Animation stew from The Black Cauldron

As the hype dies down Brian Sibley steps back and takes an objective view of the latest feature cartoon to come out of the Disney Studio.

By a cunning ruse of counting The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh as if it were a feature film instead of a compilation of shorts, Walt Disney Productions were able to announce The Black Cauldron as being the studio’s twenty-fifth animated feature since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938.

Ten years in the making – reputedly at a cost of $25 million – The Black Cauldron was also confidently described by the Disney publicity men as the zenith of animation art. Well, of course, publicity men are sometimes moved to say such things. In reality, this long-awaited film is probably the finest show-reel of animation effects ever produced, but very little else. Its storyline is seriously flawed, its characters poorly delineated, its dialogue weak and (with the exception of the set-pieces and special effects) the animation is unremarkable and derivative.

Based on characters and events from Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning ‘Prydain Chronicles’, The Black Cauldron is a calculated attempt to update the Disney formula to suit the tastes of the young movie-goers of the Eighties with their appetite for fantasy films, literature and role-playing games. In short, this is a kind of Indiana Jones Among the Dungeons and Dragons movie.

Dallben (left) and his young assistant, Taran, prepare to witness a startling vision brought forth by their oracular pig, Hen Wen.

The story concerns Taran, an assistant pig-keeper in the realm of Prydain (Wales in the books, but here decidedly Middle-Earthish), and Hen Wen, a cute pig who possesses strange oracular gifts. The Cauldron of the title is a magical vessel in which the spirit of an evil monarch lies imprisoned, and which is capable of conferring great and terrible power on whoever owns it.

Seeking this Cauldron is the ghastly Homed King (a walking cadaver with antlers), who plans to use it to give life to an army of corpses and thereby conquer the world. In order to discover the Cauldron’s whereabouts, however, the King requires a revelationary vision from Hen Wen.

Taran is ordered to take the animal and go into hiding; but they haven’t gone far before they are attacked by griffms who carry Hen Wen off to the Horned King’s castle. So begin Taran’s adventures. On his way to rescue the pig, Tarran falls in with a hairy creature called Gurgi (who is not entirely dissimilar to an Ewok), an imprisoned princess named Eilonwy, an eccentric bard with an enchanted harp and the unpronouncable name of Fflewddur Fflam, a trio of witches and a race of fairies who look as though they are the result of interbreeding between the Smurfs and the Snap-Crackle-and-Pop Men.

The complicated storyline may have seemed to require all these characters to advance the plot, but it allows little or no time for most of them to be adequately established, let alone fully developed. The inability to resolve this problem is a major weakness in The Black Cauldron (just as it was in Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings and the recent live-action fantasy The Never-Ending Story). It results in an almost total lack of involvement with the characters and, therefore, with the purpose of their quest. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than when the hitherto cowardly Gurgi throws himself into the Cauldron to break its power and save his friends. What should be a moment of great drama and emotion, leaves one, instead, unmoved and unconcerned.

Another unsatisfactory feature of The Black Cauldron is that it contains astonishing inconsistencies of styling: some of the characters are intended to look realistic, while others are clearly cartoon figures drawn in the broadest comic tradition. As for the juvenile leads, they are two-dimensional reworkings of other much more interesting characters -Taran is an amalgam of Mowgli and Wart, while Eilonwy looks a little like Princess Aurora and acts a lot like Wendy Darling.

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