The Black Cauldron
Is the movie that almost killed Disney animation really that bad?
A great deal of the books' power comes from the development of Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran from callow youth to reluctant hero to lost soul to, in the end of the series, wise leader of men. But at the time Disney opposed sequels, so the full, five-volume epic was merely grist for the Disney mill: Joe Hale plucked story elements from the first two books and discarded the rest. Even before it flopped, The Black Cauldron would always be the only Prydain movie; that it fumbled such terrific material just made it worse.
But there's still a great deal to love in The Black Cauldron. The untested animators Don Bluth left behind created some amazing sequences, including a dramatic scene of Taran's oracular pig, Hen Wen, being captured by pterodactyl-like gwythaints.
The movie shares the novels' distrust of glory won in battle, and makes the peril Taran and his friends face feel very real. The three witches who guard the Cauldron are as creepily funny as they are in the books. And despite the cuts that removed its goriest details, the Cauldron-Born sequence is still a glorious outlier in the Disney canon—loud, gross, and delightfully scary, with dramatic gouts of green flame and melting fiery skulls.
By the time Cauldron made it to theaters, Eisner was turning Disney's corporate culture upside down. (Not that it didn't need it; according to James Stewart's Disney War, executives worked half-days and spent the afternoon visiting Bob Hope's masseur, a Disney employee.) Katzenberg, though, after educating himself on Disney history, became convinced that animation was a key to the company's future success—but on his terms: cheap and fast. Cauldron's flop could have killed Disney animation; instead, it gave Katzenberg an excuse to remake how the way the studio worked.
The Eisner-Katzenberg revolution was a success, at first. The animators stuck in that much-hated Glendale warehouse were responsible for a string of classics in the late 1980s and early '90s, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Since then, though, Disney animation has fallen on hard times, releasing a string of decent movies that no one will ever remember as touchstones.
The Disney of this generation is Pixar, of course, run by John Lasseter, who left Disney animation while The Black Cauldron was in production. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar and handed its animation division over to Lasseter, who's improved the quality of Disney's films without yet making his Snow White.
For all its flaws, The Black Cauldron was a movie ahead of its time. These days, intense family films have become the norm— Up, How To Train Your Dragon, and the Shreks were rated PG, and the terrifying Toy Story 3 should have been. And the Lord of the Rings series—which owes its wild success in large part to its fealty to its source material—suggests the better, smarter, multifilm version of the Chronicles of Prydain that Disney might have produced 25 years ago.
And could, theoretically, produce today—the studio still owns the rights, after all. No doubt Lasseter remembers his experience on Cauldron and isn't eager to revisit it. But perhaps the masterpiece Lasseter is looking for is right under his nose, in the story that Disney once used to recruit him from CalArts. Disney animators tried to make The Black Cauldron their Snow White. Twenty-five years later, I wish they'd try again.
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
Clips from The Black Cauldron © 1985 Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.