#WayBackWednesday – The Black Cauldron (1985)

We’re all stuck in the house, right? There’s never been a better time to dig into those retro movies that you’ve always wanted to watch, but never had the time for. Personally, I’m a bit of a retrophile and tend to watch more older flicks than newer ones. On Fangirlish, you can now look forward to a retro review from me each Wednesday in this column. I’ll be highlighting one throwback movie a week, offering a spoiler-free review of the film, any throwback thoughts from my childhood, and where you can watch the movie yourself. Sit back, relax, and enjoy #WayBackWednesday.

The Black Cauldron Anniversary GIF by Disney - Find & Share on GIPHY
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Did you ever have a book series that really influenced you in your formative years? One that you can look back on and say, “Wow, that really changed my life.” I’ve got a couple of series that meet that criteria from different points in my life, but the first was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I was in sixth grade when I picked up the first book of the series, The Book of Three, borrowing it from my school’s library. I don’t remember exactly why I decided to pick up the book, but I believe it was at the recommendation of a friend. 

At that time, I didn’t have any real genre preferences when it came to books; I just wanted to read a good story. The Book of Three is just that–a good story. In fact, I think it’s a great story. When I finished, I wanted more, so I picked up the next book, The Black Cauldron. I loved it. I repeated the process with the remaining three books in the series. While I was fascinated by the Welsh mythology the series draws from, I also started to realize something about myself that I don’t think I had fully recognized until that time.

 I’m a nerd

It seems that I’m a little slow, right? I was already hiding my love of Star Wars, Spider-man, and the X-Men from most of my peers. My two favorite cartoons at the time were Gargoyles and The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest (which I still love as an adult, by the way). How could I not know this information? And yet, here I was, finally realizing the truth. But do you know what else I realized? 

I don’t care

The Chronicles of Prydain awakened in me a deep and abiding love for the fantasy genre, but the series also made me recognize and love my own nerdy tendencies. It would be a few more years before I got to catch The Black Cauldron film. I knew there was a movie adaptation because the copy of The Black Cauldron in my school’s library had cover art from the film. However, because the film did so poorly at the box office and because of the dark fantasy elements, Disney tried to bury it until its VHS release in 1998. Check out the trailer for The Black Cauldron

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When I finally did get to see it, I had mixed feelings. The film effectively is a mashup of The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron and is a poor adaptation of both. I remember being about age thirteen and raging at the TV with my mother and sister for a captive audience about how badly the film butchered my favorite book series. (As it turns out, I still feel quite strongly about adaptation as an adult, it being a major aspect of my Master’s thesis. Some things never change). On the other hand, this is perhaps the most gorgeously animated Disney film to come out of the 1980s. In fact, I would even argue that the only traditionally animated Disney film to rival its beauty is 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. I couldn’t get over how beautiful this film is. I still can’t. The animation style is a hybrid of Sleeping Beauty’s tapestry-like landscapes with the sword and sorcery character animation of The Sword in the Stone. The film’s beauty keeps me coming back, even with my misgivings about the adaptation. 

I could go on and on about how I felt about the film as a kid, but truthfully, my feelings have not changed that much as an adult. One thing that did change my mind about the film was listening to an episode of The Retroist Podcast a few years ago. The Retroist cites an interview with the author, Lloyd Alexander, where Alexander says of the film, 

“First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I’d also hope that they’d actually read the book. The book is quite different. It’s a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book.”  

The idea of separating the film from its source material and viewing it solely as a fantasy film instead of an adaptation allowed me to give The Black Cauldron a little more grace, which in turn allowed me to enjoy it for what it is–a beautifully animated fantasy tale. 

I think this is a film worth experiencing for yourself, but I want to highlight a few fun facts about the film to entice you.

  • The Black Cauldron is the first Disney animated film to receive a PG rating, but originally was given a PG-13 rating and even threatened with an R rating! In the 2010 25th anniversary DVD release, you can see some of the scenes that were removed to bring the film down to a PG rating. As I mentioned in my review of The Secret of NIMH, it seemed ironic to me that Disney passed on NIMH because they deemed it too dark, but released this even darker fantasy three years later. The added layer of irony is that this film was already in production when NIMH was proposed. 
  • Tim Burton worked as a concept artist on the film. In the extras of the 2000 DVD release, you can see some of his concept art.
  • The late great John Hurt is the voice of the villain of the film, The Horned King. Modern audiences might better know him as Mr. Ollivander from Harry Potter. Let me tell you, Mr. Ollivander can be pretty scary. The rest of the cast is quite good as well and does feature some great talent, but Hurt is probably the biggest name on the list. 
  • This is the first Disney animated feature without musical numbers or singing performed by any of the characters. 
  • The Black Cauldron is the first Disney animated feature to be filmed in widescreen format AND Super Technirama 70 widescreen 70 mm film, aside from Sleeping Beauty. It is also the last film in history to ever utilize the Super Technirama 70 widescreen format. 
  • The Black Cauldron is also the first Disney animated film to ever utilize CGI. The film also has unusual animation techniques, such as the smoke from the Cauldron actually being live action footage of smoke from dry ice that was then colored over for the film. 

Does any of this sound interesting to you? Would you like a fantastical escape from summer and the dumpster fire that is 2020? Would you enjoy seeing gorgeous animation on your screen, or would you like to discover a hidden gem of 1980s Disney animation? (Which, in my opinion, is the most underrated era of Disney animation). Look no further than The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron is currently available on Disney+. 

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