The story is in the same vain as “Lord of the Rings”, as its a journey through a dark and hostel fantasy setting, and the focus is on a young boy who’s burdened with a mission to destroy a weapon of terrible power. In the case of this story, it comes in the form of the dreaded Black Caldron, which is also being sought out by an evil overlord, who aims to use it in a war to concur all the lands. While obviously less deep and multi-layered then the aforementioned “Lord of the Rings”, it’s still the same winning formula that I’ve always been a sucker for when it come to the fantasy genera, and when this formula is passably executed … I’m always left feeling satisfied.Things admittedly get a little mixed when it comes to the films chosen hero named Taren … who joins the archetype of lonely farm boy seeking action, and the status of “Great Warrior”. In general, I’ve always loved the arc of a naive, yet innocent youth who goes on a quest, faces the dangers of the world, and emerges a different person then he was at the start. In the plus column, it’s very satisfying to see how much this character changes and matures at the end, and I especially love that he mostly grows on his own, by observing the selflessness of others, and he doesn’t even need an overly dramatic lecture. The down side … this movie dose it’s job too well in making him an unlikable, ego driven annoyance at the start. I get that the movie is trying to make his self-realization at the end more effective, but his early boasting about being a great hero can get supper annoying … to the point where it’s challenging to make a connection. Having a protagonist with faults is commendable, but he’s got to be likable too, and less annoying then this kid.
Like any classic fantasy adventure, Taren makes some good friends along the journey, and they all become allies in his quest to destroy the Cauldron. It’s again very formulaic, but there’s a fine assortment of characters who are each out of their element, yet the situation keeps forcing them to be the ones carrying out the mission.I love that set-up, and I find these supporting players just likable enough to sustain the journey. The comedic relief of the film is a fun-loving creature named Gurgi … I’m not sure what he is, but he looks like an albino Ewok or something from a “Star Wars” cartoon. While he can be a little annoying, he's more driven by an overdose of uncontrollable energy, and isn't quite as stupid as some other comedic reliefs I've seen. While I can see how some viewers would find him irritating … particularly his voice … I’ve always found him a harmlessly enjoyable presence. The one saving grace about Gurgi is that he'll do something at the end of the film that is surprisingly touching, selfless, and one of the big highlights of the movie. There’s also a cute little animal side-kick named Henwen, who's a pig with a unique power to create visions. The animation on these vision scenes are really impressive ... and make great use of stock-footage from “Fantasia”. There’s even an old man named Fflewddur, who is a broken-down minstrel. Typically, I hate when old people go on the adventure, as they just seem to get in the way, but I found this character had his own welcome charm. He’s got charisma, and is voices by the late great Nigel Hawthorne, who would latter provide the voice for Professor Porter from Disney's 1999 animated classic “Tarzan”.
At last, we have our Disney Princess named Eilonwy, who’s obviously not a very popular Disney Princess, but much like the movie, I find her to be kind of special in her own unique way.Truthfully, I think she has the cutest voice of any animated Disney Princes, and she has a spirited personality to boot. Thankfully, her sweet nature is also balanced out by some noteworthy moments in which she takes initiative. Her design is also very simple, as her dress isn’t as elegant as any of the classic Disney Princesses, which I find somewhat refreshing. I will admit that from a narrative perspective, there's really no point to have this character in the film, as she contributes very little to the overall plot, but with that said … I think she adds some much-needed charm and appeal to the film. Without question, she provides the most likable presence of any character, which for me counters the annoying traits of our main lead. Of course, she and Taren make a romantic connection, which is nothing too special, but they at least share some genuinely cute moments together. The one thing that would have made her character more interesting is if she were someone like a chamber maid posing as a Princess, that way when captured, the real Princess could escape. Then when our hero refers to her as “Princess”, it’s more out of affection as opposed to a branded title.
Yet, my favorite character of the whole movie by far is our main villain, who’s only referred to as The Horned King. He’s arguably one of the darkest and most imposing of all Disney rouges, and criminally underrated. While other villains in the vain of Maleficent and Jafar are monstrous, they also have a colorful personality to balance out.The Horned King by contrast is very different, as there's nothing light or simplistic to balance out is sinister presence. He's just evil right to the core, and the stuff of nightmares for children. He isn’t loud or bombastic, and instead is calm, quiet, moves slowly, and is shrouded in mystery. He just conveys this dooming presence that creeps under my skin, which few other animated villains manage to convey. Also, his overall design as a zombie sorcerer is just plain awesome, and very unique. When our hero sees him for the first time, it leads to one of the coolest villain entrances I’ve ever seen in a Disney picture. The icing to put on top of everything is vocal talent John Hurt, who’s always great, and brings The Horned King to life with chilling menace, and a very sinister voice. Honestly, I think this guy belongs on the same pedestal as the other great iconic Disney villains.
