Mouse House Movie Club #8: The Black Cauldron

Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Somewhere, in the dark depths of the 1980s, Disney had a great idea. “I know,” the studio, suddenly developing the power of anthropomorphism and probably wearing a pinstripe suit and a dubious mullet, said to itself, “let’s ignore decades of warm, family friendly entertainment and go dark. Really, really, super dark. It’ll be fun, y’know. The kids’ll love it.”

So was born The Black Cauldron. And, the kids did not love it. Nobody did.

My Cauldron born…

The Black Cauldron was a bold idea and one that fit in well with what Disney as a whole (both animated and live action) was doing at the time. With George Lucas and Steven Spielberg essentially doing Disney better than Disney, the Mouse House spent the late 70s and early 80s trying to modernise with films like Watcher in the Woods and The Black Hole, their most direct answer to Star Wars. This would have been cool and all, except for one thing: they’re ludicrously scary. Seriously, [SPOILER ALERT] The Black Hole culminates with the villain getting trapped inside a psychotic robot and sent into the depths of hell.

Yes, this actually happened. In a Disney film.

Anyways, Disney animation largely escaped this period unscathed. There had been movements in a darker direction in the sad denouement of The Fox and the Hound, the unsettlingly real villainy of Madame Medusa from The Rescuers, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’s chilling Heffelumps and Woozles segment. But nothing had been out-and-out terrifying. At no point did a Heffelump or Woozle get cast into hell, despite so obviously deserving it.

"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you..."
“If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you…”

Then The Black Cauldron happened. Based on the Chronicles of Prydain series by Welsh author Alexander Lloyd, the film is sorta Lord of the Rings for kids, right down to the Gollum-esque creature Gurgi. On page, the series is a pretty epic tale of high adventure and grand Welsh mythology (particularly the Mabinogion, which is amazing if you haven’t read it); on film, it’s… not. Short and lightweight, the story seems to stop before it really gets started, and considering the ultimate, world-consuming evil our heroes face here, it’s bizarre how empty everything feels. There are no stakes, there’s no sense of journey. It’s like Lord of the Rings but only if Frodo had been taking the ring down the road to the nearest jewellery shop to get it fixed.

It’s not for lack of trying. Where the narrative fails to build a suitable threat through careful pacing and delicate writing, the visuals and design do too good a job. This is a surprisingly oppressive film that takes place either in witches’ lairs, foreboding mountains, or the castle of the villainous Horned King (voiced by the ever-excellent John Hurt; honestly the film’s worth watching just to hear him say the words: “oracular pig”). The Black Cauldron isn’t exactly a ‘fun’ film; it’s kinda like watching a Presidential debate: dark, depressing, and ultimately doomed to disaster, but somehow, you just can’t look away.

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yas queen

Girl? GIRL?!
And that’s because beneath the obvious flaws, there’s an awful lot of really great stuff happening with The Black Cauldron. The first thing is Eilonwy, the film’s female lead and Disney’s first Princess since Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora. Sadly, the company doesn’t include her in the Princess line-up because the film bombed at the box office, and that’s a huge frustration. She may be in a weaker Disney film, but she anticipates many of the Princesses we’d see during the Renaissance thanks to her sense of agency and adventure, and is therefore worthy of study for that alone.

The first time we’re introduced to her, Eilonwy is looking for a way out of the Horned King’s castle. She’s been locked up, just as Taran has at this point, but rather than feeling sorry for herself, as Taran does, she’s battling to find a way out and stumbles into his cell. They quickly bond over a shared interest in proving themselves and you really get a sense not just of chemistry, but exactly why these two characters have feelings for one another. They bring out the best in each other, and the relationship seems balanced and mutually beneficial.

The problem is you can’t help but feel you’d rather see more of Eilonwy. Taran’s a fine leading man, but he’s rather like Luke Skywalker: a nice fella, but just a little bit boring. And hey, wouldn’t we rather spend more time with Leia anyway? Eilonwy is The Black Cauldron‘s Leia: fun, punchy, a little unpredictable and slightly dangerous because of that. It would have been a pretty revolutionary concept at the time, but making her the lead would have worked beautifully, and it’d be interesting to see how Eilonwy would be crafted were the film made today. Would she be the lead? Would the film be a musical? Would it actually achieve success this time round?

Watch it just for Gurgi
Watch it just for Gurgi

Munchings and Crunchings
I’d say it would be. While The Black Cauldron certainly has its flaws, and they would remain no matter when it was released, the film’s darkness is likely to have been better received these days. Following Lord of the Rings, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and the later Harry Potters, we no longer expect family/universal entertainment to fit within the same boundaries we did when The Black Cauldron was released. The Disney brand is slightly more confined within those boundaries, but they have more leeway to push at them than they did thirty years ago. We’re actually expecting Disney films to be more mature these days than they’ve ever been before.

While no Disney animated film since has been as frequently dark as The Black Cauldron is, there are certainly great moments of darkness in many of their recent films, mostly revolving around revelations about the villains, who have all been shown to be trusted people in the heroes’ lives (Hans in Frozen, Callaghan in Big Hero 6). That concept is positively terrifying: the idea that an authority figure, a parental surrogate, or a potential boyfriend will turn out to be the one who tries to kill you is nightmarish, but it’s what Disney is regularly showing kids at the moment.

As I’ve said in a previous edition of Mouse House Movie Club, the role of villains in modern Disney films merits a discussion of its own, but it’s interesting that while The Black Cauldron looks dark, it’s really not in comparison to modern films. They key difference is distance. We can distance ourselves from The Horned King because he’s just a vaguely satanic dude with a creepy voice who wants power. A cinematic construct in a blood red cloak. Hans, however, is something tangible and real. A manipulator who wants power no less than The Horned King, but who looks and acts like he’s the good guy. We see this kind of guy every day. One of them’s running for President. It’s real and genuinely chilling.

The Horned King kinda pales in comparison to The Horny King.

Conclusion

Whatever the flaws and missed possibilities of The Black Cauldron, it remains one of my favourite Disney films, and certainly one of the most interesting in the studio’s history. Creative talents are as fascinating for their failures as their triumphs, and you can certainly learn a lot about 80s Disney and everything that’s come since by looking at what went right and what went wrong here. Indeed, it may even be the studio’s most important film, representing a total breakdown of their identity that they simply couldn’t fail to respond to.

Sometimes you’ve got to break everything down to rebuild something, and The Black Cauldron was Disney’s wrecking ball. Their next film, Basil The Great Mouse Detective, would be a return to something resembling normality, and as the 80s turned into the 90s, Disney finally returned to its most reliable identifier. The Princess. Y’know, an actual Princess, in the actual line. Poor Eilonwy. Come on Disney, sort it out!

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