Breaking Down Disney’s “Dark Age”: Aftermath and Conclusion



In the previous part, I looked at The Black Cauldron, the film that is seemingly the poster child of everything wrong with the company before the esteemed Renaissance. It’s also often looked at as a low point for theatrical animation, but was it really, truly that bad? In my review I gave the verdict, but here… Was the poor box office performance of it really so crushing?

The Black Cauldron had ended up costing $25 million to make (other sources, including the sometimes-inaccurate Waking Sleeping Beauty, for some reason use the $44 million figure), which was the biggest for an animated feature film at the time. The previous record was held by the studio’s previous effort, The Fox and the Hound, which had cost $12 million to make. Remember, we’re talking 1980s dollars here. The Black Cauldron collected $21 million domestically, but oddly enough there are no worldwide figures out for the film – and it was given an international release!

The consensus is that The Black Cauldron faltered at the box office because of how dark and frightening it was, but as I said in my review, I felt the film wasn’t all that scary nor did it have anything in it that was anywhere near the intensity of Walt’s earliest features. Was it the PG rating? The Black Cauldron would be the first Disney animated film to garner that rating, and keep in mind, in the 1980s the PG meant a lot. Today, the cutesiest, sugariest animated movie gets slapped with a PG for a fart joke and the MPAA calls it a day. Back in the 1980s, you *earned* a PG rating. Though with all that said, I still can’t fathom why 1985-era MPAA gave Cauldron a PG, while not re-rating all the Disney classics that were being theatrically re-released during the 1980s. Snow White and Pinocchio were far more deserving of that rating than The Black Cauldron.


I think it failed simply because it just didn’t appeal to audiences. The storyline must not have resonated with those who actually saw the film, word of mouth wasn’t anything special, and so on. The new management treated the film like toxic spillover from the previous administration, and pretty much had dumped it. Jeffrey Katzenberg was no fan of it, and didn’t like the picture’s intentions to be for an older crowd – thinking back then that Disney animation should only be for kids. Michael Eisner had little love for it. Roy E. Disney found fault with the story and characters, and when he was on a talk show – according to James P. Stewart’s DisneyWar – he couldn’t even tell the host what the film was even about!

On another note, The Black Cauldron‘s final domestic gross was one million lower than what The Care Bears Movie pulled in, which pounded more salt into the gaping wound. The Care Bears had just erupted at the time the cheaply-made movie hit theaters, so it was something of a mini-fad. The next film, released a year later, made not even half of what the first one pulled in, and way less than Black Cauldron. Still, it grated on many of the animators and folks who worked on the film. Innocuous fluff for kiddies like Care Bears beating a big Disney production at the box office?

Black Cauldron was essentially the “get it off our chests”/”ripping the band-aid” moment for the new brigade, and a victim of the rather rough transition from the Miller era to the Eisner era. Though you’re often lead to believe that Ron Miller’s run as CEO from 1983 to 1984 was all shambles, Miller actually showed some ambition. Actually, I think the late 1970s were when we started to see Disney try a little harder. 1979’s The Black Hole was the company’s first-ever PG rated film (but not their first ever PG “release”), and this was before PG-13 was invented. A sci-fi tale that reportedly entered development before the release of Star Wars, it didn’t quite do too well and ultimately got mixed reception. Disney soldiered on, making an ambitious young Tom Wilhite a top dog in movie development in 1980. He would be instrumental in picking up fresher projects for the company.


From 1980 to 1983, we would see a slew of PG-rated live-action Disney films, hitting all different genres, some of which were fostered by Wilhite: Sci-fi action story TRON, coming-of-age teen drama Tex, light horror adventure Something Wicked This Way Comes, mystery-comedy Trenchcoat, the drama Never Cry Wolf… Wilhite’s run came to an end after all of these films tanked, and Miller figured out what to do with the PG-rated Disney fare, as he wanted to keep going with that. (Something Disney today doesn’t do. If something doesn’t work, they usually chuck it right out the window.)

The problem was that, as Disney had found out, no one over the age of 12 wanted to be caught dead next to anything with the Disney name on it. It was like poison, though it didn’t stop the re-releases of the classics from making lots of money. More than anything, Disney’s “new” product couldn’t sway adults and older kids who viewed Disney as “kiddie fare”. They attempted to hide the Disney name and associated imagery when marketing all of the PG-rated films, even on their home video covers they somewhat did this.

