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Of all the animated Disney films out there, few have had a history as troubled or as fascinating as The Black Cauldron. Shaped less by the average process of transforming a novel to film and more by the decade, regime, mindset towards animation and internal struggle of power of the studio that made it, The Black Cauldron is considered the black sheep of the canon; those who worked on it have few fond memories of the experience, and the result of all that blood, sweat, tears, and voodoo curses hurled in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s direction is an odd creature Disney is content to let wallow in relative obscurity. To this day it’s looked down upon by all but a few loyal fans who’ve elevated it to semi-cult status. The story of how and why this is is worth a documentary of its own.
As for my thoughts on the film itself…well…
I honestly can’t talk about my feelings towards The Black Cauldron without putting it into some context first. And there’s a LOT of context that needs to be explained. Hence why I’ve decided to split this review into two parts. This first half will go over the history of the movie and behind the scenes shenanigans, while Part 2, which is the review I know you’ve been anticipating, will be released next week. So if you want to avoid an engaging history lesson that discusses the climate in which The Black Cauldron was created in depth and go right to the film itself, I suggest you return at a later date. Or go watch Waking Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fascinating, personal look into the struggle that shaped Disney’s Renaissance era and they devote a good chunk of the beginning into what went down during the making of The Black Cauldron.
By the 1980’s, Walt Disney had been dead for nearly twenty years and his enterprise as a whole was lacking a good leader to keep everything together. The live-action films were woefully behind the times, Walt Disney World’s recently-opened second park EPCOT wasn’t meeting attendance expectations, and while the animated films were holding up surprisingly well, the department had to deal with their budgets continually being slashed in order to make up for the failures of the previous two branches of the company.
Politics within the animation studio threatened to tear it apart as well. It was time for the stubborn old guard of Walt’s day, which included the revered animators known as the Nine Old Men, to pass on everything they knew to a ragtag band of fresh recruits with newfangled ideas about how Disney animation should be. Needless to say there was plenty of headbutting and saltiness from each end throughout the ordeal. One of the outcomes was that two no-name pipsqueaks decided to jump ship – Don Bluth, who committed high treason in his contemporaries’ eyes by forming his own animation studio (and giving Disney some admittedly much-needed competition to get their act together), and Tim Burton, who was dissatisfied with the direction The Black Cauldron was taking and felt his own inventive if bizarre contributions were going unappreciated. Bluth is still considered a persona non grata in Disney’s circle for his mutiny, but I can imagine their parting ways with Burton going something like this:
Things came to a head after it was announced that Disney’s next animation project would be Lloyd Alexander’s popular high fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain – or rather, taking the first two books of said series and combining them into one 80 minute film.
Now the 80’s were a golden age for cult fantasy flicks. You couldn’t swing a dead elf around without hitting a Labyrinth or a Princess Bride or a Last Unicorn or a kajillion overlooked Baron Munchausens. Disney tried their hand at this genre with fare such as Return to Oz and Something Wicked This Way Comes and I think they’re good films. Like, really, REALLY good films. But unfortunately they share something in common with the previously mentioned fantasy movies, and that is they were major flops upon release. Yet the animators’ toiled away under the sincere hope that The Black Cauldron would be the one to break that losing streak. They were going to do something unique, something that no other animation studio – least of all classic Disney – had ever done before…
…or they might have if the old guard hadn’t kept stepping in to curb their creativity.
I understand where the former generation was coming from; I’d be pretty grouchy too if I had to train these too-big-for-their-britches whippersnappers who were going to replace me, but one of the reasons why the Disney company was this close to declaring bankruptcy in the decades after Walt’s passing was because it was adhering dangerously close to the mentality of “What would Walt do” instead of trying new things and evolving with the times. The very idea of “What would Walt do” is a paradox; none of us – not me, not the most religious of Disney fans, not even the workers who knew him the longest – could ever really know what his course of action on creative decisions might be, and yet the one thing we do know for certain is that Walt Disney always chose to move forward instead of clinging to the formulas or modes of thinking that were deemed the most successful. His whole body of work reflects that. Walt was one of the first studio heads to embrace television as another method of entertainment instead of fearing its growing popularity over theatrical venues. He not only revolutionized the theme park business but he kept building upon what was already there to enhance the experience and bridge the gap between man and machine, rather than just letting Disneyland sit in the middle of Anaheim and churn out money while it gathered dust. And as for features, well, after he was pressured into making sequels to the successful Three Little Pigs which proved to be less popular than the first, he infamously said “You can’t top pigs with pigs!”. Walt hated repeating himself in order to triumph, and he took every opportunity to push the envelope when it came to the story or technical aspects of anything he touched. He dove head first into the new, and if he made a mistake along the way, he learned from it instead of retreating back into the safe zone. Sadly, in a misguided attempt to keep Walt’s legacy alive, the old regime forgot about that and micromanaged every aspect of the company until it became a time capsule instead of a thriving creative business.
Look no further than the artwork made during the concept stage of the film’s production if you need an example. Here’s some of what the new crowd came up with:
Pretty neat, huh? Now here’s what Milt Kahl and some of Walt’s homeboys pressed on to them.
Compare these sketches to something from Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone or any silver-era Disney film. It’s too close to the house style from back then. You’d think it was rejected concept art from one of those films. Poor Tim Burton got the worst of it. He shared some awesome ideas for the Horned King’s henchmen, his gwythaints (aka dragon things), and just about anything having to do with the guy not excluding his own living space. The animators adored them, but management, in a move that would be the last straw for Burton, told him they wouldn’t spare the time or expenses needed to revamp the look for the film.
To further quash morale, the animation department was unceremoniously booted out of the original building it was housed in from back when Walt Disney built the studio. They now worked in what was basically a cramped little trailer park across the street.
