On a whim, I decided to take a look at one of Disney’s more infamous endeavors, the 1985 film The Black Cauldron. I was curious about this film because it has a reputation for being one of, if not the worst animated films in the Walt Disney Animated Classics line. Granted it was the first animated Disney film to get a PG rating, so it’s definitely a deviation from the norm, but that doesn’t mean it’s terrible … right? Nonetheless, I went into it with an open mind. I did not come out as such.
As one of the many aspects of this film's unusual nature, is based on a series of fantasy novels rather than Disney’s usual go-to gag of common fairytales. The Black Cauldron is based on the first two entries in the series of novels known as The Chronicles of Prydain, published from 1964 to 1968, the first being The Book of Three and the other being The Black Cauldron itself. That being said, I cannot in any way comment on this film on its merits or faults as an adaptation, seeing as how I have never read this particular series of books, nor had I even heard of it before researching this film. So, I will just have to take this film as it is. Still, the fact that I had never even heard of this film’s basis cannot possibly be a good sign.
The overall plot of this film is as basic and unenlightened as it could possibly get. The opening narration gives us a standard back story of some ancient evil sealed away in the mystic “MacGuffin,” the Black Cauldron. We then moved to the Shire standard farmstead, where we see the standard young and inexperienced wannabe hero, Luke Taran. He is being looked over by Obi-Wan Kenobi Gandalf Dallben. For the record, I’ll say that Dallben’s voice, provided by Freddie Jones, sounds fairly strained, but perhaps maybe they were going for to give him more of a venerated feel, or possibly it just might be the limitations of the recording equipment of the mid-80s. Speaking of that, this film actually feels a lot older than it actually is, like it’s contemporary with films like The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book, despite the fact that it’s actually nearly 20 years older than those films. The animation style of this film is sketchy, like it’s not fully polished, which was common in previous decades, but should have been phased out by this time. It’s decent, but nowhere near impressive. Characters and moving objects stand out too much from the backgrounds; I even know which rocks they will step on. Perhaps this is a frame rate or conversion issue, but it does bear noticing. For the most part, the backgrounds do look nice and well-painted, but they’re not that noteworthy.
The DVD extras are there, and that’s all I can really say about them. There are a couple of point-and-click games with trivia and very simple puzzles, which are extraordinarily easy; it might entertain a five-year-old for a few minutes but won’t do anything for anybody else. There is an old Donald Duck Halloween cartoon short included, and that’s pretty good, for what it’s worth. There is a deleted scene, but unfortunately, it’s not from any of the 12 minutes that were supposedly cut from this film postproduction personally by Jeffrey Katzenberg. Instead it’s just another partially animated storyboard animatic from the Fair Folk scene, which I found to be disappointing in light of what could have very easily been an extensive deleted scenes extra.
Overall, everything about this film screams average, and the low end of average at that. The story just seems to sort of happen to the characters, rather than the characters driving the plot. Nobody seems very active. The story itself is the classic fantasy hero’s journey that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, and it doesn’t really bring anything new to the formula to justify its own existence. A lot of the characters and objects function only as plot devices, and are not very well explained or elaborated upon. The main hero isn’t particularly skilled or even likable, the side characters are mostly useless and kind of annoying, and the villain is kind of good but it only serves to illuminate that he could’ve been much better. For a Disney film, I was very underwhelmed by this film. The animation isn’t stellar or amateur, it’s just average; its characters are not outright good and interesting or even bad, just average; the plot also isn’t particularly innovative or negatively derivative, it’s just average. And for Disney, average means “skip it,” and you should skip this film. The Disney studios have done much better before this film and after it. Unless you really want to have a complete Disney Animated Classics collection, you aren’t really missing much if you leave this one out of it.