The Polarizing Cauldron

A long time ago, after Walt Disney died, his company, then going through tough times, bought the film rights to The Chronicles of Prydain book series by Lloyd Alexander. After several years of development hell and executive meddling, a film based on the series (really a compression of the first two books, leaving out a lot of important characters and plots) was released in 1985, titled The Black Cauldron, in an attempt to bring back the glory days of Disney after several decent to mediocre films released at a snail’s place (and to try to appeal to the teen demographic). It bombed drastically. Disney quickly swept it under the rug and tried to forget about it for over a decade until enough fans urged for its release in 1998. Today, it is mostly remembered for the terrifying villain and how bad a bomb it was and is either loved by Disney fans or detested by them.

When I was a child, I loved the shit out of this movie. I know a lot of people think that this movie is bad for kids, but honestly, I think it’s a great movie for kids (well, kids who don’t get scared very easily, of course). It’s a sword-and-sorcery adventure with simple, straightforward storytelling. It has the dastardly villain, a pretty princess, a young hero, goofy sidekicks, peril, and action. Perfect kid’s stuff, to be honest. Nowadays? It doesn’t quite hold up for me (once our plucky heroes escape the villain’s castle, the pacing gets worse and we’re introduced to characters and settings that don’t really fit the rest of the film), but it still holds a place in my heart. And of course, it’s also fascinating to read about its troubled production history (you can start here HERE and HERE) and some of its analyses/reviews.

There are a lot of criticisms for this film, and I think the main one (besides the conventional, uneven plot, questionable content [there’s a Romani stereotype and a shot of a frog in a woman’s cleavage!] and less than stellar animation) is that the heroes aren’t very likable. For a lot of people, Gurgi is irritating (he never personally bothered me, though his design is seriously underwhelming, it tries too hard to be cute), Taran is annoying and doesn’t actually do anything compelling, and overall the cast is underdeveloped. But I think most people will agree that The Horned King is awesome and scary. Sometimes  I can’t help but feel the movie would’ve been more interesting if he was given more of a focus. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why does he hate the living so much? How did he get all these minions to serve him? He’s the only character non-fans truly remember from this movie, which says a lot about the actual protagonists.

That said I think one of the main reasons this movie is such a base breaker among the fandom is that, in a sense, it’s almost the ANTI Disney film. Think about it: in almost every Disney animated movie (or at least, the ones we remember and love), the hero has a defined goal. They aren’t satisfied with where they are and their current situation, so they seek to change it. If they’re good, they get their wish, contrasting their villains, who also have goals but seek them out by hurting people. They either become true heroes or get rewarded by being kind. Seeing their happy ending after going through their hardships is what makes their respective films worthwhile and resonate with audiences. That is not the case for Taran. He goes through a lot of hardships and horror with little to no relief, is constantly told what he’s doing won’t work, and by the end of the movie, he openly admits that he’s no hero and that he’s better off being a farmhand. Ultimately it’s his friends that lead him to find fulfillment, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if some viewers would feel a little cheated. What’s especially interesting about this fact is that, in the books, Taran actually does become a king and rises to greatness, though with some sacrifices (I haven’t actually read the books, I should hop to it soon, so for here I’m just going to talk about what I have researched). The fact that the film has an overall dark (and in some cases depressing) tone probably didn’t help. For some fans, this was all an interesting departure from Disney conventions; for others, it was too much.

Because of all this, it’s no surprise that Disney wants to forget about this particular film (I’m pretty sure there was a time, not so long ago, when they promised to release the film on Blu-Ray in the summertime, but then went back on that without warning, and only re-released it on a bare bones DVD for its 25th year anniversary in the fall). What is NOT excusable, however, is the fact that Disney is doing absolutely nothing with their film rights to the series as a whole.

Again, I must stress that I have yet to read these books. But from what I know, they’ve actually been very well received, with the last book in the series being awarded a Newbery Medal. What’s stopping Disney from doing something with these books now? Are they too afraid the bad reputation of their animated movie will hurt it? That seems kind of fickle, considering how most of the general public probably doesn’t even know it exists or believes it was just a bad dream/vague memory. They could make an ABC series out of it. Or, dare I say it, remake the animated film into a live action movie that is longer and is more faithful to the books.

That is not a far-fetched idea. Just look up all the live action remakes Disney has announced thus far. (I’m not going to bother listing them because Disney will probably keep announcing more and more.) Look at how much the remakes they’ve actually released are doing financially. I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question to breathe new life into a film that initially didn’t do so well but still has its potential and revive an old classic book series.

Because that’s what remakes SHOULD be about; breathing new life into things that had potential but was squandered before it got the chance to truly shine. While remaking films like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast may offer a nice new perspective of a classic story for contemporary audiences, its the animated films that we’ll always remember and love.

However, I have read that the reason why these remakes exist is because the copyrights to their animated films are expiring so they need to make new content so no one else can. If that’s true (and to be fair it does make sense; it’s easier to accept that than them just picking and choosing films at random to remake just for a quick buck), it’s entirely possible Disney WANTS their rights to The Black Cauldron to expire so someone else can deal with it.

The Black Cauldron didn’t quite get the respect and effort it deserved during production and was doomed from the start. But that doesn’t mean it has to be forever scorned. The film could’ve been great and was screwed over initially and it deserves a second chance to become something everyone can appreciate. Though that might just be wishful thinking. But hey, according to Disney, wishes do come true, so who knows? I’m just not expecting it to come true anytime soon.

Oh wait. 


Author: Laura Alexander

My name is Laura, I use they/them pronouns, and I'm a recent graduate of the Social Service Worker Program at Sheridan College. I'm on the autism spectrum (Asperger's) and I have a passion for film and animation, social issues, and helping others, all of which will be featured on The Flying Red Robot blog. Please read the about page before commenting or following. "Big Hero 6" is my favourite movie.