Revisiting The Black Cauldron, the movie that almost killed Disney animation.

Revisiting The Black Cauldron, the movie that almost killed Disney animation.

Revisiting The Black Cauldron, the movie that almost killed Disney animation.

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Oct. 19 2010 11:24 AM

The Black Cauldron

Is the movie that almost killed Disney animation really that bad?


In 1985, a single movie almost killed Disney animation. With an announced budget of $25 million—later accounts place it closer to $40 million— The Black Cauldron was at the time the most expensive animated film ever made. Based on Lloyd Alexander's fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain, Cauldron's scary villain and dark themes earned it Disney animation's first-ever PG rating. In its opening weekend it made only $4 million at the box office, good for fourth place—behind an E.T. re-release, the month-old Back to the Future, and, at No. 1, National Lampoon's European Vacation. Its final domestic gross was just over $21 million.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois edits and writes for Slate’s human interest and culture departments. He’s the co-author, with Isaac Butler, of The World Only Spins Forward, a history of Angels in America, and is writing a book called How to Be a Family.

Recognized by animation fans as the nadir of Disney's post-Walt dark days, The Black Cauldron's flop marked the end of the studio's old way of making animated features. A new regime, led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, did away with the robust budgets and production schedules that had allowed, for example, animators to airbrush every single cel of Pinocchio by hand. Instead, Disney moved the animation department out of its cushy digs in Burbank, Calif., into a warehouse in Glendale and focused on pushing out features faster and cheaper. The result was a series of classics ( The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) in the next decade—and a long stretch of non-classics ( Treasure Planet, Chicken Little) since.


Watching The Black Cauldron now, on a not-very-special "25th Anniversary Special Edition" DVD, it's easier to appreciate the movie's grand ambitions, which were undercut by bad luck, executive panic, and yes, some poor filmmaking. Cauldron is no classic, but it doesn't deserve its reputation as a train wreck. And parents today, more appreciative of darker fare for children, might embrace it in a way that 1985 moviegoers never did.

Like the accursed kettle from which it takes its title, The Black Cauldron's history is full of conflict. Disney optioned Alexander's five-volume series in 1971, and throughout that decade used the material to recruit prospective animators to the company. It was viewed as the Snow White of a new generation of animators—a masterpiece in the making that would launch their careers and live forever as an animation classic.

But studio chief Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law, worried that his young team wasn't yet ready to tackle Cauldron and kept delaying production.In 1979, frustrated star animator Don Bluth quit and took 13 colleagues with him. In the wake of his departure, the department was staffed by a few of the old guard and a passel of untested recent CalArts grads (John Lasseter and Tim Burton among them).

Disney finally decided to push ahead with The Black Cauldron in 1981—spurred, it's been suggested, by reports of Bluth's first picture away from the Mouse, The Secret of NIMH. With Cauldron, Disney hoped to draw teenagers bored of Disney fare like That Darn Cat back into the fold. "No respectable teenager would be caught dead watching a Disney movie," Cauldron's producer, Joe Hale, has said of the time. Employees used to joke that if Disney ever made a World War II movie, "they'd probably call it That Darn Hitler."


The Black Cauldron would change all that. In an era of Dungeons and Dragons and the face-melting action of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a darker, swords-and-sorcery epic seemed like a gamble worth taking. Hale plucked one of the series' minor villains, the Horned King, to be the Big Bad of his movie. And he made the film's action centerpiece the gruesome transformation of dead warriors into the zombie-like Cauldron-Born.

Cauldron was meant to be grand, a generation-defining work of animation. It was the first Disney feature filmed in 70mm widescreen since Sleeping Beauty. It boasted 6-track Dolby sound and the first computer animation ever in a Disney film. The company even planned for the Cauldron-Born sequence to include a special holographic sequence that would bring the deathless swordsmen into the theater.

But over the five years it took to produce, the project's scale overwhelmed the depleted animation department. Lovely new widescreen layout charts, created for the movie's 70mm format, didn't match the ones used on Sleeping Beauty; animator Michael Peraza remembers that he only noticed the discrepancy after everyone had been drawing scenes in the wrong dimensions for weeks. The holographic sequence was scrapped when creating a system that could work with standard projectors proved too costly. A 10-week animators' strike in 1982 set the project even further behind. By the rushed final stages, things were so dire that "anyone who could hold a brush" was given lessons in cel painting and set to work.

And then, in the fall of 1984—just months away from Cauldron's planned holiday release—Miller was deposed as the chairman of the company, replaced by Michael Eisner. Neither Eisner nor his handpicked studio chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, cared about animation; in fact, they'd discussed eliminating the division entirely.


Katzenberg hated The Black Cauldron and wanted to re-edit it with different footage. Hale explained that in animation—unlike the live-action movies Katzenberg had overseen his whole career—there is no such thing as an outtake. So Katzenberg told Hale to cut 10 minutes from it. When Hale balked, Katzenberg went into the editing room and started doing it himself. Much of the Cauldron-Born sequence was axed; the cuts are so clumsy that at one point one of composer Elmer Bernstein's cymbal flourishes is rudely interrupted mid-crash. Other sequences were hastily rewritten and re-animated.

Watching The Black Cauldron now, it's easy to see how it goes wrong. Animated features were once built out of storyboards, not screenplays—visually arresting sequences were stitched together by dialogue written by individual animators. The technique worked for simple fairy tales, in which a thin story was stretched across a number of set pieces, but failed in the face of adapting a complicated narrative like Prydain. (Eisner would eliminate this tradition posthaste after Cauldron.) Awkwardly cobbled together from Alexander's series, The Black Cauldron's story lacks propulsion, and the Horned King—despite the sepulchral voice of John Hurt—isn't much of a villain, mostly sitting on his throne ordering lackeys around.

For fans of Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Cauldron's particularly difficult to enjoy. The series—the final volume of which won the Newbery Medal in 1969—is based loosely on Welsh folklore. With its young hero, its white-bearded wizard, and its faceless villain deep in the mountains, it sounds like tween Tolkien. But in truth, it's an exceptional work for young readers, drawing from the same deep well of European myth as Tolkien but delivering its complex story with simple, elegant language that kids can immediately embrace.

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.