting effort from Disney which is thoroughly deserving of its cult status. There is a darker, braver film somewhere in here which has been either covered up by Disney convention or cut out wrongfully by Katzenberg. But when the darkness does break through, it comes to life as both a return to the deep well of fairy tales and an intriguing tonal departure. It is, in the end, as enjoyably flawed as Labyrinth, and that, in and of itself, is no bad thing.
The words 'Disney' and 'cult classic' are very rarely seen together. Disney has had its fair share of commercial failures over the years, but for the most part these have been in some way down to the product itself, rather than an inability to market it. Likewise Disney's reputation as the bastion of all that is bright, charming and safe is a million miles from the lexicon of cult classics. These are, by and large, films that you can't evoke without using words like 'dark', 'strange', 'edgy' or 'weird' - in short, they are often films that you wouldn't show to children.

In this respect The Black Cauldron is pretty much unique. It flopped on its original release, being beaten by The Care Bears Movie on opening weekend (ouch). Since then it has gained a small but devoted following, which hold it either to be an underrated Disney effort or a minor classic in its own right. The film is still riddled with problems, like many of the cult films I've reviewed in the past, but in the end there is enough interesting stuff in there to make the experience worthwhile.

It's fair to assume that a large amount of The Black Cauldron's cult appeal stems from its visual departure from the Disney norm. For people of my generation, who grew up during the Renaissance, you wouldn't look at this film and automatically assume that it came from the same people who made The Little Mermaid. Even when we take the paler aesthetic of the 1970s into account, The Black Cauldron still feels on first impression, like it has crept into the Disney canon under the radar.

The animation is reflective of the film as a whole, containing several pockets of brightness and invention which are struggling to get out of a greyer, more ordinary environment. The film was one of the first to utilise CG animation alongside conventional hand-drawn work, with most of the cauldron's movements being mapped with a computer. The hand-drawn style itself is somewhere between Ralph Bakshi and The Sword in the Stone, using pinks, purples and especially greens to create a ghoulish, unsettling feel.

What's ironic about The Black Cauldron's reputation is that it is probably the most closely-rooted in fairy tales that Disney has been since the Golden Age. The film is based on the first two books in Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, which drew strongly on Welsh folk tales and the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien. Even though its adaptation is characteristically loose, all the familiar hallmarks are there - creepy woods, dark magic, spooky castles, princesses, young warriors and plenty of good music to both offset and accompany the action.

The film is also notable for its relatively stellar cast. While other Disney films of the period were lucky if they could secure one big name star, The Black Cauldron has a very solid and rounded supporting cast. Nigel Hawthorne, just before his defining role in Yes, Minister, is a very good fit for Fflewddur Fflam (try spelling that on a pub quiz). He brings an entertaining combination of cowardice and eloquence, playing off his lie-detecting harp very well. And then there's John Hurt, who is no stranger to fantasy, having played Aragorn in Bakshi's Lord of the Rings and later being the host of Jim Henson's Storyteller series.

Hurt's performance as the Horned King brings us on to the next big plus: the film has a genuinely scary villain. In my review of Oliver & Company, I complained that Sykes was never really convincing as a villain: his methods were illogical and his end seemed totally improvised. The Horned King is a lot scarier, in both his ends and his means; while Sykes was ultimately holding a cat to ransom, he wants to enslave the world with an army of deathless warriors. Hurt doesn't often play villains very often, but he is quite adept at it, using his gravelly voice to compliment the King's intimidating physique. His death scene is one of the most graphic in Disney history: he doesn't just fall off a cliff or get stabbed, he gets his skin ripped clean off his bones and his body disintegrated by pure, concentrated evil.

Somewhere in The Black Cauldon, there is a genuinely dark, creepy and interesting story. Coming in the year that gave us Re-Animator and George A. Romero's Day of the Dead, it is effectively a zombie film for children. The film departs from Romero's template in several ways: it doesn't introduce the zombies right away, there's a conscious attempt to moralise the heroes' actions, and the zombies are not overtly symbolic of anything. But nonetheless it is striking how close to horror the film treads, and how straight it plays its subject matter.

Unfortunately, the intrigue caused by this realisation also illuminates the film's many shortcomings. For all the moments in which it takes a brave step forward into grown-up horror territory, there are at least as many moments in which it retreats into the safety of convention, or stands around wondering what it really is. The film can't quite decide exactly how dark it wants to be, or even what it wants to be about.

A lot of the blame for this can be laid on Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was appointed as Disney Chairman during post-production. Upon seeing the rough cut, Katzenberg demanded that the film be severely cut, feeling that its more graphic scenes would deter Disney's target audience. When he encountered resistance, Katzenberg pushed the release date back six months and personally removed 12 minutes of footage, shortening the 'Cauldron Born' scenes and omitting several deaths. Not only are the changes obvious from the jumps in Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack, but they also make no sense considering that the Horned King's death remains in all its glory. If Princess Mononoke can have decapitation scenes and still get a PG, it's hard to see how removing these scenes would have helped the film's chances.

