One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney By The Numbers.
It began with the forging of the great 80s films.
Three were given to Lucas nerdiest, and fussiest of the Auter Class
Five were given to Spielberg great creator and storyteller
Two were given to Zemechis… and finished out in the the 90s
But they were all of them deceived.
In the City of Burbank, in the heat of the Sweatbox, the Dark Lord Katzenberg forged in secret, a master film to control all others. And into this Film he poured his cruelty, malice, and will to dominate all creators. One film to fool them all!
Ahem… that was dramatic.
But appropriate, given that The Black Cauldron was Disney’s first foray in epic fantasy. Oh sure, they’d tackled plenty of fairy tales up to this point, but that was just kids stuff pushed out by some rube back in the 40s. But it was the mid 80s and the new animators on the block wanted to do something more grown up and darker.
Which was fitting because in the midst of all of this, the Walt Disney Company was going through their darkest hour yet. We’ll take apart that and how it affected the film in a bit. But there’s a lot to unpack and it could get easy to get lost in all the trivia surrounding this film. Luckily we have the numbers to keep us on track.
- Theme 1
- Tightness of Script 1
- Dialogue 1
- Use of Comedy 0.5
- Use of Drama 1
So you remember this thing?
Well, when Peter Jackson set about adapting Tolkein’s famous trilogy to film, he initially pitched it to the studios as two films, thinking he’d never convince them to make three. Most studios wanted to condense it into just one film.
Which seems crazy now because studio execs, including Disney’s, would sell their mother’s kidneys for franchises these days. Thankfully, in the end, we got one book per trilogy and the films wound up redefining cinema, franchises, and adaptations ever since. Also, presumably, their mothers got to keep their kidneys.
What does this have to do with The Black Cauldron?
Disney, rather than doing what they typically do for an animated movie, i.e. basing it on a short fairytale or lean novel, took The Chronicles of Prydain, a five book series and made a single movie. And since they had to try and condense so much… let’s just say that not only didn’t they do the book series justice, but the film wound up being quite the mess as well.
The movie follows the story of Taran, a young pig keeper who dreams of adventure. Far off, a dark lord wants to take over the world and seeks an ancient artifact, the titular Black Cauldron, to finally defeat his enemies. Taran gathers an unlikely group of friends and…
You know what? Let’s just make this easy.
Have you seen this?
If you have, then you’ve seen The Black Cauldron. It’s every coming of age, hero’s journey story you’ve ever heard. It brings very little that is new to the table. Granted, it debuted in 1985, so these tropes weren’t quite as worn out as they are now. But remember, this was the same year that Marty McFly convinced all of us that the Delorean was the greatest car of all time, so there’s really no excuse for lack of originality.
- Lyrics 0
- Score 2
- Number of Songs 0
- Notoriety of Songs 0
Let’s get the obligatory remark out of the way about how songs are the heart and soul of Disney movies and how this film suffers by not having anyone sing.
This is true. This is fact. This actively hurts the film; see the score for details.
All that said… the music that is in this movie is one of the more interesting aspects and is unique amongst other Disney movies. Typically, up to this point in the Disney canon, the film score doesn’t stand out all that much. Oh here and there you get interesting choices like using Tchaikovsky in the Sleeping Beauty score.
But The Black Cauldron did nothing like that. No, instead it employed the services of composer Elmer Bernstein. Now if you don’t know who that is, he’s a composer that had a more than five decade career. He scored more than 200 films and tv shows including The Magnificent Seven and The Ten Commandments.
What makes his score notable in this film is because it sounds almost exactly like a film he scored a year before. A little indy production about some exterminators trying to make it in the big city.
And it’s super bizarre. Once you hear the connection between the two scores, you can’t unhear it. You’ll sit and watch the Horned King do something dastardly in The Black Cauldron but then get super distracted because you’ll expect the Stay Pufted Marshmallow Man to stomp onto the scene.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a great score, but it certainly is interesting… and also weird to feel like Disney stole from Ghostbusters… until you realize that Ghostbusters stole from Disney first.
