CULT CLASSIC: The Black Cauldron (1985)

The Black Cauldron (USA, 1985)
Directed by Ted Berman & Richard Rich
Starring Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Nigel Hawthorne, John Hurt

The words 'Disney' and 'cult classic' are very rarely seen together. Disney has had its fair share of commercial failures over the years, but for the most part these have been in some way down to the product itself, rather than an inability to market it. Likewise Disney's reputation as the bastion of all that is bright, charming and safe is a million miles from the lexicon of cult classics. These are, by and large, films that you can't evoke without using words like 'dark', 'strange', 'edgy' or 'weird' - in short, they are often films that you wouldn't show to children.
In this respect The Black Cauldron is pretty much unique. It flopped on its original release, being beaten by The Care Bears Movie on opening weekend (ouch). Since then it has gained a small but devoted following, which hold it either to be an underrated Disney effort or a minor classic in its own right. The film is still riddled with problems, like many of the cult films I've reviewed in the past, but in the end there is enough interesting stuff in there to make the experience worthwhile.
It's fair to assume that a large amount of The Black Cauldron's cult appeal stems from its visual departure from the Disney norm. For people of my generation, who grew up during the Renaissance, you wouldn't look at this film and automatically assume that it came from the same people who made The Little Mermaid. Even when we take the paler aesthetic of the 1970s into account, The Black Cauldron still feels on first impression, like it has crept into the Disney canon under the radar.
The animation is reflective of the film as a whole, containing several pockets of brightness and invention which are struggling to get out of a greyer, more ordinary environment. The film was one of the first to utilise CG animation alongside conventional hand-drawn work, with most of the cauldron's movements being mapped with a computer. The hand-drawn style itself is somewhere between Ralph Bakshi and The Sword in the Stone, using pinks, purples and especially greens to create a ghoulish, unsettling feel.
What's ironic about The Black Cauldron's reputation is that it is probably the most closely-rooted in fairy tales that Disney has been since the Golden Age. The film is based on the first two books in Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, which drew strongly on Welsh folk tales and the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien. Even though its adaptation is characteristically loose, all the familiar hallmarks are there - creepy woods, dark magic, spooky castles, princesses, young warriors and plenty of good music to both offset and accompany the action.
The film is also notable for its relatively stellar cast. While other Disney films of the period were lucky if they could secure one big name star, The Black Cauldron has a very solid and rounded supporting cast. Nigel Hawthorne, just before his defining role in Yes, Minister, is a very good fit for Fflewddur Fflam (try spelling that on a pub quiz). He brings an entertaining combination of cowardice and eloquence, playing off his lie-detecting harp very well. And then there's John Hurt, who is no stranger to fantasy, having played Aragorn in Bakshi's Lord of the Rings and later being the host of Jim Henson's Storyteller series.
Hurt's performance as the Horned King brings us on to the next big plus: the film has a genuinely scary villain. In my review of Oliver & Company, I complained that Sykes was never really convincing as a villain: his methods were illogical and his end seemed totally improvised. The Horned King is a lot scarier, in both his ends and his means; while Sykes was ultimately holding a cat to ransom, he wants to enslave the world with an army of deathless warriors. Hurt doesn't often play villains very often, but he is quite adept at it, using his gravelly voice to compliment the King's intimidating physique. His death scene is one of the most graphic in Disney history: he doesn't just fall off a cliff or get stabbed, he gets his skin ripped clean off his bones and his body disintegrated by pure, concentrated evil.
Somewhere in The Black Cauldon, there is a genuinely dark, creepy and interesting story. Coming in the year that gave us Re-Animator and George A. Romero's Day of the Dead, it is effectively a zombie film for children. The film departs from Romero's template in several ways: it doesn't introduce the zombies right away, there's a conscious attempt to moralise the heroes' actions, and the zombies are not overtly symbolic of anything. But nonetheless it is striking how close to horror the film treads, and how straight it plays its subject matter.
Unfortunately, the intrigue caused by this realisation also illuminates the film's many shortcomings. For all the moments in which it takes a brave step forward into grown-up horror territory, there are at least as many moments in which it retreats into the safety of convention, or stands around wondering what it really is. The film can't quite decide exactly how dark it wants to be, or even what it wants to be about.
A lot of the blame for this can be laid on Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was appointed as Disney Chairman during post-production. Upon seeing the rough cut, Katzenberg demanded that the film be severely cut, feeling that its more graphic scenes would deter Disney's target audience. When he encountered resistance, Katzenberg pushed the release date back six months and personally removed 12 minutes of footage, shortening the 'Cauldron Born' scenes and omitting several deaths. Not only are the changes obvious from the jumps in Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack, but they also make no sense considering that the Horned King's death remains in all its glory. If Princess Mononoke can have decapitation scenes and still get a PG, it's hard to see how removing these scenes would have helped the film's chances.
Even without Katzenberg's changes, however, the storytelling in The Black Cauldron is all over the place. We get vague inclinations of the Horned King's plan in the opening section but then the film wanders off into light-hearted slapstick and awkward character drama. From here on in, the horror elements feel like a more interesting film, running parallel with ours and occasionally trying to break in. We stay with our leads for so long that the 'Cauldron Born' aren't introduced until the end, and they don't hang around long enough to demonstrate how monstrous they are.
The film also suffers from having too many characters. While Fflewddur Fflam is enjoyable in his own right, the main protagonists are barely developed and largely unlikeable. Taran spends most of his time either moping or showing off, and Princess Eilonwy is pretty bland. Gurgi, Doni and Eilonwy's bauble all fight for the role of official sidekick, but the film never finds a good enough use for any of them, and so they come and go according to plot convenience.
While the visuals of The Black Cauldron are creepy in places, they are also quite derivative. Like the Wolfgang Reitherman efforts of the 1970s, there are numerous examples of Disney ripping off its own back catalogue. The shots of Henwyn the pig in water are clearly inspired by Dumbo getting drunk, while many of the landscape shots are borrowed directly from Snow White. But to be fair, accusations about the bauble being a rip-off of Navi are misplaced, since the first Legend of Zelda game was still a year away. 
The Black Cauldron is a flawed but interesting effort from Disney which is thoroughly deserving of its cult status. There is a darker, braver film somewhere in here which has been either covered up by Disney convention or cut out wrongfully by Katzenberg. But when the darkness does break through, it comes to life as both a return to the deep well of fairy tales and an intriguing tonal departure. It is, in the end, as enjoyably flawed as Labyrinth, and that, in and of itself, is no bad thing.