The history of The Walt Disney Company is filled to the brim with stories. There are plenty of well-known stories regarding their animated features, their live-action endeavors, the theme parks, the cartoon shorts, and several other works of media that they put out.
Today, I’m going to talk about The Black Cauldron… Again…
The Black Cauldron is kilometers away from being one of my favorite Disney animated features, and I feel that it is a film that suffers from writing issues, halfway-there character work, and general unevenness. While I admire what it was trying to do and while I feel some of it actually works fine, it could’ve been a lot more than what it ended up being. Its lengthy, fascinating production history has been tackled several times over, along with its poor box office performance in the summer of 1985, and it seems with each passing year, we learn something new about what went down during the making of this ambitious but mishandled Disney animated film.
But what about the after part of The Black Cauldron‘s story?
Oh, but the film was unavailable for years. It disappeared. No American could see The Black Cauldron until Disney finally released the film on video in August of 1998. Their best bet was bootlegs.
Not necessarily, depending on where you were at one point in time…
Typically, Disney animated features produced before the age of home video were theatrically re-released. Re-releases were a decades-old strategy used by the studio to make more money off of their features, and to also save films that came up short on their initial releases (see Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, and Sleeping Beauty). Disney fully entered the home media market in 1980, when home video was just a fledgling 5-year old niche. A year later, they released The Fox and the Hound theatrically, and didn’t plan on putting that feature on video or the majority of the animated classics on video anytime soon.
The Black Cauldron was released in July of 1985, the same month Disney released Pinocchio on videocassette. (In fact, the early pressings of the 1985 Pinocchio video release contain a trailer for The Black Cauldron.) By this point in time, Disney heads – both the newly-minted ones and the old-timers – agreed on finally getting these landmark animated features into homes across the country. Video slowly began the demise of the regular theatrical re-release. Video killed the re-release, we could say…
There was a catch, however.
The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature since Sleeping Beauty to lose money at the domestic box office. It wasn’t a favorite of the new heads, who kind of treated it like toxic spillover from the previous administration, a band-aid that had been waiting to be ripped off. Spending so much time in pre-production and turning into a production nightmare fraught with creative differences, The Black Cauldron infamously cost a lot of money, and it didn’t break even. The film had very little of a presence after its 1985 debut, and until its 1998 video release, it would appear that Disney tried to bury this film completely…
One way the film lived on was through an eatery in Walt Disney World’s Fantasyland, Gurgi’s Munchies and Crunchies, based on the film’s cutesy comic relief character of the same name. This venue opened in October 1986, over a year after the film’s release, and closed in February 1993. This seemed to be The Black Cauldron‘s life support, of sorts, in North America until the video release.
But for the uninitiated, that’s not the real kicker. The real kicker was this…
Walt Disney Pictures actually attempted to re-release The Black Cauldron theatrically…
Under a different title…
That’s right. The Walt Disney Company flat-out retitled the flop animated feature, in an attempt to help it do better the next time around. The above poster is a real 180 from the original theatrical release poster, this one makes the movie look like some whimsical, candy-coated fantasy frolic. No Horned King to be seen, everyone’s smiling, “black” is now “magic”, a shiny burst is coming from the cauldron. Only the Gwythaints in the distant suggest some kind of bite. Even the Horned King’s castle looks way less menacing than it does in the film, as well as the surrounding Prydain landscape.
So, this re-release did happen, didn’t it? However, Disney’s own history accounts have been wishy-washy on this chapter of the film’s existence. While an international re-release using this title (and foreign language variations of it) was confirmed long ago on a DVD bonus feature in 2000, Disney never outright seemed to put in any historical accounts of theirs that states the The Black Cauldron received some kind of American theatrical re-release using this alternate title.
This is the part where you dig… This is actually something I’ve been digging at for years, unsuccessfully scrounging up information and evidence in the process, other than some little nuggets here and there. Why though? Well, I love Disney animation, the history of the company fascinates the heck out of me, and I feel like with all of this mind, I want to help chronicle a lost tidbit of The Walt Disney Company and maybe find a few answers in the process. Now, I feel like I have just about enough to make sense of The Black Cauldron‘s enigmatic theatrical re-issue.
To start, what kind of re-release was this? How did Disney go about re-issuing The Black Cauldron?
According to a forum post on ToonZone written way back in 2007…
“What is not so well known is that after the film debuted and bombed, the studio re-cut the film to be more ‘family friendly’ and did some test releases of it as The Magic Cauldron. Texas was one of the test states. That version did not do any better. It would be totally forgotten if it were not for the fact the studio created a small amount of merchandise to support the test.”