- Quality of Animation 2
- Use Of Color 1
- House Style 1
- Character Design 1
- Breaks New Ground 2
It’s good. Mostly the animation in The Black Cauldron is just shy of impressive. It certainly is beautiful to look at after the long streak of scratchy films produced under the xerography method. Which is interesting because most of the film still employed that technique but it had been refined enough to not be nearly as noticeable.
It’s also noteworthy that The Black Cauldron marks the first time computer generated effects were featured in a Disney film. So this film actually scores in the “breaks new ground” category stronger than a lot of them have lately.
All that said, its not perfect. There are moments where the characters seem to just float in the scene. It’s almost like a bad green screen effect.
But the character designs are on point. The Horned King is instantly memorable and the rest look like classic Disney characters. If you squint, you can see hints of the greatness of the Renaissance coming through.
- Character Interaction 1
- Importance To Overall Plot 1
- Complexity 0
- Pulls At Heartstrings 0
- Overcomes Obstacles 0
This is honestly one of the hardest categories to judge in this film. My wife and I have always maintained that at the heart of every Disney movie, there’s a love story. Not always a romantic one, but always a story about friendship, or family or something that qualifies as love.
But this movie seemed to be determined to prove us wrong.
One might think, “Oh there’s a boy and girl the same age in this film. It might almost certainly be them!”
And with little scenes like this…
… you might think you’re right. But the thing is… that little moment above? It’s as forced as it looks. Taran and Eilonwy show zero attraction to each other through the whole film. So a romantic love story is out.
You might think it’s a group thing. This film is following the tropes of Lord of the Rings after all.
It features the classic merry group of misfits that band together to defeat the Dark Lord. It could be about the powerful bond they all formed in the process. And… it almost is that. Except for none of the characters seem to like each other all that much. They spend most the movie bickering with virtually no scenes showing any underlying affection.
It’s not the bond between Taran and his pig, Henwen. Saving the pig is what starts the adventure. But Taran hates Henwen, then feels bad he got it kidnapped, and ultimately none of it matters because, once rescued, Henwen just leaves halfway through the film.
But as you an see… The Black Cauldron got some points. So we clearly decided there was something counted as a love story. .
As much as I hate to admit it. The love story is Gurgi. I haven’t really touched on Gurgi in this review, and that’s on purpose. I don’t want to come across as hateful… and that’s not an easy feat when discussing Gurgi. He’s essentially what happens if you take Gollum put him in a fur coat and strip away all his nuance, depth of character, and hard edges.
And now I’ve said ‘Gollum’ and ‘Strip” in the same sentence and I feel like Tolkien is rolling in his grave and Walt’s frozen head is plotting my downfall. I hope you’re happy.
While Gurgi is a general pest in the story. He does sacrifice himself to save everyone else. As much as I don’t like him, there’s no denying that, that’s an act of true love if I’ve ever seen one.
So the love story here is Gurgi’s love for the others, particularly Taran. So why so few points if we have a heroic sacrifice? Because every other aspect of it is bad. Gurgi is annoying, nobody likes him (both characters and audience) and if you’re going to have a heroic sacrifice… it should actually feel like you lost something.
Then again, given who Gurgi sacrifices himself for… it’s not surprising that it’s not the best love story.
- Sidekick 0.5
- Charm 0
- Goodness 1
- Emotional Transformation 1
- Comedy 0
Taran is our resident hero in this movie. And… well…
He’s your typical farm boy, who dreams of going on an adventure and then does eventually. And while he hits all the cliches with blunt force of a drunk heavyweight boxer fighting a kangaroo… I don’t know how else to say it except that he’s no…
He’s certainly not
He’s not even really Taran from the Chronicles of Prydain
And ordinarily I don’t harp on the changes Disney makes to stories and characters… but also ordinarily… they don’t suck at it. Usually Disney improves on the characters. They gave nameless dwarfs personalities and added a cool cat layer to Baloo.
But Taran is a whiny brat, who’s negligent on his duties as a pig keeper, mean to Gurgi for no good reason, mean to Eilonwy… also for no good reason… and then just sort of lucks his way through the rest of the film with a magic sword doing all the work.
