Before we officially start the countdown, I have one more point to make that I was reminded of as I glanced through YouTube comments last night: At no point in this process does nostalgia come into play. Though many of these films were watched many a times during my childhood, I’m looking at these films through the clear eyes of a Disney fanatic and film lover. This also means that I don’t mean to offend you if your favorite childhood film receives a low ranking.
With that out of the way, let us begin.
“Now I call on my Army of the Dead; the Cauldron-born! Arise, my messengers of death! Our time has arrived!” – The Horned King
The Black Cauldron, released in 1985, is truly the black sheep (can this be considered a No Pun Intended moment?) of the Disney canon. Made and released at a time where Disney Animation was at a crossroads, it was an attempt to create a darker, more mature Animated Feature. The Black Cauldron would eventually be seen as the film that marked the definitive end of the Disney Dark Ages, as the films released afterwards led the charge towards the Renaissance of the 1990s.
The film, based on the book of the same name, tells the story of young assistant pig keeper Taran, who is quested with protecting the magical pig Hen Wen from The Horned King, who wants to use the pig’s oracle powers to find the all powerful Black Cauldron. In his journey and eventual capture, he is joined by Gurgi, a creature of the forest, Eilonwy, a princess, and Fflewddur Fflam, a elderly bard with a lie detecting harp, who together join him in his quest to destroy The Black Cauldron. Along the way, they encounter fairies, witches, and the evil Horned King himself.
The thing that places The Black Cauldron in this 50th spot more than anything else is the fact that it has no defining strengths. Nothing from the film stands out as something worth noting as good. This is what separates it from its brethren in the Disney Canon. Even the films that join The Black Cauldron in the bottom five each have at least one character or scene or moment that works. That’s not to say that the entirety of The Black Cauldron is bad, it’s more that nothing jumps out as a positive.
If I had to give the film some sort of positive, it’s the fact that the backgrounds are beautifully drawn most of the time, but we’ll get to why that turns into a negative point in just a second.
Let’s lay into The Black Cauldron’s faults, shall we?
What jumps out at me the most is the tonal contrast that plagues the entire film. The realistic, gloomy, and dark backgrounds clash against the traditional, bright, and cartoony Disney character animation. This is most striking when Hen Wen, Princess Eilonwy, The Witches, or The Horned King’s lackey Creeper are on-screen. It almost feels like most of the animation was intended for a different feature. The Horned King is the only character that matches the world of the backgrounds, but it still looks ridiculous when he shares screen time with Taran or Creeper. This tonal difference both distracts the viewer and destroys the world of the story.
This tonal difference is most apparent in a sequence where Hen Wen is captured by the Horned King’s Dragons, and almost every scene featuring discussions between The Horned King and Creeper. The Horned King’s castle, and The Horned King himself, are dark, gritty, scary, and almost realistic. Meanwhile, Creeper, and the other characters, are completely cartoony and completely Disney. These tones to not mesh well together, and almost make you realize that the process of animation is actually occurring.
Speaking of The Horned King, as scary as he is, he does absolutely nothing during the course of the film. He is only on screen for 15 to 20 minutes at the most, and for most of it he is sitting around, talking. The only event he really is a part of is the creation of an undead army using The Black Cauldron, and that army is destroyed in less than five minutes, only able to slowly stumble out the front door. Even his final confrontation with Taran is only a minute, before The Black Cauldron, and not Taran, kills him. For as effective as his design is, The Horned King is one of the most boring and forgettable Disney Villains ever.
The Black Cauldron also introduces many characters and items without any explanation, and raises a lot of questions. What is the Horned King a king of? What is Eilonwy a princess of? Why was she captured? What is the deal with her magical ball of light? What is the significance of the magic glowing sword Taran finds in the dungeon? Why is the sword magic and glowing? Why is it there in the first place? Why are the Witches so interested in the sword? Why do the witches have The Black Cauldron? Where did Fflewddur come from, and why does he have a harp that can detect lies? What kind of creature is Gurgi? Why does the Horned King tolerate Creeper? The film seems to think that these questions are just answered by “It’s Magic” and “It’s a Fantasy World” when more definitive answers would wholly improve the characters and the film.
This lack of explanation leads right into my final point. The lack of background for characters leads to a lack of depth and this lack of depth causes arcs and conflicts to come out of nowhere. Princess Eilonwy has nothing that defines her other than the fact that she’s a girl for Taran to fall in love with. Her royalty is never touched upon, and she has absolutely no personality. Same goes with Fflewddur, The Horned King, and even Taran. The lack of any depth to the characters creates a stark emotional distance between the viewer and the film. The closest a character comes to being distinct is Gurgi, but he soon falls into the same holes that the other characters do.
A lack of character depth makes it hard to create conflict, and this certainly shows during The Black Cauldron. One scene that comes to mind happens just after the crew has escaped The Horned King’s dungeon, where Eilonwy and Taran begin to argue about whether or not it was Taran or the sword that helped them escape, which ends when Taran calls Eilonwy a girl. Seriously. And less than one minute later, Eilonwy apologizes to Taran, and the entire conflict is dropped. I’m serious. This sequence happens in less than 60 seconds.
This is characteristic of The Black Cauldron. One scene, Taran is angry at Gurgi, the next, without another scene between them, Taran is upset when Gurgi makes a sacrifice. (I say upset, but the voice actor for Taran is certainly one of the worst in Disney history. He always reads his lines calmly, even in scenes when he needs to be panicked, upset, or angry.) In another moment, the angry fairy that lead the group to The Black Cauldron explodes on the group and disappears without any build up or cause, after which he is quickly forgotten (until it is revealed at the end of the film that he left them in order to spur the rest of their journey, which is so ridiculous on so many levels that it would take another couple paragraphs to explain)
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
For as much flack as I give the Horned King, he does have the coolest scene in the film, when he summons his undead army to lay waste upon the land.
The Black Cauldron is not a musical, and thus has no songs to share. I’m going to note here as well that the film’s score is nothing to write home about either.
It really is a shame that The Black Cauldron is as lackluster as it is, because I do see the potential in the film. If the film kept to one tone, and the characters gained more depth, this could have been a really interesting and different Disney film. Who knows, maybe with the changes, it makes the top 40 or top 30. In reality, however, I have to call The Black Cauldron the worst Disney Animated Feature ever.