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Disney’s 1985 ‘The Black Cauldron’ (Everett)
For 30 years now, The Black Cauldron has been a black mark on the legacy of Walt Disney Company’s animation division. Released in 1985 following an infamously tortured production process, the expensive fantasy adventure very nearly became the Mouse House’s last cartoon feature. It took the siren song of a certain little mermaid to get Disney Animation back on track, eventually producing modern family favorites like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Frozen.
Now, Disney is taking another dip into this particular Cauldron. Variety is reporting that the studio has acquired the movie rights to the entire Chronicles of Prydain series, written by celebrated fantasy novelist Lloyd Alexander between 1964 and 1968, with the notion of creating a live-action fantasy franchise. The Black Cauldron is actually the second novel in the five-book collection, which follows the journey of young orphan Taran from lowly pig-keeper to the High King of Prydian, a magical kingdom modeled after Welsh mythology. Joining him on his adventures are such comrades as headstrong Princess Eilonwy, intensely loyal forest critter Gurgi, daffy bard Fflewddur Fflam, and a psychic pig, Hen Wen. Their foes range from the Horned King to Lord Arwan, who plans to use the mystical titular cauldron to raise an army populated by undead soldiers.
While Alexander’s books are aimed at young readers (side confessional: I devoured the entire series as a kid), there’s a definite darkness present in Prydian that made Disney executives nervous at the time the animated feature was being made. Both James B. Stewart’s essential book, DisneyWar, as well as Don Hahn’s fascinating 2009 documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty (available for rental on Amazon Prime), provide full accounts of the way that The Black Cauldron became a sticking point between the animation division and Walt Disney’s new executives, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. Already beset by generational conflicts between veteran Disney animators and a new class of recruits (including John Lasseter and Tim Burton, who contributed concept art to Cauldron), the animation team also labored to integrate emerging technologies — like CGI — into their traditional process.
Meanwhile, Katzenberg reacted to an early test screening, which supposedly had children racing out of the theater, by demanding significant cuts and rewrites. The film’s release was delayed a year, and it finally debuted in the summer of ’85 to an anemic fourth-place opening weekend finish behind National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Back to the Future, and a re-release of E.T. Cauldron concluded its run with just $21 million, a huge disappointment for a studio that had once been a family powerhouse. The movie’s failure inspired a period of soul-searching within the hallowed halls of Disney, as the studio slowly re-built its reputation, first with modest hits like The Great Mouse Detective and then major successes like The Little Mermaid.
For years after its disastrous release, The Black Cauldron remained hidden from view in the Disney vault. But the movie tiptoed out of obscurity in 2010 with the release of a 25th anniversary-edition DVD. Seen today, Cauldron is clearly a tattered film searching for a consistent voice and tone. But it also takes some creative risks that anticipate later Disney cartoons like the studio’s current hit Zootopia, which gently challenges young viewers with some seriously sophisticated storytelling. And with the studio currently raiding its animated archives for new live action features — like last year’s hit, Cinderella, as well as the soon-to-be-released Jungle Book — it may finally be in a place where they can do full justice to Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books. Done right, The Black Cauldron could be reborn as Disney’s Lord of the Rings rather than its Eragon.