All of that would be fine as a starting point. His more abrasive personality quirks were obviously meant to lead to character growth… but unlike say, Luke Skywalker, they missed the all important binary sunset scene to make you empathize with him and actually care that he learns his lesson and become a hero.
- Evilness 2.5
- Comedy 0
- Sophistication 0
- Henchmen 1
- Poses A Threat 1
The Horned King easily has the potential to be one of the all time great Disney villains.
He has an army, he’s an evil wizard. He’s voiced by John Freaking Hurt, who’s voice much more suits this villain than when he voiced Aragorn in the awful Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Ring’s adaptation.
And if all it took to be a Disney villain was to look awesome and be evil. Well then, The Horned King would rank among the top tier baddies. Unfortunately… there’s just more to it than that. Look at the great Disney villains: Maleficent, Jafar, Ursula, Scar, even Shere Khan- what do they all have in common?
That bit of charm and humor that makes them interesting and memorable. In cases like villains like Gaston or Mother Gothel, it can fool you a little at first and make you think they might not be all that bad until they reveals their true colors. Or in the cases of characters like Ursula or Shere Khan, it makes you hate them… but also kind of dig them. See the picture above for a perfect example of this phenomenon.
The Horned King had a great character design, and menace to spare. But he still winds up being a little bit forgettable because, that’s all he’s got.
I mean he also has a Gollum ripoff side kick. But that’s not much to write home about. He’s not a bad villain over all, he’s no Edgar. But he’s a villain that would fit another film far better.
- Comedy 0.5
- Inventiveness 0.5
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 1
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 1
Easily the best character in this movie is Princess Eilonwy.
She’s got spunk, a magic floating bauble, and generally doesn’t put up with the other character’s nonsense. When we first meet her, Taran has been captured, and she’s already effected her own escapes and offers to let him tag along. She’s actually pretty cool. And I’m not the only one to think so. Google her name and you’re going to run into lists and essays about how she’s a “Forgotten or Underrated Disney Princess.”
They think she belongs with these ladies.
So the question is… does she?
She’s great, but she’s actively hampered by both the movie she’s in, and all the rest of the characters in it. Taran belittles her and she only slightly stands up to him. Taran insists on trying to play the hero and she steps to the side when frankly, she’d do it better. This is a product of the times, but it still hurts the character.
And this is a problem with the whole movie. Far too much of it hangs on Taran, who hovers between being annoying or aggressively mediocre while being surrounded by better characters. Now this isn’t a new phenomenon. I don’t know anybody that thinks Aurora is somehow more interesting than the Three Fairies, Maleficent, or Diablo, or Prince Philip, or Samson… alright, so everybody in Sleeping Beauty is more interesting than the title character… or the characters in The Black Cauldron.
To illustrate this I developed this little graph, also including a couple other Disney characters to establish context.
As you can see, our villain, Eilonwy, and Hen Wen are all better than Taran while Flllydderfll… Fffluwellyd…. The welsh bard dude, and Creeper rank below. And then there’s Gurgi.
Sigh… I’ve avoided talking about him but I have to here.
Gurgi is our…
Well no, he’s not our Gollum. He’s may be small and talk funny but he’s also legitimately good so that makes him…
Once again… no. It’s just… Gurgi is equally kind hearted and helpful as Dobby. Even performing a self sacrifice like Dobby did. He’s also just so… so much more annoying that Dobby. I don’t really want to pile on Gurgi, as hating him is fairly common place… but there’s just no ignoring the fact that he pretty much gets the same amount (a bit too much) of hate as another well known fantasy sidekick.
Because if he’s not Gollum, or Dobby…. You probably know where I’m going… it mean’s that Gurgi is this movie’s…
And like Jar Jar, Gurgi receives far more hate than he deserves. Sure he’s annoying and childish, but Star Wars, just like The Black Cauldron, was made with kids in mind and these are characters for kids (side note: no discussion involving Jar Jar Binks should happen without praising Ahmed Best for not only his pioneering work in bringing to life CGI characters, but also honor him for raising awareness to suicide prevention. He truly is an unsung hero.).
