THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985) (**1/2)
Many critics put this as one of the lowest, if not the lowest point, in Disney Feature Animation history. While it's not as big a failure as a film as so many say, its financial disaster has put an extra pall over its history. Getting crushed by THE CARE BEAR MOVIE at the box office will do that. The straightforward fantasy adventure is undercut by weak characters mainly.
Based on Lloyd Alexander's CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN book series, the LORD OF THE RINGS-like adventure with a coming of age twist seemed like a perfect story for the Disney animators to tackle. Taran (Grant Bardsley) is an assistant pig farmer who dreams of becoming a great warrior. His mentor Dallben (Freddie Jones, DUNE) is really an enchanter who is protecting the mystical pig Hen Wen from falling into the clutches of The Horned King (John Hurt, THE ELEPHANT MAN), who wants to use the swine to locate the Black Cauldron, which could allow him to raise an army of the undead and take over the world.
When Hen Wen goes missing, Taran sets out on an adventure to find the pig before the Horned King. Along the way, he will pick up a party of fellow travelers. Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) is a princess imprisoned by the Horned King after her magical powers do not help his evil plan. Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE) is a wandering bard who likes to tell exaggerated stories. Gurgi (John Byner, TV's SOAP) is a furry, hungry creature that attaches himself to Taran as his servant. Now that is post-LORD OF THE RINGS, it will be hard not to think Gollum when hearing Gurgi, just more benign.
The chief problem here is that Taran is not much of a hero. At one point, Eilonwy even says that his heroics are more the result of the magic sword he found than any he did. Taran shows some bravery at the end, but he isn't heroically destroying the Death Star like Luke Skywalker, who seems so similar to this wanna be adventurer, especially with his glowing sword. The rest of his party is either there for comic relief or no purpose whatsoever. Eilonwy questions Taran's heroics, but she's no Princess Leia laying into Han Solo. She is strictly love interest material only. Fflam is bumbling and Gurgi is annoyingly too cute at times… but at least he's not simply annoying like the Horned King's goblin crony Creeper (Phil Fondacaro, TROLL), who sounds like Igor on helium.
Three witches named Orddu (Eda Reiss Merin, GHOSTBUSTERS), Orwen (Adele Malis-Morey, CRITTERS) and Orgoch (Billie Hayes,TV's H.R. PUFNSTUF) show up midway and trick Taran, but the nature of the trick doesn't really make much sense, because it's not much of a trick when the bad guys make a deal with the heroes and each party gets exactly what they're expecting.
Visually the film is unlike anything that Disney has ever done. While the Horned King's character design is awkward with his antler-like horns sticking out of a shroud, his dragons and army of skeletons have more in common with a Ralph Bakshi fantasy than Mickey Mouse in a sorcerer's hat. The shadowy color palette fits the mood of the evil king's domain perfectly. And yet the tone of the story doesn't utilize these strong moody elements in lieu of something cuter and softer. THE RESCUERS, two pictures earlier, had similar dark design elements, but created an infinitely scarier world and villain in Madame Medusa.
The film especially looses steam at the end when the plot abandons a key emotional momentum creator like it didn't know what to do with it. But it's representative of the problems of the whole film; it seems like it's making it up as it goes along. This aimless adventure will surely entertaining young children, but test the patience of their parents, who need more than random boy on random adventure. Animation fans will of course find pleasure in the flourishes of artistry that come through, particularly in the dynamically staged ending. Not as bad as the haters claim; not a hidden gem like the defenders wish it to be.