Go HERE to read the first part of this review, which sheds some light on this film’s production. Or go watch Waking Sleeping Beauty. Both are definitely worth your time.
Now we come to the meat of this review, a look a the main feature itself. Thanks to the Nine Old Men, the New Old Men, Jeffrey Katzenberg and a slew of riotous circumstances, one foot of The Black Cauldron is entrenched in all the fairy tale trappings Disney is known for, while the other tries to blend in with the fantasy epics that populated the cinema landscape at the time. It doesn’t know if it wants to be Sleeping Beauty or The Dark Crystal, and that tug of war between the opposing light and dark sides of the genre is difficult to ignore. But does the movie suffer for it, or does it provide some unique twists from its canon counterparts? Let’s find out.
So little known fact, this was the very first Disney movie to use the familiar blue castle logo most of us grew up with.
We get a prologue featuring an omniscient narrator who for years I thought was Leonard Nimoy but was disappointed to learn he wasn’t when doing my research. I did take some consolation in the fact that it’s John Huston, acclaimed director of such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and just about the majority of Humphrey Bogart’s best films. Huston tells us of an evil nameless king who ruled over the magical land of Prydain, was somehow overthrown, and cast into a crucible of molten iron since lifetime in solitary wasn’t quite sticking as a punishment. That iron was forged into a great black cauldron –
– where the evil king’s spirit took hold and granted the cauldron the power to resurrect an army of invincible warriors because magic. For centuries evil men searched for the long lost cauldron with the intent of using it as a world-conquering weapon. History became legend, legend became myth, and some things that shouldn’t be forgotten nearly swept out of all knowledge…until now.
Before we go any further, can I say just how confusing this prologue was to me when I was a child? I used to think the king in the cauldron and the Horned King were the same person with their body and soul separated like the folktale of the Heartless Giant or Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I believe much of that confusion stemmed from the fact that they couldn’t bother to name the king whose spirit is possessing the cauldron or establish some kind of relationship between it and the Horned King. That’s why it made sense to me that (SPOILER ALERT) the Horned King dies when he’s sucked into the cauldron, because in those previously mentioned stories the character who purposefully divorces himself from his physical manifestation of a soul or heart or whatever always dies within minutes of reuniting with it.
Anyway, the main title blares in and out of existence and then we’re on a quaint little farm where Dahlben (Freddie Jones), our not quite Obi-Wan for the evening, worries about when the villain of the feature, the Horned King, might make his next move to seize power over the land. Not helping matters is his young apprentice Taran (Grant Bardsley) daydreaming about being a great warrior instead of tending to his pigkeeping duties. Dahlben reminds our boy that war isn’t a game, people die every day, this peace is what all true warriors strive for mah boi, you get the gist. But bullheaded Taran is determined to get off the farm and prove he has what it takes to be a hero.
Despite Dahlben’s place being centered around keeping pigs, there’s only one on the entire farm, an adorably feisty little piglet named Henwen. The entire time Taran tends to her he continues his rant about wanting battles in the great wide somewhere. Maybe it would seem less whiny if they had him sing it on top of a sprawling hillside, but unfortunately not every protagonist can be a Disney Princess. I could think of a better way for Taran to telegraph his desires without having him repeat himself; perhaps have him watch a group of valiant knights pass by the farm on their way to war, looking proud and bold in their shining armor and noble steeds, the very picture of what Taran aspires to be. Give us a scene akin to young Luke Skywalker watching the suns set. Show, don’t tell, that’s Filmmaking 101.
Taran swings a stick around pretending it’s a sword and causes a ruckus with the farm animals until Dahlben comes around to tell him to knock that shit off.
Henwen starts throwing a fit in the middle of bathtime, and a concerned Dahlben has Taran usher her inside. You see, Henwen is actually a psychic pig that can share visions of things past, present and future. It may be a plot point from the book, but it’s nice to see our first truly original thing in the picture. In most fantasy stories the magical elements are given to highbrow, noble creatures such as unicorns, demons, ravens or the occasional cat. Having a lowly, humble animal like a pig be your macguffin is something neither the audience or the characters in the story would ever expect.
