Ah, The Black Cauldron. Of all of Disney animation’s red-headed stepchildren, this is perhaps the most red-headed and stepchildren-y (and I’m not just saying it because the leading man is a ginger). Based on the beloved Chronicles of Prydain novels by Lloyd Alexander, in development for over a decade, the first film animated in 70mm since Sleeping Beauty….and it got its ass kicked at the box office by the fucking Care Bears movie. That’s the kind of moment where you want to rethink your life. And it more or less did: the directors were either fired or left Disney, the next films were under the scrutiny of Katzenberg, Eisner and Frank Wells (until his untimely death in 1994), and Disney quickly got back on its game. Yet is The Black Cauldron really all that bad? Well….I wouldn’t say it’s GOOD, but there are some things to recommend within it.
First, it looks great. The character designs are kind of standard Disney (and turning Fflewddur Flam into an elderly man instead of the dynamic, younger goofball he is in the books remains a baffling decision), but they move well and the Horned King is one of the best Disney villain designs, brought to life well by the animation and John Hurt bringing his general Shakespearean gravity to the role. The backgrounds are similarly immaculate, particularly the awesomely grungy castle of the Horned King. Finally, Elmer Bernstein’s score is better than the film frankly deserves, epic, grand, and spooky in equal measure (although his theme for the Horned King definitely steals a bit from his Ghostbusters score).
No, the movie doesn’t fail because it looks cheap, far from it. The problem here is story and character. Now, I’m not a purist, and recognize that things need to often be changed when adapting books into films. And combining elements of the first two books in the Prydain series (The Book of Three and, of course, The Black Cauldron) isn’t a terrible idea at all. But the film overall lacks the spark, wit, and charm of Alexander’s books. Taran’s youthful arrogance is overbearing here, rather than tempered by his general good heart (there are a few moments here like that, but they’re a drop in the bucket). Fflewddur as noted is bafflingly portrayed, although Nigel Hawthorne does what he can vocally in the part, and Gurgi is super annoying without any charm outside of his redemptive sacrifice near the end (which is immediately undone). The only character that translates more or less faithfully is Eilonwy (Doli too, but his role is much reduced), but even she’s hampered by not being given terribly much to do story-wise.
Really, it just lacks that Disney special-ness. I don’t care about what’s going on when I watch it outside of “ooo look at the pretty/impressive animation”. Even something like Oliver & Company, which is a trifle of a movie, manages to give me that emotional connection. In the end, all I can say is that it just falls flat for me. Sorry, guys. Maybe next time.