♪ Bargaining switches/With big boobed witches/Swords that seem freaky/And mist that’s creepy/Undead skeletons ruled by Demon Kings/These are a few of my favorite things?/Why does this movie make me feel so bad? ♪
Gabby: You guessed it, my pick for our Dark Disney series is, The Black Cauldron.
Jeremy: At the time I’m writing this, my local movie theater has a screen dedicated to playing old Disney movies. The Black Cauldron’s playing this weekend. Should I take my toddler and videotape him being traumatized?
Brett: Sweet Monkey Jesus! Obviously we want that!
Jeremy: I doubt I’ll take him. Even if you factor in my desire to irreparably traumatize him, I don’t want to see this again anytime soon.
Gabby: So have we all seen this before? I saw this on video when I was younger. I must have watched a few times but it didn’t get played nearly as often as the others. I hadn’t seen the film since the late ’90s most likely.
Jeremy: Before this retrospective, only once in theaters back in ’85. I would’ve been six. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a good experience. I had already seen films like Temple of Doom and Ghostbusters in theaters, but this experience was different. And not in a good way.
I’m sure the movie scared me, but even back then, I liked being scared by melting Nazis and killer robots and the like. I remember The Black Cauldron feeling so… oppressive. Before watching it again, the one clear memory I had was Gurgi jumping into the cauldron during the climax and his resurrection a few minutes later. Of course, I didn’t mind Gurgi as a kid. But the movie wore me down so much that, by the time he came back, I was not having any of it. Too little, too late.
I’m trying to find the right word to describe The Black Cauldron. What keeps coming to mind is abrasive. Not because it’s dark and scary, but because it’s so relentless and manic. It’s like The Fellowship of the Ring if you removed anything endearing about the fellowship and just kept torturing them with orcs and dark riders for 80 minutes straight.
Brett: I saw this in the theater too. This is really sort of frustrating because there was clearly a good movie that could have been made here. The Prydain books are well regarded. There is a lot of talent on display here.
Gabby: One problem with this movie is that the lead is a tosser. I remember not really liking him when I watched this as a child.
‘What do girls know about swords?’ Giant arsehole…
Brett: He’s a kid. Like genuinely 14 or something. He hasn’t discovered feminism yet. Princess Welsh Name will help with that.
Gabby: Uhhh… he shouldn’t have been taught sexism. Not, he should wait for feminism. The person who brought him up does not seem to be a sexist arse so he should have been brought up with the ideals.
My brother was more mature at four than this guy.
Brett: It’s the 10th Century and he was raised on a pig farm with one old man. Congratulate him when he does well. He should be congratulated for not claiming all her property and having her family killed when she displeases him! He’s raised in a society that doesn’t even consider women to be people in the strictest sense of the word, so… I’m just sayin’… Game of Thrones… something something….
Gabby: Exactly. Where would he pick sexism up? In fact, 14 in the 10th is like 44 to us probably. Especially to a farmer.
Brett: Frankly, while I agree the hero is a little sexist, the witches are what stick in my craw. The depiction of the witches comes off as truly misogynistic. That bit goes on forever and it’s hateful the whole time. This is basically a prequel to Game of Thrones. With less rape and more Gurgi.
Jeremy: Ah, Jesus… Gurgi. I meet in the middle on this one. I’m OK with the youth being callow if he grows. In this case, though, the kid doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The magic sword literally does all the work for him. All he has to do is hang on to the damn thing. What an odd story choice that is.
Gabby: That is exactly her argument too. He is a bit full of himself I guess.
Jeremy: The problem is he’s a character who grows over a series of novels. We’re only getting one piece of a larger story, crammed into an 80-minute movie that’s a tonal mess.
Gabby: Yeah that is a big problem!
Brett: And why were they adapting the second book in the series? That just feels odd.
Jeremy: So it’s loosely the character journey from the first book and the MacGuffin from the second?
I get the impression that part of the tonal dissonance came from two different generations of Disney talent. It feels like the old guard intended to make a traditional animated film, but the young upstarts kept adding more skeletons and boob shots with the witches. There are SO MANY boob shots in this movie, you guys.
Brett: I feel like I’ve already run out of things to say. There’s not much to it. This was a movie that just didn’t work too well. It’s got a feel similar to The Sword in the Stone, but then Team B came in and made things dark.
Jeremy: There is one thing we haven’t talked about, and I can’t believe it took us almost a thousand words to get here. This movie features an oracular pig. A fuckin’ oracular pig. You can’t make stuff like that up. That beats wasp royal jelly for the biggest “The fuck…?” moment in any movie we’ve covered.
Brett: I have a blind spot for the pig. I keep forgetting about how crazy that is because in the end it really doesn’t matter.
Jeremy: It’s weird. It’s like the appetizer MacGuffin before the entree MacGuffin. The pig’s just there to get everyone interested in the Black Cauldron.
Gabby: The fact “oracular pig” is said in any movie is amazing really! Wasp royal jelly was pretty fabulous though.