Henwen reveals via swirly-vision that the Horned King is searching for the titular cauldron and he knows about her divination powers. Dahlben quickly packs some things and tells Taran he needs to take her to a hidden cottage at the other side of the woods until the heat is off them. If the Horned King uses Henwen to help him find the cauldron, then you might as well kiss Prydain goodbye. Taran is once again upset that he has to lay low instead of taking up arms but does what he’s told. His parting with Dahlben, short as it is, is actually rather bittersweet. You feel the gravitas of this young man leaving the only home and parent figure he’s known to go off into an uncertain future.
From there we make a detour to Sauron’s summer home, which is currently being rented out by the Horned King. I find what they did to the Horned King in this movie fascinating because he wasn’t even the main villain of the book series. That title belonged to evil fantasy overlord #517, Lord Arawn. The Horned King was merely one of his flunkies. But he was composited with Arawn because he had a cooler title, was wreathed more in mystery, and looked pretty fucking terrifying.
Rather than taking in the lair’s scenic views of barren wastelands or go swimming in the black lake, the Horned King is busy stockpiling his collection of corpses of fallen warriors, as you do. Alone he monologues about how his soldiers will rise again as never before once he has the Black Cauldron and he will be feared as a god among men. The mood is fraught with fear and tension, it’s a decent intro to our big bad, and John Hurt knocks it the hell out of the park as the Horned King, but there’s one small problem I have with this scene.
No, it’s not Elmer Bernstein’s score sounding remarkably similar to the Zuul theme from Ghostbusters. I don’t get why people harp on this one detail as composers accidentally plagiarize themselves all the time. Nobody batted an eye when John Williams made the love theme to Raiders Of The Lost Ark a near-identical clone of The Empire Strikes Back’s love theme. So why does the Horned King’s awesomely spooky anthem get the short end of the stick for resembling the villain theme to a more remembered movie?
No, my singular gripe is that it gives away too much too soon. This coupled with the tacked-on prologue spells out the villain’s plans to the audience instead of building up the mystery, suspense, and overall threat. For a while I had my suspicions about this being one of Katzenberg’s edits, especially after receiving the complete score and noticing the music for this part plays after the fairfolk scene but before the heroes visit Morva. Then I read the pre-Katzenberg script and wouldn’t you know, there was no prologue, and that in-between place on the soundtrack is the very spot where the Horned King scene originally played out.
Meanwhile, Taran is walking Henwen through the woods and stops at a pond to imagine himself as a brave knight. Then he looks up and finds Henwen has wandered off. You had ONE job, Taran.
His search for Henwen takes him into the deeper, spookier part of the forest, the part where all wandering Disney characters wind up in eventually.
Taran hears a noise from the underbrush and thinking it’s Henwen tries to lure her out with an apple. But the creature that jumps out and snatches it is a…creature named Gurgi (John Byner). I have no idea what Gurgi is and neither does Lloyd Alexander apparently as he only describes him as a half-man half-beast of unknown origin. All I know is him referring to Taran as “master” and his obsession over his gift of “munchies and crunchies” sounds oddly familiar, least of all in a high fantasy realm whose fate relies on the destruction of a dark magic artifact before it falls into the hands of an evil overlord.
Gurgi’s greed is only surpassed by three things – his cuteness, his passive-aggressive neediness, as seen when Taran takes back the apple and Gurgi begs for forgiveness and “smacking and whackings”, and his cowardice. Gurgi offers to show Taran where Henwen scampered off to in exchange for the apple, but flees at the first sign of trouble – trouble being the Horned King’s gwythaints attacking Henwen.
The chase is splendidly animated and hard-hitting; I think the reason why it’s so nerve-wracking is because the
griffons gwythaints are violently pursuing the most vulnerable character in the entire movie. Despite his best efforts Taran is powerless to save her and gets pretty beat up by the guineveres gwythaints, resulting in the first instance of blood in an animated Disney movie.
Henwen is carried off to the castle by the
gryffindors fhqwhgads gwyth – you know what, I’m just gonna call them dragons from now on, because that’s what they freaking are. I know Lloyd Alexander pulled a lot of names for things from Welsh mythology like Tolkien did from Norse for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but why saddle these things with a confusing title when you’ve already got a perfectly good name for them that instantly tells you what they are? Imagine the misunderstandings that would arise if other fantasy series did this.
Anyway Gurgi returns to urge Taran not to go, but Taran is determined to set things right and calls Gurgi out on his yellow streak. Taran sneaks into the castle and after a close call with one of the Horned King’s hounds (there’s a lot of these jump scares that I remember getting me back in the day), he makes it to the great hall where the King’s thugs are occupied by a very risque belly dancer.
