Twitter Plot Summary: A young boy who dreams of being a warrior goes head to head with The Horned King, who wants to find the Black Cauldron.
Five Point Summary:
1. A magic glowing sword, you say?
2. The group form whilst evil lurks.
3. Gurgi. Annoying companion.
4. Witches. More darkness. A cauldron. Prison.
5. Least dramatic finale ever.
Disney had a bit of a dry patch during the late 70s and early-mid 1980s. Well, to some folks anyway – I rather like their films from this period as they’re tonally different from everything they’d made up until that point. The Disney magic had left them and their rivals – like An American Tail’s Don Bluth – were making big money at their expense. Perhaps it was indicative of the era, but many animated films had a similar feel to them throughout this decade – a darker, grimmer tone that wouldn’t dissipate until Disney’s resurgence with The Little Mermaid and their subsequent work in the 1990s.
Eschewing fun songs (in fact there are no songs at all) and embracing the dark aspects of the fantasy genre, The Black Cauldron perhaps represents Disney at their darkest and feels nothing at all like their usual output. If I hadn’t been aware of it being a Disney release before watching it – and in some respects wasn’t aware of their animation style from this period – then I may have found it difficult to categorically state that it’s the 25th Disney Animated Classic.
The relationship between Taran, our boy hero, and Eilonwy, his lady amour, is nicely plotted, and develops nicely as the story goes on – it’s typical fantasy fare where the young boy goes on a journey, the big bad wants to stop him, and there’s a big sword. The heroic troupe is rounded out by bard Fflewddur (it’s based on a Welsh myth, in case you hadn’t already guessed), and Gurgi, the obligatory creature companion who is at times incredibly irritating and clingy. Either the voice, or his whole approach to being friendly with Taran – however you look at it, it’s no wonder that Taran wants rid of him despite the fact all Gurgi wants is to be friends. That’s ignoring the pig, Hen Wen, who isn’t entirely anthropomorphised but is at least aware of what’s going on and feels a slight tonal misstep overall.
Sadly the finale is a little less obvious than it needed to be, and feels like an anti-climax – once more without delving into spoilers, the method of dispatching The Horned King is a bit on the silly side, although the method of resolving the issue of the Black Cauldron itself has heavy impact and is potentially upsetting for the audience – this is after all the first Disney film to receive a PG rating. The Horned King himself remains a particularly scary creation, given more creepiness by John Hurt’s typically excellent voiceover work.
The themes throughout are classic Disney, however – a youngster who dreams of bigger things, friendship through adversity and to look beyond the surface to find the true beauty underneath, and so on. As a fantasy tale it does its job without ever really expanding on the world of the film, so it lacks that certain something that makes Don Bluth’s output so essential. Whilst The Black Cauldron is not a bad film in the slightest, it is indicative of the problems Disney faced during the 1980s, influenced by their rivals rather than setting a new benchmark.