Thursday, August 4, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (24/50) -- The Black Cauldron (1985)

I mentioned earlier in my 30 Day Movie Challenge that the 80’s were a time for cheesy sword-and-sorcery flicks, and that’s exactly what The Black Cauldron is. Created to be the prestigious 25th Disney Animated Feature, and morphing into an infamous nightmare of production, The Black Cauldron shares more of a pedigree with movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer than I ever thought reasonable. It harbors many ungainly elements shared by the genre, but also many of its charms, making The Black Cauldron a decent film for those who like corny high-fantasy movies. It’s not the epic that Disney set out to make, but neither is it as bad as one would expect from a movie that nearly single-handedly brought Disney to the brink of disaster.

The Black Cauldron takes place in the fantasy world of Prydain, and follows the exploits of a young man named Taran (Grant Bardsley). Taran is an Assistant Pig-Keeper, and would rather be off having adventures, but the pig he is assigned to watch, Hen Wen, is no ordinary pig—she’s an Oracular Pig, and can you show things that are, things that were, and some things that have not yet come to pass. It’s Taran’s job to keep Hen Wen from harm, but she is stolen by the Horned King (John Hurt) and brought to his lair at Barad-dûr (I may have gotten that wrong).

While infiltrating the Horned King’s castle, Taran is caught and jailed, whereupon he meets Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan). The two rescue Hen Wen and make their escape with the help of the cowardly bard Fflewder (Nigel Hawthorne). Their quest is far from over, though, for the Horned King was using Hen Wen to find the Black Cauldron, a relic of an ancient time capable to summoning unspeakable evil (a My Super Sweet 16 Christmas special, no doubt). It’s up to Taran and his ragtag group of adventurers to find the Cauldron and destroy it before the Horned King can get his grubby little mitts on it.

"Now shall you deal with me, and all the powers of hell!"

Often credited as the movie that caused Disney to hire Jeffery Katzenberg and Michael Eisner for the express purpose of saving the company, The Black Cauldron is more like the black sheep (bahaha) of the Disney Animated Features canon. It’s pretty hard to disagree with this assessment too; The Black Cauldron was the first Disney Animated Feature to not include songs of any kind, and its straight-faced emphasis on action and dark fantasy tropes make it unique even among other teenage boy-aimed films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, and Dinosaur. In fact, if not for its Halloween-coinciding DVD release last year, I’d swear the Walt Disney Company was trying to bury the thing—it’s right up there with the package films and The Rescuers Down Under as one of Disney’s most obscure Features.

Part of what makes The Black Cauldron so unique is its incredibly 80’s-specific idea of high fantasy. Far from the clean, storybook ideals of movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Sleeping Beauty, The Black Cauldron has the same grimy feel as many fantasy movies of the time, and its preoccupation with exotic-sounding nonsense names (“Taran,” “Eilonwy,” “Ffleuder”) only helps to sell the film’s camp; Oliver & Company didn’t feel as 80’s as The Black Cauldron does. And yet this unintentional ridiculousness makes The Black Cauldron something of a campy good time, and I would recommend it to anyone with a taste for cheesy films.

Apart from the film’s unknowing goofiness, The Black Cauldron has a few other noteworthy qualities. The film is gorgeous, and looks every inch of its staggering $25 million budget. While the characters are a bit floppy, their actual animation is pretty good, with only Fflewder suffering from the sketchy looks of the line-transferring technology used to make Disney pictures. The Black Cauldron also uses 2.35:1 widescreen to good effect, showing off some ambitious “camera” angles, as well as several cool-looking lighting effects. One of my favorite aspects is the score, composed by Elmer Bernstein and displaying the best of 80’s fantasy adventure tropes.

The background are excellent, as usual, and the movie generally looks pretty good.

The film definitely has its blemishes, though. For one, the characters (and, as an extension, their voice acting) are pretty poor. Most of my trouble spots come from Taran, who acts whiny and pig-headed throughout. Yes, it’s a hero’s story of growing stronger and embracing maturity, but surely there’s a way to show that he’s in need of growth without making him so doggone annoying. Eilonwy doesn’t do anything special, other than not get on my nerves, and Fflewder’s pseudo John Cleese is decent, if uninspired. The biggest letdown, though, is The Horned King, who boasts an awesome-looking character design and fails to do anything of importance. Seriously, what’s the use of having an imposing looking villain if all he does is sit on a throne and bark orders?

The Black Cauldron also suffers from a wildly-inconsistent tone. From what I gather, The Black Cauldron was the last film to be put together using storyboard sessions (as opposed to a completed script), and brother it shows. A scene of peril will be immediately followed by a scene of dorky levity with little or no transition, like news reporters who go from a story about a grisly murder to one about waterskiing squirrels with nary a breath of pause. Apart from tonal issues, the film also constantly feels like it’s screwing around; there are places where the characters stop, talk, laugh, argue, and do all of the things that character-building scenes are supposed to do, but without actually developing the characters. The start-stop nature of the movie makes it feel like driving with a teenager who can’t work the clutch very well.

All in all, though The Black Cauldron isn’t bad enough that I would try to dissuade someone who wanted to watch it, and I would even recommend it to fans of cheesy B-movies. The film has a very strange and unique flavor, and though it’s not what I would call a “good” film, there are elements that are reasonably entertaining, especially for those with an open mind and a forgiving heart.

Favorite Songs:

Favorite Scene:

  • Hen Wen is abducted by the Nazgûl (I may have gotten that wrong)

Favorite Character:

  • Princess Eilonwy

The Jar Jar:

  • Gurgi (John Byner) and Creeper (Phil Fondacaro) (tie)

How I Watched It

Like I mentioned earlier, The Black Cauldron was released last October on DVD, no doubt to sell the film on its Halloween-based appeal (and to be fair, there’s a moment near the end that’s pretty darn occult). Despite having little to no fanfare, the picture quality is actually pretty good, and sounds good enough for my television.

I was even more pleasantly surprised by the extras. While there’s no real “Making Of” about The Black Cauldron (which, I imagine, would consist largely of every animator on the team going “F@$# this movie!”), it does contain something very rare for an animated film: a deleted scene, nearly completed and watchable outside of storyboards. Animated films are tremendously hard work to make, with each second of film-making requiring countless hours of drawing, clean-up, inking, voicing, and who knows what else. The deleted scene in question, which is an alternate take on Taran and co.’s encounter with the Fair Folk, is almost entirely finished, with voices, music, and almost totally-moving animation. For those interested in the creation process of animation, and how the finished product comes together, this is a valuable piece of supplementary footage.

Apart from the deleted scene, there is one other bonus feature: the 1952 Donald Duck short “Trick or Treat.” In it, Huey, Dewey, and Louie team up with a witch to get back at Donald after he skunks the boys out of their candy. It’s not a bad short, and features June Foray doing her usual old lady voice (how long has that woman been pretending to be an old crone? Almost 60 years now?).

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