A gust of howling wind drives the assembled party to silence and blows out all the lights. A swirl of magic energy combusts in the darkness. Out of the smoke and flames steps an intimidating robed figure, the horns sprouting from his head serving as his crown, our true introduction to the Horned King.
The Horned King’s put-upon goblin toady Creeper (Phil Fondacaro) welcomes his master home from his latest search and sees to his needs. What I like about this moment is that throughout these several minutes up until Taran is discovered, the Horned King is completely silent, adding to his mystique and menace; though the chord it strikes would have been greater had the first time we see him be this and not his monologue to the skeletons.
Creeper has Henwen brought out but she refuses to cooperate. Nobody in the castle except Taran knows the spell to make her go future-eyes anyway so it’s not like force can actually work in this circumstance. As Creeper begins threatening her, Taran can’t help but cry out and and he immediately gets captured by one of the Horned King’s henchmen.
Now face to face with the Horned King, Taran is just as terrified of him as Dahlben said he should be. Still, he won’t let him use Henwen and the King declares he has no use for them. So, what, they get thrown in the dungeon or banished, maybe have a quick curse thrown upon them or –
Taran quickly changes his mind and has Henwen do her thing. But the Horned King gets a little too eager to learn about the Black Cauldron’s hideyhole, creeps up on Taran frightening him and gets the burning enchanted water splashed in his skull face.
Taran grabs Henwen and tries to escape the labyrinthine castle with the guards and dragons on his heels. A bit of dark comedy is woven into the exciting chase when he thinks he’s reached safety but realizes he’s entered a butcher’s kitchen. They make it to a turret where Taran tosses Henwen into the moat to safety but is captured before he can jump to freedom. In the dungeon Taran reflects on his failures and broken promises to Dahlben (that or the Horned King is secretly tormenting him with soundbites from home ala The Wizard of Oz). As he weeps, he gets an unexpected visit from another one of the prisoners looking for a way out, the Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan).
Eilonwy was one of the characters who went through the biggest changes as The Black Cauldron developed. Look at this sketch by Andreas Deja:
These drawings alone reveal a unique take on this royal persona: curious, warm, adventurous, perhaps slightly ditzy, and she’s in rags and barefoot the whole time; no fashion-minded fairy godmother here to cut her some slack. Her look also comes with a great line that was cut in an earlier draft. Taran asks who she is and she cheerfully replies “Oh, I’m a princess. Can’t you tell?” It also makes sense later when the Horned King has recaptured Eilonwy and he refers to her as a scullery maid; when he captured her for her bauble but found it was useless for helping him locate the Black Cauldron, he forced her into servitude and over time her only clothes grew more sullied. What an interesting spin on your designated Disney heroine.
But here’s what she looks like in the final film.
Your average princessy-looking princess, ladies and gentlemen. Isn’t she just the princessiest? Pimp out her dress a little more, add a couple of sparkles and put her in a more financially successful movie and she’d fit right into the Disney Princess brand. Sure, they try to make her stand out by keeping her magical sentient “bauble” from the book, but they do nothing with it. Eilonwy in The Chronicles of Prydain was a princess born from a line of powerful sorceresses, given the Cinderella treatment by her own mother (who’s also a sorceress), taught herself magic in secret, and is more than capable of using both enchantments and practical weapons to defend herself. But in the movie Eilonwy doesn’t use any magic or have the bauble come into any meaningful payoff. The dang orb just glows in the dark, hangs around her a bit like a mute Navi and chases rats. It even disappears less than halfway through the movie anyway and you completely forget about it until it pops up again at the very end.
Of all the cool things about Book Eilonwy that are preserved in Movie Eilonwy, it’s her spirit. The girl’s got some cajones on her you gotta admire. I like to think her spunk helped pave the way for the more independent princesses of the Disney Renaissance, though she does lose points for starting off feisty and smart only to be relegated to a damsel in distress crying “Taran oh Taran” as the story progresses.
Eilonwy’s introduction showcases her sass; on finding her new compatriot isn’t a fellow imprisoned member of the aristocracy she expresses disappointment, but invites him anyway for gits and shiggles. Even when Taran tells her about Henwen’s abilities she’s like “Cool story, bro. And I’ve got a troll bridge I’d like to sell you.” Insensitive, yes. Elitist, probably. Entertaining, definitely. And the whole time she’s the one taking charge and leading the way.
