Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Black Cauldron

The original tagline was "Get Boned!" (not really)

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Black Cauldron" (Disney, 1985). In the ancient land of Prydain, an evil sorcerer called "The Horned King" (John Hurt) is slowly taking over,

Republicans: "Seems like a good dude!"

his bandit hordes and mythical creatures seeking out magical items and riches all with one goal: To find The Black Cauldron, a powerful ancient relic that can be used to raise an army of the dead.
Yes, the McGuffin this time is a giant heavy metal object. 

All he needs is a lead… Meanwhile, a young assistant pig keeper named Taran (Grant Bardsley) has dreams of being a mighty warrior, seeing his current situation as beneath him.

He has been charged by his master Dallben the Enchanter (Freddie Jones) to watch over a single pig, Hen Wen.
ONE PIG! One TINY pig!

Dallben, an enchanter with a magic pig he can't bother to take care of himself.

One day Hen Wen begins to act unreasonably frightened, scaring young Taran. Dallben reveals to Taran that Hen Wen has the ability to act as a scryer, showing events far away or even the future!
Hen Wen begins to tell the future.

Using Hen Wen's abilities Dallben discovers that The Horned King has discovered Hen Wen, and so he sends Taran with the pig into the forest to hide while he figures out their next move. Immediately, Taran gets distracted and loses sight of Hen Wen. Distraught, he runs into Gurgi (John Byner), a talking small furry creature who appears to be starving and who steals an apple from Taran before offering to help him find the pig.
Gollum by way of Fiverr.

They discover Hen Wen being dragged to The Horned King's castle, where Taran goes to get his pig, only to get captured and forced to reveal the pig's power to find The Black Cauldron.
ONE JOB. You had ONE JOB. 

Taran manages to help Hen Wen escape but is thrown into the dungeon for his trouble. He soon meets a princess named Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), a plucky young girl with a magical glowing bauble,
"Don't ask me, I'm just a girl! Tee-hee!"

and Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), a bard with a magical lyre (that ironically loses strings whenever Fflewddur lies).
A liar with a lyre.

Escaping the old castle with the help of a magical sword that Taran finds, the rag-tag group decides to find Hen Wen and The Black Cauldron before The Horned King does!
To be fair, the sword does all the work.

Some background

This is sort of the "black sheep" of the Disney family. It was an unmitigated failure. The total budget ballooned to over $44 million, and its total ticket sales worldwide amounted to less than $22 million. Disney apparently optioned "The Chronicles of Prydain" book series by Lloyd Alexander all the way back in 1971 but had an extremely troubled production. That pushed the original 1980 release date back five years. There were a lot of reasons for this, not in the least of which was that there was a power struggle for the visual style of the film which resulted in much of the original work being thrown out. Further problems were brought on by a new studio chairman (Jeffrey Katzenberg -- before he left to help found DreamWorks) who insisted that the film's ending be severely re-cut to edit out much of the gruesome undead army.

Some good

There's a lot to like about this film. While it looks a bit rough in spots (possibly due to the new crop of animators Disney used on this project, including future director Tim Burton), it's actually quite dynamic, with many action scenes featuring surprisingly complex camera movement and characters moving in 3D space. The cast is pretty good as well, with John Huston (who voiced "Gandalf the Grey" in Rankin/Bass "Hobbit" animated movies) acting as the narrator for the introduction. John Hurt's performance as The Horned King (who "Dungeons & Dragons" players will immediately recognize as a lich) drips with menace and bile. The backgrounds are appropriately run-down and natural, like you would expect in a medieval landscape.

Or a heavy metal album cover.

The ending sequence is the most surprising aspect of this film, the undead army being spooky, horrible, and terrifying, with some implied deaths as well.
Don't watch with young kids.

Some bad

It's not all good, though. There's plenty of bad things to sift through here, starting with Taran. Grant Bardsley plays the character fine, but the character is unlikable, being a daydreaming entitled incompetent whiner that we're stuck with throughout the film; BUT… He does learn his lesson by the end of the film, and that's something. As I mentioned before, for all the flash and dynamic aspects of the animation, it does look rather rough, with pencils showing through much of the paint. The story is crowded and unconventional. I know that it's trying to follow the books, but we're introduced to characters at a breakneck speed while others drop in and out of the film at random times.

The three witches are over-the-top, and brief.

Hen Wen, the main driving force for the first half of the film is absent throughout most of it, and almost entirely gone in the second half, for example. Other little touches (like Eilonwy's bauble) are presented without full explanation, and then seem to disappear when the animators have forgotten about them. Gurgi is presented as a sort of "discount Gollum" serving the purpose of the film's "cute marketable cash-grab," and I would hate him except that by the end of the film I actually felt something for him.
Oh, and these things. Pointless. Stupid. Marketable.

In short

Is it worth watching? Sure. It's one of those weird films where the highs never really reach the high that you want, the lows are never as bad as you expect them to be, and it's entertaining enough to be watchable -- but it's no classic.

Plus, nobody pets this wyvern's belly. He just wants to be a good boy!

Not for the very young

This movie is rated PG for scenes of undead mayhem, implied death, spooky imagery, and probably because Tim Burton worked on it.

Seriously, don't watch with kids unless you want them to sleep with the lights on.

Where can you watch it?

As of this writing, "The Black Cauldron" is available for streaming on Disney+.

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