All that said about Gurgi… even after acknowledging the undue amount of hate he gets, that doesn’t mean I actually like him and he absolutely brings the film’s score down. But not much more than Taran does all by himself as the main character.
In a better film, with better characters, Gurgi might not come off as all that bad. He might even skirt that line between hilarious and annoying that the Olaf will decades later. But when he’s got to play off Taran or Ffllounwwel… whatever his name is… he just winds up grating against the ears and eyes way too much to be anything but a nuisance.
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 0
- Timelessness 0
- Impact On Culture 0.5
- Scope of Audience 0
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 0
It’s impossible to say The Black Cauldron had zero impact on the culture. To this day it stands out as a dark horse Disney film with a cult following. Frankly it’s too weird and different from the rest of the Disney canon to not have gained a following.
But in all other aspects of this category it falls flat on its horned head.
The film used to have some theme park representation… in Disneyland Tokyo where the Horned King appeared as an animatronic in a walkthrough attraction. And I gotta hand it to the imagineers, it looked truly metal.
But with the closure of that attraction, you’d be hard pressed to find any acknowledgement that this film ever happened.
It also misses the mark in the timelessness department as the animation, the score, and the tropes just ooze the 1980’s. Which is actually something of an accomplishment considering the film is set in a magical medieval world that had never even heard of Reaganomics or the Safety Dance.
Lastly, there are no Disney feels to be had, the entire concept was eschewed in favor of a dark atmospheric tone that frightened kids but didn’t really impress adults, leaving this a film that doesn’t really appeal to any age group.
But none of this is to say The Black Cauldron left no legacy. Because of that decidedly darker tone and the way it frightened children. The MPAA branded it with a PG rating. Nowadays most cartoons aim for that rating but it was the first time it had ever happened to a Disney movie and it was like hanging a couple of scarlet letters on it.
Not only did that drive families away from the movie, it drove them to another movie. I could simply tell you which one, but I feel a visual representation will best describe how bad this was and why this is truly considered the absolute darkest point in Disney film history.
That’s right, Disney went head to head against The Care Bears Movie, which was in its second week, and lost. This isn’t even a case of a long time rival like Warner Bros producing a film that got the better of them. It wasn’t even a strike back at Walt Disney Animation from Don Bluth (he’d already started that with The Secret of Nimh in 1982). This was movie created by a greeting card company.
And they beat Disney, the creator of the animated feature film.
This is why this is considered the low point of Disney’s Dark Age.
Grand Total: 28.5
1985 was a big year. Reagan was president, Back to the Future redefined the action comedy while simultaneously making the Delorean the coolest vehicle ever conceived, Gorbachev was elected to head Soviet Russia, people were discovering and abandoning New Coke in droves, Suzy and Dustin were singing their iconic duo…
And Disney had reached their lowest point, not just in their box office returns, but in their entire company’s history. During this time they overturned their leadership, they fought off a hostile takeover by the skin of their teeth and found themselves in dire needs of help.
It came in the form of new management. Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffery Katzenberg spearheaded an new approach to Disney, abandoning the sentimental, but stifling concept of “What Walt would have done” and seeking new ideas. This didn’t always go well, The Black Cauldron was the first animated film Katzenberg worked on and he only made a bad situation worse, literally gutting sections of the film in an attempt to make it more watchable but having to be almost literally dragged out of the cutting room by Eisner before he did too much damage.
When The Black Cauldron bombed though, Eisner also lost faith in the animation department and considered shuttering the entire operation. Roy E. Disney thankfully talked him down. But the animation department, which had operated out of the Burbank studios that Walt built off of the success of Snow White, was exiled off-campus and made to work out of various warehouses a few miles away.
So safe to say, Disney needed a savior. And they would find one in a mouse… just not quite the one you’re probably thinking of. Mickey’s time to shine would come again… much much later. For now, Disney’s fate laid in the furry hands of a great mouse detective.