Tensions were high all around.
Animation, once the lifeblood of the Disney company, was now on life support.
Certain higher-ups were even questioning if they should pull the plug and turn their focus to the parks and live-action films.
Indeed, a solution of sorts came in the form of a sweeping management makeover. Out went Ron Miller, in came Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Together they were something unprecedented – they ran the company in a manner parallel to Walt and his brother Roy, and it WORKED. See, Walt was the idea man as well as the amicable people person; he was able to generate ideas and see them through thanks to his power of persuasion and ability to inspire others. Roy was the sensible subdued banker who calculated what could and could not be feasibly done and brought Walt’s dreams into reality. Through their lifelong partnership and ability to compromise commerce with art, they founded one of the biggest entertainment enterprises on the planet.
I’ve noticed any time where Disney’s CEO is just one person, they’re rarely able to handle that balance of creativity and finance without leaning heavily towards one aspect – which nine times out of ten is always the financial one. When it’s a partnership like these two pairs, however, the company has flourished. Wells was approachable, knew how to appeal to his employees, a good risk taker and vicariously enjoyed the process of bringing a project to fruition. Eisner was known for having some pretty stupid ideas – ideas he’d carry with him once he was given full command – but his business savvy brought the company out of the red and into a new golden age. Working together they shaped Disney into the company we know it as today. Wells was Walt, and Eisner was Roy; the only difference between them being it was Eisner who was the charming face of the company thanks to his many appearances on TV via holiday specials and the Wonderful World of Disney.
Also along for the ride at Eisner’s behest was Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was tasked with overseeing the animation studio. Eisner recognized from his years in television that there was money to be made in marketing nostalgia, and what gets people more nostalgic than Disney animation? This decision proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Sure, Jeffrey was one of the pillars in revitalizing Disney’s animated films, but his adjustment from working with the live-action medium to pencils and paper was rocky at best. He quickly developed a reputation among the staff for being passionate about his work but highly volatile. No one knew what could piss him off one day or make him laugh the next. The one certainty was that Katzenberg was a man with a mission. He wanted to bring Disney animation back to its glory days. To the days when the name Disney meant something. In his own words, to wake Sleeping Beauty.
Joel Hale, producer on The Black Cauldron, scoffed at this. He already didn’t approve of the new animators acting like privileged children and he certainly wasn’t fond of these Hollywood big shots coming in and shaking up the status quo. “Who do they think they are? Sleeping Beauty’s already awake,” he replied.
He was fired almost immediately after.
And so, down one producer, up several more, nearly seven years after production began and several million dollars over budget, The Black Cauldron finally entered the most anticipated and dreaded stage of the Hollywood assembly line, the test screening. When it got to the part with the cauldron born, animator Mike Peraza counted down to the second the moment he knew the screaming in the audience would commence. And he was right on time. According to well-documented testimonies, the children there not only screamed and cried but fled the theater. As for Katzenberg’s reaction to The Black Cauldron as a whole, it wasn’t a far cry from what was happening on screen.
Indeed, the animators succeeded in creating something Disney had never done before – and Katzenberg HATED it. It was too violent, too frightening, and too distant from all things associated with the Disney name. Granted, I can see why he would feel that way; Disney has gone dark before (The Headless Horseman, Fantasia’s Night On Bald Mountain, the entire second half of Pinocchio, you get the idea), but at this rate The Black Cauldron was coming very close to earning Disney its first R rating. Not mincing words here. The film we have today is the freaking Care Bears Movie compared to the original cut that was screened. There were some pretty gory deaths in the action scenes, the Horned King’s own demise was somehow even worse than the one we’re familiar with, and most notably the cauldron born sequence not only had them kill some unnamed henchmen onscreen but explicitly showed one dissolve alive in the mist. To this day, individual cels of that scene circulate the internet as proof of its existence, and I can only imagine the awe and terror of seeing it play out as it was meant to.
Desperate to salvage whatever he could with as minimal mental scarring as possible, Katzenberg demanded the directors cut fifteen minutes from the film. Not any specific fifteen minutes, mind you, just fifteen minutes. It went down almost exactly like the scene from Amadeus where Emperor Joseph praises Mozart’s opera but asks if he could cut a few notes because he thinks there’s too many. He thankfully backs down when Mozart pointedly asks him which notes he wants him to cut. Unfortunately, trimming a couple of seconds here and there wasn’t enough to mollify Katzenberg, and he took it upon himself to fix his own perceived problem.
Katzenberg shocked all present when he said that this film needed to be edited. They protested that there’s no way you can edit an animated movie, to which Katzenberg replied “Of course you can!” In a way, he was correct. All films, including animated ones, can and should be edited to some degree; either to give a moment some breathing space or get to the point of a scene. The problem is, Katzenberg was NOT an experienced editor in his own right.
Imagine you’re given a fine steak to eat and someone offers to cut it for you. They trim off the fatty bits first, then carve it into equal portions. Seems good, right? But then they start to cut away parts they think may have too much gristle, or look burnt or undercooked, or has one peppercorn too many sprinkled on – parts that you might actually enjoy and would make the experience of enjoying this meal more complete – and you’re forced to watch as they turn a culinary treat into a dinner with an unfortunate amount of its flavor and meat stolen from you. Once you recognize where Katzenberg made those haphazard cuts and alterations, you see the film in a new light, like that steak. You’re left wondering what could have been, how a pretty decent movie could have become a potentially great one.
And how is it that I am privy to such arcane truths?
Because, hand to God, my boyfriend managed to procure a shooting script of The Black Cauldron that was produced before Katzenberg did his hack job.
What, you don’t believe me? Then tremble before me and despair, you heretics!
• TO BE CONTINUED •
Artwork by Charles Moss.