Even without Katzenberg's changes, however, the storytelling in The Black Cauldron is all over the place. We get vague inclinations of the Horned King's plan in the opening section but then the film wanders off into light-hearted slapstick and awkward character drama. From here on in, the horror elements feel like a more interesting film, running parallel with ours and occasionally trying to break in. We stay with our leads for so long that the 'Cauldron Born' aren't introduced until the end, and they don't hang around long enough to demonstrate how monstrous they are.

The film also suffers from having too many characters. While Fflewddur Fflam is enjoyable in his own right, the main protagonists are barely developed and largely unlikeable. Taran spends most of his time either moping or showing off, and Princess Eilonwy is pretty bland. Gurgi, Doni and Eilonwy's bauble all fight for the role of official sidekick, but the film never finds a good enough use for any of them, and so they come and go according to plot convenience.

While the visuals of The Black Cauldron are creepy in places, they are also quite derivative. Like the Wolfgang Reitherman efforts of the 1970s, there are numerous examples of Disney ripping off its own back catalogue. The shots of Henwyn the pig in water are clearly inspired by Dumbo getting drunk, while many of the landscape shots are borrowed directly from Snow White. But to be fair, accusations about the bauble being a rip-off of Navi are misplaced, since the first Legend of Zelda game was still a year away.

The Black Cauldron is a flawed but interesting effort from Disney which is thoroughly deserving of its cult status. There is a darker, braver film somewhere in here which has been either covered up by Disney convention or cut out wrongfully by Katzenberg. But when the darkness does break through, it comes to life as both a return to the deep well of fairy tales and an intriguing tonal departure. It is, in the end, as enjoyably flawed as Labyrinth, and that, in and of itself, is no bad thing.

Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

½

This animated Disney film takes place in a mythical medeival land called Prydain, which is ruled over by a tyrant under the name of the Horned King (John Hurt.) The kings plan is to gain control of a mythical and indestructible creation of the gods called the Black Cauldron. While this is happening a young boy named Taran (Grant Bardsley) dreams to be a knight and wanders off with his pet pig Hen-Wren, only for both of them to be captured by the ruthless king. Taran learns that this pig has the power to see into the future and the King plans to use this power to gain the advantage in finding the cauldron. Taran escapes with the help of a jester and a princess and the three of them have to get to the cauldron before the King can.

As far as Disney animated films, this film follows that same kind of sketchy animation style that kept happening around the time of this films release, with such films as the jungle Book, Robin Hood and even a little of the rescuers and Winnie the Pooh, so the animation isn't all too impressive. But this film does have some interesting things about it in terms of design and scale, the main thing being the incredible gothic architecture and design of the Horned Kings palace. This palace is just as incredible looking as say, Maleficent's castle in Sleeping Beauty in terms of the gothic angles and the dark lighting in the rooms, and it just looks incredibly creepy. The main design that really steals the show for me is the design of the Horned King. Though he does have basically an emperor look to him he does have some defining features in his design that makes him stand out among other disney villains. his horns looking like tree branches is interesting and his creepy hands and face just add to the disturbingness of this character.

Now the voice acting is one of those things again like I've said, that has to be handled with care in these kind of films. It can either come off as serious or it can come off as goofy, this film has trouble juggling both. The films voice acting is decent but it doesn't reach the level say, Beauty and the beast reaches or even the level of dialogue that Sleeping Beauty reaches. The dialogue in the film both goes from being incredibly goofy to incredibly serious more often than it should, which does come off as a major problem. But the sheer power brought to some of the characters is fantastic, the main one being John Hurt as the Horned King. He is just so into this role and he just sells this movie just with this performance. The sheer power and slowness in his voice gives this demanding presence to his voice which says a lot for someone who sounds like he is whispering through a can.

Now one of the things I have a problem with in this film, and though it is a nitpick is the music. While I enjoy Elmer Bernsteins music, like Doug Walker said in his Disneycember review, "All I hear is Ghostbusters," and I really do agree with that, the music just sounds way too similar to songs from ghostbusters. it just sounds really distracting from the film. Its good music don't get me wrong but when you hear music that makes you want to watch another movie it gets somewhat irritating.

Overall this may not be one of Disney's best, but I do feel it doesn't get the real praise it deserves. Its better than some other Disney films like Oliver and Company and the Rescuers, and I think for that it deserves a little more credibility. If you're in for a dark and creepy looking animated fantasy adventure I'd say check this film out.

michael e.
Michael Edwards

Super Reviewer

With no corny musical numbers and with the most terrifying villain in animated film history, The Black Cauldron transcends its genre and becomes a thrilling, medieval adventure film. The visuals are stunning, the characters are realistic in their interactions, and the story is wonderfully dark. Of course the film is known for bombing miserably at the box office, but let us not forget that the technique used in the film, ATP, was groundbreaking and earned its creator an Oscar.

Matthew Samuel Mirliani
Matthew Samuel Mirliani

Super Reviewer

The Black Cauldron Quotes

– Submitted by Jed G (3 years ago)
– Submitted by Jed G (3 years ago)
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