Unfortunately, like most Disney villains, he has an annoying little henchman called The Creeper. To his credit, he’s not as annoying as some of the other evil Disney henchmen, and he doesn’t even come close to ruining the exciting presence of The Horned King.
It should also be noted that this was the very first animated Disney movie that feature zero songs. The only other animated Disney classic to have no songs was the 1990 Disney film “The Rescuers Down Under”. For as much as it would have been out of tone with the film, I do think some songs cold have worked in select moments. For example, there’s a scene with three witches, and their introduction is a drawn-out sequence with lots of visual flash, but very annoying comedy. This scene could have been stronger if their goofy antics were replaced with a song number, and I could picture these three having an awesome musical number. There’s also a scene with some colorful fairies in a cave, which could have been an upbeat song sequence. Heck, this movie has a Princess, why not give her a song. In the plus column, the musical score composed by the great Elmer Bernstein is fantastic, as it adds a lot of wonder and atmosphere to the experience. Bernstein was just coming off the success of his Oscar-nominated score for the 1983 film "Trading Places", as well as his terrific score for the 1984 film "Ghostbusters", which has similar instrumentation. Still, I think some carefully placed song numbers could have added to the experience, as well as balance out it’s darker tone.
Actually, while on the subject of the films dark tone, this was admittedly the one Disney movie that my parents weren’t comfortable with me watching. Of cores, the demonic looking villain disturbed my mother, but beyond that, there’s more of a wicked nature to this film then most other Disney offerings.
Right from the opening, we learn the origin of the cauldron, how it holds the soul of the most evil ruler who ever existed, that anyone who obtains it will be able to harness its evil and awaken vast armies of dead worriers … not at all the bright and uplifting nature of most children’s films. There's also a number of harsh and perilous moments that feature our characters getting beaten, bruised, and there’s even blood in some shots. Most Disney movies submerse us in really magical, and colorful worlds, but this has to be the most consistently dark and haunted looking of their films, with images of corpses, skulls and all kinds of dark detailed designs.
The most shocking scene of all is near the end, when the Cauldrons power is unleashed, and we see the army of dead solders come to life. It’s an awesome sequence with chilling visuals and spooky imagery in every frame. Heck, even the settings aren’t that pleasant, as most of it takes place in swamps, darkly lit forests, and very dirty interiors of an old castle. This isn’t a complaint by any means, as I’m the kind of guy who actually enjoys dark animated films in medieval settings. It’s also what makes this film unique from the other entries in Disney’s animated line-up. It’s arguably the closest we’ll ever get to something Disney related that’s in the vain of Martin Rosen’s “Watership Down”, or Ralph Bakshi’s animated “Lord of the Rings” movie. As such, try not to compare this to familiar Disney movies along the lines of “Beauty in the Beast” or “Sleeping Beauty”, as this is something with a different appeal to fans of animated films with a dark edge.
For all the faults with this film, there is still more than enough good material, and enough positivity that I feel balances out all the darkness. There are still some great morals on sacrifice, and how giving up your life or dreams for the greater good is the most heroic act you could ever make. The animation and visual designs are amazing spectacles to look at, ranging from bright and colorful to dark and abstract. The backgrounds are richly textured, detailed, and I just get lost looking all these stunning illustrations. It also has a rich fairy tale atmosphere, with all kinds of magical characters, like a society of spirits that live under a lake, there's also Dragons, the aforementioned witches, and all kinds of great fantasy elements.
The Climax of the movie is admittedly something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have a surprisingly touching scene involving one of our hero's making a noble sacrifice. However, I feel the tension in this finale gets resolved a little too quickly. After the movie effectively builds-up the resurrection of this army of dead soldiers, they suddenly get defeated very quickly, and it leaves me wishing for more of a payoff, or maybe even a cool battle scene. Even the final fight with the Horned King and our hero is really weak, and should have been cooler. Still, this finale has some strong highlights, including a brutal villain death, as well as an exciting sequence of our hero's destroying the Cauldron, and escaping a crumbling castle. I especially love the end credits, with all these detailed illustrations and pictures in the background, which allow you to reflect on the adventure you experienced with the characters … I wish more animated movies had credits like this.
Overall, I find "The Black Cauldron" to be a fun, dark ride, one that’s ambitious, has decent morals, and is technically brilliant. Both The Horned King and Princess Eilonwy likewise have secure spots among my personal favorite Disney characters. While certainly not one of Disney’s absolute best animated works, there’s still something to it that leaves me feeling satisfied. It’s no classic like “Cinderella” or “The Lion King”, but a unique entry with its own fascinating qualities and highlights. I'll admit, the film has some announces and it certainly isn't something that will win a huge crowd of fans, but still … "The Black Cauldron" is an underrated gem that deserves more attention then what it has gotten, as I find it an enjoyably different experience to add to the Disney collection.
Thanks for reading my review of Disney’s animated 1985 picture “The Black Cauldron” … and make your day a little more special with a splash of Disney magic.