After avoiding getting spotted by Creeper and some cronies carrying more bodies into the corpse room – which again, would ominously hint at the Horned King’s nefarious intentions if we weren’t told already – they stumble into a walled-off burial chamber. Eilonwy mentions it must belong to the king who owned the castle before the Horned King took ownership. Again, this raises a lot of questions about the past. Was this the king who was thrown in the Cauldron and the Horned King taking it over was a power play against him? Did it belong to a good king who died and left it to be transformed into what it is today by the Horned King’s dark forces?
Before they leave, Taran finds a sword placed on top of the king’s tomb and takes it. It’s like the archaeologists always say, it’s not grave robbing if it’s in the name of preservation, or in Taran’s case, self-preservation. Eilonwy’s bauble leads them to another cell where a garrulous old minstrel named Fflewder Flam is being chained up for wandering too close to the castle.
For the longest time, Fflewder was actually my least favorite character in the movie. There’s not much he adds to the story apart from a running gag or two and his own self-aggrandizing could put Taran’s to shame. And because of Lloyd Alexander’s pesky reliance on ancient Welsh, eight year-old me also didn’t like him because I thought his name was dumb and weird (my exact words; hey, I wasn’t always as eloquent as I am now). A little before I ever saw The Black Cauldron, I found a picture book based on the first act in my elementary school’s library and had no idea how the hell to properly pronounce his moniker. Can you blame any kid for referring to him as “Fuh-flewder” based on that extra consonant?
Why not have Fflewder serve a greater purpose than a few cheap laughs at his expense and have him chained up for some reason other than stepping on the Horned King’s lawn? Maybe he knew something about the King’s search for the Cauldron that he wasn’t supposed to and his hapless minstrel thing is just an act to throw them off; In fact, in the Prydain stories he’s not a mere bard. He’s a KING with his own mini-country and everything. He just likes to wander off throughout the land singing songs for funsies. That alone would make him a good trickster mentor for Taran. Sir Nigel Hawthorne tries to make the best of what he’s given, bless him, though I believe his talents were put to much better use as Professor Porter in Tarzan.
Oh, and apparently he carries around an enchanted harp that snaps a string every time he stretches the truth. Insert political joke here, yadda yadda. Taran and Eilowny attempt to free Fflewder but they leave him to fend for himself when they hear the guards coming. Taran and Eilonwy get separated and Taran runs afoul of one of the Horned King’s freelance berserkers.
Taran gets his sword out in the nick of time and something amazing happens. The ex-wildling’s battle axe smashes itself to pieces on hitting the blade. He takes one look at the magical glowing sword and quickly decides he’s better off working under King Joffrey than sticking around. Taran meanwhile is dumbstruck; at last he has something that can make him the great warrior he wishes he could be.
His confidence increased tenfold, Taran leads Eilonwy on a daring escape through the castle. He makes short work of the guards by destroying their weapons thanks to the sword, though according to the original cut he actually killed more than a few to get out. I’m honestly at odds as to whether seeing Taran actually take a life would make him seem more heroic or less sympathetic. Oh, and Fflewder escapes with them too. Good for him.
The unfortunate job of informing his royal horniness of the breakout falls on to Creeper’s shoulders. Creeper tends to fly under the radar when it comes to memorable villainous sidekicks, but I’d say he’s pretty overlooked. Much of what I like about him comes from Phil Fondacaro’s delivery of his lines, which are just oozing with ham, and some stellar character animation by the underappreciated Phil Nibbelink. For his short time onscreen he’s got quite a lot of personality; it lends some credence to my theory that, like Sleeping Beauty before it, the animators were having more fun with the side characters. Creeper delivers the update and starts to punish himself for good measure, but the Horned King takes the news shockingly well and orders Creeper to have the dragons follow Taran, knowing he’ll lead them directly to the Cauldron.
Meanwhile, Taran, Eilonwy and Fflewder stop in a cozy forest glade to recuperate. Taran brags about how awesome he was at helping them get out of the castle, though Eilonwy (rightfully) attributes that to the magic sword’s work. Taran pridefully asks what a girl knows about swords anyway, which does not make her happy.
