The Black Cauldron (1985)

Dir. Ted Berman and Richard Rich. Starring Grant Bardsley, Nigel Hawthorne, Susan Sheridan

I really wanted to like The Black Cauldron, which has a reputation as the bête noire of Disney at its lowest point of the 20th Century. As ever with Disney, that’s a low point concerning profits, not quality. From 1977 to 1986, the studio made The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, and The Great Mouse Detective, and while it was a bad enough 1980s to make people wonder if the upstart Sullivan Bluth Studios, headed by legendary animator Don Bluth and backed by Steven Spielberg’s production company, might have the edge on the established monolith. (One’s little Socialist Conscience wonders what the alternate future where Disney goes belly-up after the failure of The Black Cauldron looks like.) Four out of five of those movies are wonderful because they build something specific that grabs you by the collar. Winnie the Pooh has the sort of unironic sweetness one finds in Mr. Rogers or My Neighbor Totoro. The Rescuers uses the hazy backdrops that would define ’80s Disney to their greatest effect, blending color with music to create living pastels behind the infectiously lovable pair of Bernard and Bianca. The Fox and the Hound is the best non-musical Disney picture. The Great Mouse Detective is the one spoof of the bunch, a screwball homage to Sherlock Holmes (and Modern Times, weirdly enough) that occasionally dabbles in real thrills. One can sense that The Black Cauldron wants to choose outright horror as what we can grab onto, or perhaps the otherworldly magical atmosphere. Aside from a few moments here and there, it fails to meet us on those levels, and when it fails to do so the movie drags badly.

The movie is doomed almost immediately by Taran (Bardsley), who has not a lick of charisma in his voice or his actions. His pretensions to heroism despite his lowly status as swineherd are neither humorous nor annoying; they just kind of happen, and that ethos seems to last throughout the rest of the movie. Things just kind of happen, and characters just kind of appear, and the connective tissue that makes for good storytelling is missing. (I barely even know what to say about the back half of this movie, which gives us lengthy detours with the Keebler elves and some cloud-dwelling witches. What they exist for is fairly clear, but if there are supposed to be personalities or ideas behind them I am bereft of any sort of explanation for them.) All of a sudden, Hen Wen the confusingly named pig, whose eyelashes make her slightly terrifying and characterize her more than just about anyone else in this movie, predicts the future, Taran and Hen are packed up together and sent to a safe place by their truly bland caretaker, Dallben (Freddie Jones), and it doesn’t take more than about ninety seconds for Taran to screw up. (It never takes more than about ninety seconds for Taran to screw up, which I suppose makes him “relatable” or “lifelike” or some other silly adjective which has no place in fantasy.) It does result, though, in one of the strikingly good scenes of the movie, in which we are placed behind the eyes of the villainous, freaky dragons sent by the Horned King (John Hurt) to capture Hen Wen.

Hen zigs and zags wildly, running over this sparsely decorated plain that has appeared out of nowhere in stark contrast to the happy forest where Dallben’s cottage hides. THe grass is a spiny blue  It looks more like the “Money for Nothing” music video in terms of aesthetics than it does The Rescuers, but it’s a scene that takes advantage of what was possible in ’80s animation and what was frankly not going to happen in any other form of moviemaking. Riding right behind those claws, we know what they are after, and we desperately egg the little pig on despite knowing that this powerful winged beast is absolutely going to scoop her up. The rest of the movie is more focused on frightening images rather than frightening sequences. The Horned King may have his horns and bloodred cloak and his skeleton body, but he is never seen in anything but the most halting motion; he is more Palpatine than Vader, bound to his throne while minions attempt to do his bidding. He is a victim of another one of the movie’s most striking flaws: the people just don’t look all that good, especially in relation to their backgrounds. Late in the film, Taran, Eilonwy (Sheridan), and Fflewddur Flam (Hawthorne) are all tied up together, and in another genre this would be a sign that the Horned King would prevail.

Note the scratches on the beams, the dimples and imperfections of the stones, the grasping roots of some shriveled tree. Green-black shadows fill the margins, leaving our imaginations to wonder what sort of wickedness resides further beyond this doorway. But the characters themselves are patches of solid color, filled-by-numbers, lacking the sort of shading or personality one finds in high school doodles. It’s as if they’ve been plucked from an entirely different movie, and for all Taran and his friends understand of the goings-on, they may as well have been transplanted from some more cheerful picture. Here are the Horned King and some of his warriors, likewise cooped up in this gloomy castle.

How poor these characters look compared to their surroundings! The glow of those tremendously melted candles lands on the face of…B.D. from Doonesbury, with a mustache? The Horned King reaches out across a stone wall spattered with mold and heaven knows what else…in a hand that’s the color of stale jerky? How little there is to recommend the actual characters and individuals who must hold our attention, and hopefully fill us with fear or with dread or heck, any kind of emotion besides a quizzical boredom. That’s in stark contrast to scenes where atmosphere is all that matters, such as one of the early ones with the Horned King. His shadow looms on a wall where an army of skeletons lies waiting some spell to wake them and set them on their nefarious mission.

There’s nothing learned from Jaws, released ten years before, or Psycho, released twenty-five years before. Insinuation, especially for the active imaginations of children, is far more frightening and effective than a muddy Horned King or his unshaven contract killers. The Black Cauldron’s reputation for instilling terror in young folks can be traced back to its ’80s PG rating, which you almost had to try to earn back in the day. And yes, we are far from the cuddly world of mice and foxes and Pooh bears which filled the pages of Disney animators in the preceding years. All the same, these characters and images would terrify a four-year-old, just as the Fidget jump scare and the black bear of The Fox and the Hound terrified little me. They would also do little to impress or affect a nine-year-old, and I’m hard-pressed to say where the sweet spot is for a character like the Horned King.

The only character in this movie with any sort of lingering personality is Gurgi (John Byner), who is not a dog, as far as I can tell, but is definitely not any other animal either. (If we’re being real here, the individual Gurgi reminds of most is the greasy dude from Dschinghis Khan, and I, uh, don’t think Leslie Mandoki was the inspiration.)

Gurgi has an abiding passion for apples, and indeed for any munchies and crunchies he can get his bizarre little hands on. He clings to Taran, although Fflewddur is the one he spends more of his time bothering. He speaks in a voice which is disconcertingly like Gollum’s, and like Gollum dies a death which leads to the victory of our heroes; unlike the humans he consorted with, he was not captured by the Horned King’s men and so can destroy the warlord’s army by sacrificing himself in the eponymous vessel. True to form, the film manages to skewer what was far and away its most arresting emotional moment by bringing Gurgi back to life; I suppose that it would be worse if the dog (or whatever the heck he is) were to die.

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