Disney has created many films over the years beloved by children and adults, many being known for their sweet and squeaky-clean reputations. But it hasn't always been that way. And one of the most jarring experiences for audiences was seeing Disney go PG for the first time on an animated film. I am talking about the trouble-plagued, much underrated 1985 film, The Black Cauldron.
The Black Cauldron was once hyped, before its release and an executive shakeup at Disney, as being the Snow White for the new generation of Disney animators. Instead, a whole series of troubles unfolded, including animators going out on strike, animation that was the wrong size for the film negative, the film going over budget, ratings troubles, new management that hated the film, cuts to the film that helped sabotage it, and, ultimately, audience indifference and reports on the nightly news denouncing the film as Satanic. Disney then buried the battered $44,000,000 production, cutting its theatrical release short after only three weeks, and never gave it a video release until 1998.
So then, why am I bringing this up? I am bringing this up because the film got a bum rap (including one from me at one time), and the film is, if not entirely cohesive, a dazzling, bold change of pace for Disney, in the midst of their gutsiest period in their history. It also contains a brilliant score by the great Elmer Bernstein, some impressive early CG graphics, and some of the most surreal and unsettling scenes in animation history.
The story involves a teenage boy named Taran, who lives in the land of Prydain, that is meant to be ancient Wales. He is supposed to guard an oracular pig named Hen Wen but loses the pig to dragons commanded by The Horned King, the film's villain who has a lot on his twisted mind. Taran alone is a big step away from your typical Disney hero who is usually sweetness and light. No, although Taran ultimately matures later in the film and becomes a better, kinder, wiser individual, he begins the film as self-absorbed, proud, hostile to some who try to help him, and overly sure of himself. He is no Marty-Stu, but rather an ornery, flesh-and-blood teenager who often reminds me of myself at that age and how I have mercifully changed.
The other characters on the side of the good guys are Princess Eilonwy, a minstrel named Fflewder Fflam, and a furry creature named Gurgi (who to some unsettled modern day audiences, has a voice which sounds exactly like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Eilonwy is a young girl, seemingly super sweet and helpless––but with an attitude to counter that; Fflewder is pompous and klutzy, and Gurgi happens to be a thief. Again––not your typical Disney heroes. They band together to stop the Horned King from obtaining the titular cauldron, a ghastly item that can weave a web of destruction.
Now consider The Horned King. It is not a particularly large role. He doesn't do too much except rule in the shadows and prepare the Cauldron (when he does get it) for his evil whims. His underlings do everything else, from collecting skeletons to enforcing punishment. But never has a Disney villain been more frightening. Voiced by the inimitable John Hurt, every syllable which slips out oozes with pure malevolence. His face is obscured by the skull of an animal, leaving only his glowing red eyes to be seen. He is, quite frankly, the closest Disney got to having the Devil himself as the villain. His aim is to resurrect an army of skeletons into a living mass and use them to annihilate the world. It's a gutsy, bold move by Disney that ends up working splendidly.
Although the film ultimately has a happy ending and some jolly opening scenes in a farmyard, the film mainly sticks in somber mode, alleviated at times by surprising jolts of dark comedy or flights of fancy, as when our heroes stumble upon a cave full of curious pixies. There are no songs in this film; the landscapes, aside from three brief scenes, are decidedly nightmarish territory characterized by purple skies, craggy, apocalyptic fields, and a dark castle with a room full of skeletons. A sequence involving three witches is also surprising for the sheer carnality put across by a plump witch. During the sequence, a character gets turned into a frog and almost suffocates when he gets trapped between her breasts. I would have loved to see parents' reactions to that in 1985.
And then, of course, there are the scares.
Reportedly, the scares in the film were so unexpectedly blunt that a shell-shocked MPAA initially handed the film a PG-13, and some reports allege the film even received an R. Whatever is the truth of the matter, the scenes have freaked out kids for generations. The snatching of the pig comes early in the film and proves to be a mood shatterer. We see this sweet, harmless creature being relentlessly pursued by toothy dragons, as the movie revels in showing closeups of the dragons' teeth, the pig's horror upon being snatched in their talons, and Taran bloodying his face. It still packs a punch. But even that is nothing compared to the infamous climax of the cauldron-born, an army of living skeletons that destroy everything in their midst. These scenes were cut down to a nub by Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, but what little is left is shocking. The cauldron erupts like a giant rocket, the skeletons come to life and move inexoribly. A deleted scene shows a skeleton ripping flesh from human bones. Quite eye-opening.
Instead, the screenwriters reserve the skin-tearing for The Horned King.
In most Disney films where the villain dies, the character plunges to their death. Not here. For Disney's most evil villain, the writers cooked up some harrowing imagery: The King is sucked up by the cauldron which then procedes to electrocute him, rip the skin off his bones, and ultimately cause him to explode, sending his shattered bones flying pell mell in multiple directions. All of this happens in full view with no cutaways and Bernstein's fierce score pounding away. (It's is hard to imagine that Disney even went there, but they did.)
So... what to make of this film? It was Disney's first animated commercial failure and Disney fans give it a cold shoulder for its radical and episodic nature. But for me, a long-delayed second viewing only showed what a misunderstood and ambitious film this is. Disney went for full on horror at points, and I'd say they did themselves proud. In fact, the film feels more pertinent now, in an era where Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones have achieved wide popularity. It's rare for a film to be three decades ahead of its time, but this film is exactly that. It's Disney's unsung gem.