Unfortunately due to Katzenberg’s editing this moment ends with Eilonwy suddenly accusing Fflewder of siding with Taran and storming off in tears, rendering this awesomeness into a bout of PMS. It also removes much of the reason why Fflewder is in the movie at all. For the life of me as a kid I could not comprehend Fflewder’s purpose since he plays no big part in the story until the last few minutes and we already have Gurgi for comic relief, meaning his inclusion seems totally superfluous. The original script revealed that once wasn’t the case: Between the hotheaded Taran and pragmatic Eilonwy, Fflewder is the even-tempered, warm-hearted glue that keeps the group together. The entire draft is peppered with moments of his simple but sage wisdom that were tragically all but removed to emphasize his butt monkey moments. It made me reevaluate him as a character and I’m happy to say I’ve come to appreciate him much more.
Anyway Taran goes off to sulk, finds Eilonwy crying, they both apologize and promise that they’re gonna try to work together to find Henwen and locate the Black Cauldron before the Horned King can. The scene is interrupted by cries of help from Fflewder as he’s in the middle of being mugged by Gurgi. The little imp manages to charm Eilonwy, however and returns everything on realizing Fflewder is in cahoots with Taran. Taran orders him to go, but as Gurgi leaves he stumbles upon some of Henwen’s tracks, recalls he saw her run through the area, and promises to lead the group to her.
The hoofprints stop at a pond which turns into a whirlpool. Taran attempts to rescue Gurgi and it pulls them all underwater into the hidden cavernous kingdom of the Fair Folk. They’re fairies that have gone into hiding ever since the Horned King began his rampage across Prydain.
The Rice Krispies Babies vanish when the ruler of the Fair Folk, King Eidileg (Arthur Malet) appears to check on the whirlpool security system, which is being tended to by Doli (also played by John Byner) Doli’s a refreshing take on your average mythical fairy; instead of being wise and mirthful, he’s a cantankerous old coot. His wry sarcasm and zero effs given towards everything gets quite a few chuckles out of me.
It’s pretty obvious that despite Doli’s stubborness his mechanics aren’t quite up to snuff seeing how instead of keeping people out it dragged three of them and a whatever down there with them. Taran and the gang come to as Eidileg and Doli argue and perks up when Doli mentions the pig that fell down here the other day. Doli is sent to fetch Henwen while the rest of the Fair Folk come to gawk at the giant visitors. According to a completely different, earlier draft, a musical number would have taken place here – the only one in the entire movie, in fact. One could only imagine how that would have worked.
Henwen is happily reunited with Taran and King Eidilleg asks them if the “burning and killing” wrought by the Horned King’s forces is still going on above them.
You know how during midnight screenings of The Room, viewers respond to Greg Sestero’s questioning of “the music, the candles, the sexy dress” with “What music? What candles? What sexy dress?” Well at this part I often say out loud “What burning and killing?” In several drafts of the script, the prologue originally featured the Horned King and his soldiers violently raiding a village in their search for the Cauldron, which would set the stage for the film and establish him as a great threat. Once again we know who to thank for that removal.
Eidileg casually informs them the Cauldron is safely hidden somewhere in the marshes of Morva – which would be like if I gave the location of the Ring of Power to the first person I saw in Middle Earth asking for directions – and volunteers a reluctant Doli as a guide. He assures them they’ll see Henwen home safely, and squadalah, they’re off.
Before we go any further, I have to mention the original version of the Fair Folk scene because it’s the only, and I mean ONLY deleted segment from this movie that’s made its way on to any official home video release. Though much of the animation was already completed, Katzenberg ordered the entire thing to be re-written and re-drawn for reasons only he knows. There’s plenty to compare and contrast, but to make things simpler and not pad out the review, here’s a chart I made displaying what I like and don’t like about each take on this part of the movie.
At the marshes our heroes stumble across a spooky empty hovel and venture inside. Taran opens a chest releasing a horde of frogs, which Doli recognizes as people forcibly transformed into frogs. Gurgi discovers a room full of cauldrons, but before they can search for the right one, the owners of the hovel return – three witches who aren’t fond of frog-freeing trespassers.