Miller solved the problem by creating Touchstone, a label that would be applied to the less family-friendly fare. When the PG-13 rating was invented in 1984, the year the first Touchstone film – the highly successful romantic comedy Splash – came out, Disney would continue to make PG-rated films without the fancy new name, The Black Cauldron included. Future Touchstone releases mostly hit around R and PG-13. Black Cauldron seems to have some of the Wilhite-isms of the early 1980s, and one look at the film’s history shows that around 1983, before production began, that it was going to aim pretty high and be pretty dark. Miller left just as Touchstone was beginning to take off, and sometimes he doesn’t get credit for actually starting Touchstone.


Touchstone is pretty much all but dead now (it’s final release arrives next month, a decidedly non-blockbuster effort, The Light Between Oceans), as Disney is only focused on wide-release tentpoles in a world where the PG and PG-13 ratings mean nothing…

In 1985, Disney released a few live-action PG pictures. They all bombed, despite their reception. The Journey of Natty Gann was well-liked, but Return to Oz was not and mostly traumatized younger audiences. If you look at their original video releases, there’s some self-consciousness exhibited on the front covers. Natty Gann‘s video slipcover has a corner strip that says “The New Disney. Contemporary films for the ’80s family.” in capital letters. Return to Oz‘s slipcover says “Portions of this material may not be suitable for small children. Parental discretion advised.” Also in big, loud, capital letters.


My rather faded, former rental copy!

Disney wasn’t the only animation house suffering in the early-to-mid 1980s. I think by this point, animation had a brief set of years that were truly dark, where it seemed like hope was lost, even Disney’s. 1982 brought an animator’s strike, and many non-Disney animated features went belly-up at the box office, whether they were good or poor-quality. Don Bluth’s ambitious, critically lauded debut The Secret of NIMH wasn’t well-marketed and was mostly dumped, it didn’t do too well. The out-there cut-out animated film Twice Upon a Time was effected by its distributor’s fallout. The Plague Dogs was imported from the UK, cut up, and given a very limited release. Rock ‘n’ Rule didn’t get much of a release either, while wider release films like Heidi’s Song and several Looney Tunes compilation packages-masquerading-as-new-movies crashed and burned.

Meanwhile, cheaply made, toy sale-driving Saturday morning cartoons ruled the airwaves and continued to push the notion that animation was only for kids. I’d say 1983-1985 were dark years. Almost everything flopped in 1983, no new animated feature was released in 1984 (the first time since the year 1960), and 1985 had Disney’s first animated flop in decades. Hard times indeed, but they were not to last…


At the beginning of CEO Michael Eisner’s tenure, there were talks of shuttering Disney’s animation altogether. Katzenberg didn’t have a clue what he was getting himself into when he was named a head of the division, and often was at odd ends with the animators and crew. The Black Cauldron losing money at the box office did little to soothe the worries, too. Katzenberg turned his attention to Basil of Baker Street, which was deep in development at the time. At the same time, he and Eisner tried to get the long-gestating adaptation of Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit off the ground, something that had entered development – surprise – during the Miller/Wilhite days!

I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate and say that Katzenberg actually helped Basil of Baker Street a great deal, although changing its title to the vanilla-sounding The Great Mouse Detective was stupid, and his reasons for doing so were equally stupid. (“Too British”? “Young Sherlock Holmes flopped”? “Kids won’t understand it”? What the heck?) But it all inspired a memo that’s one for the ages!

Katzenberg had also demanded that the budget for the film be cut in half, and you can tell it’s lower budget when you watch it. Despite some good animation, fine character design and some impressive art direction, its visuals don’t quite scream “theatrical” or “cinematic”. It feels more like a TV show, something made by Disney TV Animation more so than the features house. The only cinematic moment is the film’s climax inside Big Ben, which made extensive use of CGI that makes it feel like it’s a completely different film. But the budget cuts don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, because… The Great Mouse Detective, released in July of 1986, has pep and snap all throughout. It doesn’t sleepwalk like a majority of the previous post-Walt features did. It’s brisk, it’s fun, it’s lively, it has some good comedy, it has very likable characters. It’s a step up from both The Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound, sitting near The Rescuers.


