Perspective on a Cauldron

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When I was perusing the net the other day, I came across a review for a particular animated film that kind of opened my eyes a bit…

Author John Kenneth Muir is a long-time movie and media reviewer, and has ran a blog for years. On it, he tackles a wide variety of films and television shows and such. It was his very thoughtful review of the original Mad Max that drew me in, a piece that dissected a film that is usually called a boring, unnecessary watch. A film that is considered a flimsy and uneventful “prequel” to the later, post-apocalyptic adventures of the wastelander. A film that I actually really, really like. Curious to read more, I wanted to see if this particular critic had anything to say about animation.

Sometimes I’ll come across a critic who reviews something live-action or a work of music with such gusto, but then brushes aside animation, especially that of Disney’s. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I searched Muir’s archives, but I became across one of his few animated film reviews, and his – as far as I can see, for now – sole Disney animated film review. He took on none other than The Black Cauldron

If you know me very well or have read my ‘Breaking Down Disney’s Dark Age’ series on here, you’ll know that I wasn’t quite fond of The Black Cauldron and have not been. While I admire what the film set out to do, I feel it is held back by rather dull characters, a slog of a middle third, careless post-production editing, and an overall generic vibe. For a Disney film lauded as one of their darkest, I felt it was pretty tame outside of some spooky visuals and a creepy-looking bad guy. Walt Disney’s first few films are significantly darker and bolder than The Black Cauldron. I wonder if those who call Black Cauldron too dark and too un-Disney have watched the classics lately.

So I went into Muir’s review of it, not knowing what to expect… He…

Praised the film.

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In his review, he said he saw The Black Cauldron as an “intriguing” subversion of the typical Hero’s Journey story. Me? All these years, I felt it was an underdeveloped attempt to do a Hero’s Journey tale akin to Star Wars. He praised Taran’s victory through friendship, not by fighting or engaging in the war. He also liked that the film flat out downs Taran’s desires to be part of this very war (that we don’t really see, which I think hurts the film) in the first act. Later on, he compares the Cauldron itself to the mistakes of the past, waiting to be unleashed again. He also notes that sacrifice plays a large role, from Taran giving up the very kind of weapon he yearned to have to Gurgi’s self-sacrifice during the third act.

He concludes the review with this sentence:

It’s difficult to understand why Disney saw that as such a “dark” concept back in 1985. Friendship — not war and strife — says The Dark Cauldron, is the proper antidote to darkness.

While reading this review, I saw a new side of a film that I felt was overall weak. Whether it was intentional or not, I don’t know. Maybe the Disney artists during the transitional early 1980s were really onto something here, maybe they were trying to make something more than just a fantasy film that could fit in with the ones dominating the scene at the time. The likes of The Dark Crystal, Krull, and The Secret of NIMH. Maybe that desire shines through the restrained story.

I should know, because unlike some reviewers out there, I think Walt Disney and his artists were on to similar ambitions during the Golden Age. Time after time, I see Walt Disney’s films written off as simplistic kiddie piddle. That his animated features were just these shallow, saccharine films meant to entertain only children and undemanding audiences, which is actually untrue. Not only did Walt care so much for the medium and the art of storytelling, he didn’t believe his films were meant for a particular target audience.

There are layers of delicate textures in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi that often go ignored. While some critics favor most of the newer Disney animated features for their more plot-based stories, they aren’t more “complex” than what Walt had made during his lifetime. His stories explored many themes without having to spell them out for the audience, all of them just subtly woven into narratives that didn’t last more than roughly 80 minutes in length.

It’s very refreshing when you read a review of a Disney animated feature that was made before the much-heralded Renaissance that is like this, but it was surprising to read such a review for a film like The Black Cauldron. The Black Cauldron has forever been typecast as the lowest point of Disney Animation. It is true that The Black Cauldron‘s box office failure had ramifications, but not as great as some have suggested. It is true that then head honchos Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg talked about shuttering Walt Disney Feature Animation altogether in the wake of its disaster, but it was all just that. Talks. Roy E. Disney fought to keep the studio alive, no matter what the compromise would look like.

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Actually, Disney has buried The Black Cauldron for years because they saw it – and continue to see it – as a failure of a movie, not because it was “dark” or “PG-rated” or whatever. Disney Animation comfortably made mildly violent PG-rated films in the early 2000s, and the company as a whole continued to cast the cauldron aside. Lilo & Stitch was rated PG, and I’d argue that it’s a darker movie than The Black Cauldron, even with its sunny Hawaiian setting. Thematically, I feel it’s a much heavier movie, as it deals with loss, the struggles of being a weird kid with no friends, and what family really means without mom and dad being there. It goes down some genuinely rough and heart-rending paths. Since it was such a critical and commercial success, Disney had no problem amping that film up and plastering it all over our faces in the mid-2000s. (If you thought the more recent Frozen Fever was annoying, Stitch was just this back in those days.) They keep Stitch alive today, he even has a theme park ride that’s universally despised!

Cauldron is denied such things because it wasn’t a hit in the 1980s, and because the guard swept it under the rug for a long time, only giving it a video release in the late 90s after they had reached the bottom of the animation features barrel. Only in Europe was it theatrically re-released and given some spotlight, only in Tokyo Disneyland did it get some theme park love. Ironically, that film’s first video release sold a decent five million units, generating roughly $130 million in sales! The film, perhaps because of its sidelining, has a sizable fanbase. Disney is even considering re-adapting the source material the film is based on into a live-action/CGFX blockbuster. In some ways, the Cauldron lives…

Even those who actually take the time to analyze and see the textures of the early Disney films may still write The Black Cauldron off as a lacking entry, which I myself have done. The review doesn’t necessarily change my mind on the film. I still feel that The Black Cauldron is average at best, deserves better characters, and a much more exciting middle. Muir’s review, however, made me see the film in a whole new way. I admittedly didn’t dive too much into the film’s final third, where Gurgi sacrifices himself to stop the Cauldron’s spread of evil. What I saw as a cheap shot at doing something a little edgy, perhaps the scene was the ultimate climax to the film’s theme of friendship being the victory, I can definitely see how that would resonate.

I like that this theme is there, but if the characters had been more compelling, The Black Cauldron could’ve shined. It could’ve been this outlier of the 80s fantasy movie realm, the subversion it perhaps was aiming to be all along. Maybe that in turn would have made it a box office success, and one that Disney didn’t see the need to lock up. Even I myself, who tried to go against the idea that Disney was lost in the 1970s and 1980s, could’ve been ignorant to something subtly woven into The Black Cauldron. I have no doubt that the retiring Nine Old Men and the incoming young animators wanted to make the very kinds of stories Walt specialized in, I felt many of those features of the era were held back by executives who wanted clean, non-challenging entertainment.

Maybe something specially really was there all along, and that it was there despite the compromising going on behind the scenes. The Black Cauldron is a film I’ll continue to admire for what it set out do…

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