The Witches of Morva, while closely resembling The Sword in the Stone’s Madam Mim in both temperament and design, I actually find to be a decent representation of the Moirai, the Three Fates that keep popping up in Roman and Celtic mythology, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the Triple Goddess. Orwen with her busty figure and unbridled infatuation with Fflewder is the Maiden, Ordu with her habit of referring to the mortals as “little ducklings” and taking up the unofficial role of leader of the clan is the Mother, and feisty suspicious hood-clad Orgoch fills in for the Crone. It certainly helps that Billie Hayes, who voices Orgoch, is most famous for playing another famous witch, Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf.
Ordu declares their unwelcome guests will be changed into frogs and eaten as punishment. Orwen tries to save Fflewder while making unwanted overtures as Orgoch keeps transforming and attempting to cook him. You know, with all the little pivotal character moments that Katzenberg cut because he thought they could be excised, why was this spared from the chopping block? It doesn’t add much, just some comedic back and forth for the animators to have some fun with. Or just so they could have an excuse to draw this.
Eventually Taran gets sick of the witches’ shenanigans, turns the sword on them and says they’re not leaving without the Black Cauldron. Ordu tries to foist some regular cooking pots on to them but the sword comes to life and slices the phony cauldrons in half. Awed by the power of the sword, Ordu insists she must have it. She plots with her sisters to trick the heroes into trading it for the Black Cauldron. Since the heroes will in actuality have no use for the cursed macguffin, it’ll fall right back into her hands and she’ll end up with both.
Now you might be wondering, why would a witch want a magic sword if she already has powers? The answer lies in the book; the witches of Morva are more benign than their animated counterparts, and they willingly trade advice and mystic artifacts for anything of equal magical value. Ordu puts forth her deal, making it very clear what it is she’s after. When nothing the others offer placates her, Taran reluctantly hands over the sword, knowing it’ll cost him his chances at fortune and glory.
With the bargain made, the witches’ house flies completely apart, seemingly taking the crones with it. The Black Cauldron emerges from the ground. In another deleted scene, the intrepid band grabs whatever is handy and attempts to smash the Cauldron, but they don’t manage so much as a dent. The witches return, but as giant smoky wraiths in the clouds, which always made me wonder if they had died somehow for some reason when their residence was gone with the wind.
Ordu and Orgoch taunt our heroes with one little detail they forgot to mention – the cauldron is virtually impossible to destroy. The only thing that can eradicate its dark power is if a living being willingly climbs in, but at the cost of their own life.
So now our heroes are stuck with an indestructible artifact of doom and don’t even have a proper weapon to defend themselves from the evil forces after it. Doli has the appropriate response to this conundrum:
This doesn’t help Taran’s mood and he feels he’s let everyone down. Eilonwy cheers him up with the traditional “believe in yourself” speech and both she and Taran admit they have feelings for each other without actually saying it. Sweet though it may be, it kind of comes out of nowhere. The draft held a number of meet cute-ish moments that naturally built up Taran and Eilonwy’s budding romance up to this point, and of course, were cut from existence.
Unfortunately before our heroes can figure out what to do next, the Horned King’s forces catch up with them. Gurgi escapes having had another convenient bout of cowardice while the rest are hauled back to the castle with the Cauldron in tow. Fflewder, Eilonwy and Taran are trussed up in the corpse room to bear witness to the Cauldron’s power. After Creeper taunts them for a bit, the Horned King arrives and begins the ceremony.
The Horned King lowers a skeletal warrior into the Cauldron. Blood drips out and its clawed feet dig into the floor. Demonic light in the form of a skull flashes up before a sinister green mist crawls over the rotting horde. Some the Horned King’s goons come in for a closer look and…
They are overpowered by a surge of deathless warriors rising out of the vapor who slaughter them offscreen. And if those deleted scenes were kept in, we would have seen one of those henchmen melted by the mist in a graphic style akin to Raiders of Lost Ark, his skeleton rising up and joining the undead army.
The Horned King commands his new forces forward and he and Creeper go to their favorite viewing spot to watch the imminent carnage. Thankfully, Gurgi has overcome his fears to sneak into the castle and rescue his friends. Taran urges Eilonwy, Gurgi and Fflewder to get out while he stops the Cauldron the only way they know he can – by sacrificing himself to it.
Gurgi attempts to stop him though Taran keeps trying to shove him out of the way. But Gurgi says Taran he has many friends who will miss him while he has no one…and throws himself in.