The Great Mouse Detective made only a little bit more than Black Cauldron domestically, but since it didn’t cost anywhere near as much, it was a success. It definitely brought back some confidence, and Roy E. Disney was right in defending the animation studio, keeping it alive. Work began on the next feature, an Oliver Twist with dogs story set in modern-day New York, and Mouse Detective‘s directors Ron Clements and John Musker were going to follow that up with their take on The Little Mermaid. The next fairy tale princess love story, the first since 1959’s Sleeping Beauty

Also not usually touched upon was animation’s success in the home video market. In the mid-1980s, home media was becoming more and more prominent. Disney was initially hesitant during the format’s infancy, sticking to Walt’s idea of only theatrically re-releasing the classics and not showing them on TV. Again, another indicator of the old timers’ flawed “What would Walt do?” mentality. Walt, even though I’m assuming, probably would’ve embraced home video. He had fully embraced television, though he didn’t show his classics on TV because of monetary reasons… But home media was different, and it took the newer team to convince the dinosaurs that people were willing to buy the classics on video, and that future theatrical re-release revenues were no longer going to matter.


However, once again, this wouldn’t have been possible without Ron Miller. Prior to being ousted, he had a plan in mind for the video releases of the animated features. In fact, the Cartoon Classics series – videocassettes and discs of selected Disney animated short film favorites – spawned a few sub-lines, the first of which – the Limited Gold Edition collection – was something of a test. Disney had those volumes available for a limited time only, reminding buyers that once they were gone, they were gone!

Selling a good 600,000 units, the company’s confidence to go forward with putting the classics on home video blossomed, but not without uneasiness. Robin Hood kicked off the line, aptly titled The Classics, in December 1984 as a “test the waters” title. It sold pretty well, Eisner and the new team then successfully coaxed the old crew into having Pinocchio be the second Classics release, not The Sword in the Stone. From there, it was an upward climb. Disney’s animated films routinely did good-to-extremely well on video, breaking records too! This success lined up very nicely with the animation studio’s newfound success in the late 1980s going into the early 1990s…

A Dark Age?

Maybe at times. While Walt’s year were met with many ups and downs, the studio still functioned, kept their creativity and integrity, and continued to push boundaries in other ways. The 1970s saw the studio mostly scaling back and taking it easy, with the mucky drama occurring at the end of the decade and into the new decade. Of course, things would come to a head, like they always do. The Renaissance itself wasn’t quite idyllic, and would meet something of a prolonged, bitter end.

Maybe I’ll look into that again…

As some might say, the post-Walt/pre-rebirth years are more of a lengthy transitional period than a flat-out dark age. Disney had indeed hit some low points during this time, but not all was dire, in fact a lot of the seeds for their future were planted one way or another before big changes had occurred within the house of mouse…


2 thoughts on “Breaking Down Disney’s “Dark Age”: Aftermath and Conclusion

  1. These are some really insightful posts on a little discussed time in the company’s history. I always thought people did blame Black Cauldron’s uninspired story on its box office failure, rather than the scariness of it. I’d love to read your thoughts on the 90s Renaissance.


  2. How much money was actually riding on those Looney Tunes compilations features? They must have cost practically zilch to produce compared to new animated features.

    And as for the Black Caludron vs. Care Bears Movie box-office battle, Care Bears Movie didn’t cost as much to produce, had a stronger voice cast, and had songs in it as well as a moderately dark storyline (compared to the usually sugary stories they got involved in on TV), so it proved the two weren’t mutually exclusive. A lot of the ideas for Black Cauldron ended up in The Gummi Bears (compare Cavin and Calla to Taran and Eilowny) and that ran six years, so the medieval aspect certainly wasn’t a factor in its box-office underperformance. If it hadn’t been cut so heavily, it still might not have been a great film, but it might have been better. A DVD extra showing a storyboard of a deleted portion Fair Folk sequence suggested their was an intent to make them (and thus the audience) understand why they need to get the cauldron away from the Horned King, but at some point this got scrapped. That’s what the film needed and if any of the cut material enhances our understanding of what the cauldron actually does and why the Horned King wants it so much, it should be restored. Maybe some of the stuff Katzenberg found “superfluous” might not have been after all. But he had the benefit of actually seeing it. We may never know, but as we wait to see whether any action can be done on that front or is indeed doable at all, one wonders how the film might have turned out had Miller not been ousted from the company—his resignation was no more by choice than that of his successor—less than a year before it finally came out.


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