I have a few more things to mention. What do you think of the Horned King design?
Jeremy: I have mixed feeling about his design. The silhouette is terrific, but I’m already blanking on what he looked like – especially the face.
Gabby: I am with you on the silhouette of the horned king being powerful and the face not living up to it. It just doesn’t have the punch needed. I also agree that it is strange to adapt the second book. I tried to find the first book in some libraries near me and it wasn’t on record. I am not sure if this film has something to do with that.
The witches truly are awful. It is beyond offensive. They felt very abrasive, to quote Jeremy’s word.
I remember being scared by the Horned King as a child. That segment where he puts the skeleton in the cauldron is an example of where the score is really effective. The green stuff that came out of the cauldron following the orange blast gave me nightmares for several months. There was something about the colour and the accompanying high pitched noise. The same, scored, sound that is present when you see all the green as the skeletons march. Those balls the Princess has in combination were that colour in my dream. Those things put me on edge too, but that was more the context. That of a horrible castle with a possessed horned skeleton wanting to reign his army of the undead over the land. Rather than the glowing balls themselves.
Jeremy: And the crazy thing is a lot of the scarier footage was removed before release. Apparently, at a test screening of this longer cut, kids ran out of the theater in terror. Part of me is like, “That’s wrong, man.” The other part of me – the parent currently trapped in toddler hell – read that, laughed maniacally, and screamed, “YESSSSSS!!!”
Here’s an interesting coincidence, thanks to our age gap: Brett and I were quite young when we saw this in theaters, and you were about the same age when this finally got a home video release in the ’90s. We should mention that Disney buried this movie for a long time after its release.
Brett: I quote directly from Wikipedia here – Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was dismayed by the product and the animators felt that it lacked “the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander’s work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted.”
I mean… ouch.
Jeremy: He’s right, though.
Gabby: He is right about humour and pathos. The film needs it. That is what I was kind of getting at when I said he is a bit of a sexist protagonist. It is more that he is a self-absorbed one, and thinks of others as less important. He also lacks a sense of humour. Brett mentioned The Sword and the Stone. When rewatching Black Cauldron, there is a part where the witches are in the clouds for the first time, telling them about the cauldron. That really reminded me of the part where Merlin and Madam Mim have a Duel. The way it is drawn, the grey colouring of the sky and ground, as well as the shape of the trees, is incredibly similar. But it lacks the wonderful sense of humour and character present in Sword and the Stone. I love Madam Mim. She is such a fire of energy. They needed something like that here to add some energy to the fantasy.
Jeremy: We should also mention Elmer Bernstein’s score I don’t hear Bernstein mentioned that often. He knew how to write an eerie film score. Some of the cues feel quite similar to his work on Ghostbusters, though. That’s not entirely a bad thing. You can’t overstate how important his score is to Ghostbusters.
Brett: This score was cut to pieces. So it doesn’t come off as his best work.
Gabby: I have seen there is a bit of an internet campaign to get that uncut version re-released. I would definitely see that.
Elmer Bernstein is brilliant and the fact they cut his score up to pieces really does show the makers of this film did not know what they were doing. The score is so powerful in the sections with the Horned King.
Jeremy: I need to track down more details about what scenes were cut. I’m curious if a director’s cut would restore some connective tissue or just be more skulls & boobs wankery.
Brett: Skull and boobs wankery. I have just found the subtitle for this group: The Indefensibles – Skull and boob wankery.
Jeremy: And, er, on that note, final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: I stand by being scared of that scene where the Horned King awakens his army of the dead. That still packs a punch, thanks to the imagery actually being effective here and Bernstein’s score. The scene where Eilonwy saves Taran with her glowy balls I think is very atmospheric as well. It is a pity there is so much of the film that is actiuvely hateful alongside moments like that.
Brett: We barely talked about Gurgi, but he bugs me. He should be lovable, but he ain’t. His sorta-self-sacrifice really annoyed me. I think because it was so passive aggressive. “Oh, you have lots of friends I have none.” *JUMPS* It’s not noble, he doesn’t do it because he loves the guy and wants him to be safe, he just doesn’t have any friends. Smeagol didn’t have any friends, and he did fine. (He did fine, right? I never finished the books, it just got to being too many songs. He got away, right? Smeagol was okay, right?)
Jeremy: I’m ambivalent. I get why this is a favorite for some people – especially fans of Lloyd Alexander’s novels. There’s a spark – a joy – that’s missing for me. Except for a few subversive moments here and there, there’s no passion here. It feels like something Disney started and had to finish. I could go another thirty years without seeing it again and be fine with it. Maybe it would grow on me if I gave it another chance. You never know.
Thanks for reading, everyone. This was the last film in our Dark Disney retrospective series, which we had a lot of fun doing. We’ll be back soon with three films inspired by classic pulp/weird fiction. We’re starting with Brett’s pick, 1994’s The Shadow. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter. We’ll most likely be a little more active on social media during F This Movie’s Junesploitation event. You can also leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.