Outside the castle the army starts collapsing on themselves. Figures, you finally get that undead army you’ve been saving up your skeletons for and they don’t even make out the front gate. This is why you should always cough up extra for Apple Care. The Horned King threatens to throw Creeper to the Cauldron unless he can find the cause of this and they conveniently discover Taran, who stuck around to see if there was still a chance to rescue Gurgi. By this point the Cauldron’s been sucking all its evil back into itself and Taran is literally hanging on for dear life. Well, this should be an interesting battle, an huge brawl between our hero armed with naught but his strength and wits and our villain with all the powers of hell by his side, an epic climax to end all epic climaxes, one that surely will go down in history as the greatest –
Yes folks, you can only imagine what could have been at this point. While fighting each other things got real. Taran was explicitly going to throw the Horned King in the Cauldron’s path and ensure his demise himself. Instead we get them both tripping over each other, and because Taran has a better grip on the floor, Adventure Time’s Lich prototype is the one who gets sucked towards the Cauldron. In his presence, the Cauldron’s face glows hellish red and it achieves maximum suckage, all the while the Horned King declares his power will not die and he won’t have him. Once again it’s a moment that seems to establish some kind of past relationship between the Horned King and the Cauldron, or perhaps the king mentioned in the opening who became one with the Cauldron, but that wouldn’t make any sense…
…unless the king in the Cauldron WAS Lord Arawn after all.
Hear me out.
Years before the movie began, Lord Arawn was the king of the castle doing his usual fantasy baddie thing. The Horned King was his right-hand man but betrayed him in order to seize power for himself. There could be a moment or two before the awakening of the soldiers where the Horned King mocks his former boss about how the tides have turned and he will play a part in his ultimate triumph. But in the end, the spirit of Arawn uses the last of its might to get his revenge on Ol’ Bonehead. Come on, Disney! This stuff writes itself!
Even though we don’t get any of that, we do get one of the coolest -and most un-family-friendly – deaths in Disney history where the Horned King gets his skin and flesh ripped and burned off of his body and explodes into dust.
Creeper, who’s been helplessly watching the whole time, mourns the loss of his master – until he realizes there’s nobody to kick him around and abuse him anymore. He happily exits the castle without looking back. Good for him.
The Cauldron grows too hot and falls through the floor, which causes the castle to start falling apart. Fflewder, Eilonwy and Taran escape on a boat before the whole place explodes. They reach shore, and the Cauldron, now an empty, dark reminder of Gurgi’s sacrifice, bubbles up nearby.
Now we come to a scene which suffered the most under Katzenberg’s watch. The Witches of Morva reappear in the sky to taunt Taran about caring more about the Cauldron and his hero status than his friend, and to reclaim the Cauldron for themselves. It may not be able to resurrect the dead anymore, but it’ll make a great fondue pot. From out of nowhere Fflewder grows some major balls and turns the witches’ bargaining trick back on to them.
Here’s how it went down in the draft: Taran, on seeing the Cauldron again, gets torn up, and I mean REALLY torn up – falling to his knees, beating himself up, audibly crying, the works. Fflewder, once again displaying his downplayed role as center of the group, brings him to his feet and tries to comfort him. The witches, when Taran said Gurgi was the true hero, bring up how much he only saw him as an annoyance, which only adds to his guilt. Both of these things naturally ease into Fflewder standing up to them as opposed to him randomly turning into Captain Courageous.
Against Ordu’s wishes, Orwen presents Taran with the chance to reclaim the magic sword in exchange for the Cauldron. But after experiencing the sacrifices and hardships of war himself, Taran has realized the life of the warrior is not one for him, and he humbly turns it down. And you know what? I really like this arc. Not every fantasy epic has to end with the chosen one permanently taking up the mantle of protector of the realm. That cycle of shedding blood for blood is hard to break into, let alone break out of, no matter how easy it looks. That simple, peaceful existence Taran had is worth more than the fame and glory he once craved now that he knows the price of violence. Maybe the character growth leading up to this could have been fleshed out a bit more, but for what we got I’d say it’s pretty solid.
Taran does have one request though – the cauldron in return for bringing back Gurgi. Even the witches are daunted by the task of reanimating the dead without the help of an unholy soup tureen, but one more taunt from Fflewder and they jump on it just to prove him wrong. They have that moment where it appears Gurgi didn’t make it after all, but turns out it took a moment for his batteries to restart and he’s a-ok. Everyone is happy, and Gurgi gets Taran and Eilonwy into a sweet if awkward kiss.
As the four friends head for home, Dahlben and Doli watch them via Henwen-vision and Dahlben voices his pride in Taran. Play us off, Elmer!
So that’s The Black Cauldron, Disney’s 25th animated feature. And even though Disney itself likes to forget about its existence –
– I actually find myself enjoying it when I’m in the mood to put it on. Granted it’s not a great adaptation of the Prydain books and it doesn’t reflect the series as a whole, but that’s what happens when you try to compress two whole books together. Things get severely lost in adaptation. Lloyd Alexander, author of The Chronicles of Prydain, went on record stating he liked the movie, though saw it as its own separate entity from his creations.
As we all know, however, The Black Cauldron was consigned to the fate of many an 80’s fantasy and had a very short life in theaters. Critics panned it, and audiences were either indifferent or scared away by it. One small part of that was this was the first Disney film to be given a PG rating; mind you, this was back when PG was given to features like Poltergeist, Gremlins, and Temple of Doom. Not hardcore enough for the R rating or even the newly christened PG-13, but still too much for a safe G rating (even though all of Don Bluth’s 80’s oeuvre got G ratings, and I’ve already talked about how dark those flicks could get).
And if the fact that The Black Cauldron, Disney’s most expensive movie to date, belly-flopped hard on arrival wasn’t enough, do you want to know what the movie that beat it at the box office was?
The freaking Care Bears Movie.
Let me repeat that: Disney was beaten by THE. FREAKING. CARE. BEARS. MOVIE.
God, I can only imagine the pain and humiliation the company felt on that day.
Ever since, Disney’s been so pained by the Black Cauldron’s immense failure that today you’ll almost NEVER find it referenced in the theme parks, tv shows, or other movies. The closest thing it ever had to an actual presence on Disney property apart from a couple of walk-around characters for the few short weeks during its release was the Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour in Tokyo Disneyland. After being escorted through a variety of villain-related scenes, the final room featured a showdown with a pretty awesome Horned King animatronic where a lucky guest was chosen to confront him with Taran’s sword. Unfortunately it’s been closed as of 2006, bringing the number of acknowledgements back down to zilch.
I like a good many other children of the 90’s discovered The Black Cauldron when it received its first VHS release more than ten years AFTER it was in theaters. Yes, Disney was that ashamed of The Black Cauldron that they waited as long as possible to bring it back into the public eye. I watched it over and over; it was like no other Disney movie I had ever seen at the time. There were no songs, hints at a greater world with its own lore and magic, and though I can’t recall if it left me with any nightmares, I recognized how dark and edgy much of it was compared to the other animated fare I consumed. It utterly fascinated me. It was the first movie made me feel more grown up by watching it.
The Black Cauldron does have its flaws, and I can understand why some people don’t like it, but I don’t believe it deserves the flack it gets. Heck, on a good day I’d say it juuust barely scratches my top 20 animated Disney films for its place in history, its great score by the late Elmer Bernstein, cool villain (I’d even argue the Horned King marked the turning point from Disney having ineffectual comic villains to making them more threatening in the Renaissance), some likable characters, great artwork and effects (this is technically the first animated Disney film to incorporate CGI, but Disney automatically consigns that honor to The Great Mouse Detective because of how much they don’t want to talk about The Black Cauldron) and for daring to attempt what no other Disney animated movie has tried before or since.
When Disney announced the next onslaught of live-action remakes (or LADR as I like to shorten them) in 2016, by far the most surprising and pleasant news was that The Black Cauldron would be among them. Admittedly the LADRs so far have been a mixed bag, yet fans of the movie and the books alike have applauded this move. Think of how much they can expand upon with the characters and the mythos from the original stories! Things have fallen quiet since the announcement so who knows how much progress has been made, yet I still hold out hope that this remake will give the original its due. At best it could compliment the original in the way Kenneth Branaugh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book do their animated counterparts. Rumors also persist that there are plans on adapting the Prydain series as a whole film saga, which gives me plenty to look forward to.
So if you’re looking for a Disney film to watch, see if you could spot it. Another underrated fantasy flick climbing up from the bottom. Its company destroyed its rep, audiences forgot ‘im.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me on Patreon. Special thanks to Amelia Jones and Gordhan Ranaj for their contributions. And if you liked this method of me reviewing bigger movies in two parts, let me know in the comments.
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Artwork by Charles Moss.