Test releases… That was certainly new for a Disney animated feature getting a re-release…
However, I doubt that this retitled version was recut, because upon inspecting a poster for it on an eBay listing years ago, I found this…
The re-release has the PG rating certificate on it. The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature to be given such a rating, and back in those days, the PG rating was a *huge* deal for Disney… So I doubt that the Taran version would’ve been recut, and this was in an era where the executives made sure that any Disney animated feature made under their watch would be a G-rated affair. Still, the poster, title, and merchandise sold it as a lighter adventure in an attempt to make it seem less “dark”, because apparently Disney felt that the film failed the first time around because of its darkness; which I always felt was a dubious excuse. The Black Cauldron may have some spooky visuals and a more serious-than-usual tone, but its frights are not that different from what audiences saw in classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio… Films that received the G rating time and time again from the MPAA upon their post-1968 re-releases, no less. It seems evident that Taran and the Magic Cauldron is not a recut version of The Black Cauldron… Unless some theaters specifically booked a special recut version.
Merchandise… It indeed existed for this re-release… Type in “Taran and the Magic Cauldron” on eBay and you’ll find one of these items…
I love how the Golden Book cover even has in small print “formerly released as The Black Cauldron” below the title. The items similarly emphasize the cuter and more whimsical parts of the movie, Prydain looks more like the Hundred Acre Wood here than it does in the movie.
But if there is no record from Disney themselves on this particular re-release, then where do we go from here? I always knew it existed in some form, as merchandise was made for it and there was a poster. But when was it? Why did it happen? Why is nonexistent to Disney? Not too long ago, I discovered what appears to be a TV spot for the re-release…
It’s unusual that the only place we can currently view this commercial, all in English-language no less, is through a Portuguese program. It has all the marks of a late 1980s Disney TV spot. Mark Elliott – with his iconic made-for-radio voice – is the announcer, the 1985 Walt Disney Pictures logo is at the start of it (and not the more common 1990 WDP logo, where the arch-line does not overlap with the “W” in “Walt”), and there’s no speech after Elliott says the title of the movie… This is normally where another voice would cut in and say “Rated PG. Check your local listings.” This was common in late 80s TV spots for Disney animated features, and presumably most movies, period.
According to the uploader, this Portuguese broadcast is from March 19, 1989. This lead me to assume for a long while that the re-release of The Black Cauldron would’ve occurred sometime in spring of 1989, a little before the July 1989 re-release of Peter Pan.
Going off of the forum post and what we have here, it appears as if Disney did “test releases” of a retitled (and possibly recut) Black Cauldron with some accompanying merchandise and marketing materials, only to jump ship when the tests didn’t go over too well. This shows that Disney was still willing to give the film something of a chance, a second life, even well into the home video age. Two features that opened after it and before 1989, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company, were still too new to get theatrical re-releases by this time. The Fox and the Hound, the feature that chronologically preceded The Black Cauldron, was theatrically re-released for the first time in spring of 1988… Perhaps this all lines up, no? Did this attempted re-release of The Black Cauldron occur in spring of 1989?
Yesterday, I found something that might be contradictory to what I suspected was the release frame…
Here is a page from a March 20, 1990 issue of The Bulletin, from Bend, Oregon. That was on a Tuesday. The local listings curiously mention Taran and the Magic Cauldron, and lists it as a Wednesday release.
Going off this, the test re-release of The Black Cauldron occurred on March 21, 1990…
Or maybe in that particular city.
Another recent find was a mere snippet of what appears to be an article from early 1990, or maybe even late 1989… “Also on the release boards from Disney are several reissues: “The Magic Cauldron” (tentatively Spring); “The Jungle Book” (July 13); “Fantasia” (Fall).”
This is indeed from 1990, because The Jungle Book was indeed given a re-release on July 13, 1990, and the Fantasia re-release indeed followed in the fall (October 5th, to be exact), because that was for the film’s 50th anniversary. So yes, this is more proof that Disney was planning on giving The Black Cauldron a re-titled re-release in the spring of 1990. Now, note how the text says just The Magic Cauldron, not Taran and the Magic Cauldron. Just like the user on the forum said… Tentatively spring, curious and curiouser…
Disney historian Jim Korkis once wrote on Cartoon Research…
“(And there is a good story in here somewhere about how Disney tried to remarket the film as “The Dark Cauldron” and then later “Taran and the Magic Cauldron”.)”
The Dark Cauldron? When did this remarketing strategy ever get brought up? Adding “then later” before mentioning the Taran and the Magic Cauldron title indicates that Disney tried out this “Dark Cauldron” title first… But when? And why? I guess they wanted to make it seem darker? But this seemingly contradicts what Disney’s executives, namely chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, thought of Disney animation circa 1986-1988. To him and the other higher-ups, Disney feature animation was strictly for children, and a “dark” PG-rated movie like The Black Cauldron did not conform to this mindset. Maybe this test re-release was being handled elsewhere within the company? Maybe it was Roy E. Disney’s idea? After all, he had plenty of say himself and while he had issues with the film, he was still its advocate after its disastrous initial release. (He also reportedly tried to get the full uncut version of the film – meaning, the roughly 90-minute version that Katzenberg hacked right into during post-production – restored for the 1998 VHS release, but was ultimately denied due to the high cost of doing so.)
Back to Taran and the Magic Cauldron.
A newspaper clipping from March 1990 says Taran and the Magic Cauldron. The poster says Taran and the Magic Cauldron. A TV spot says Taran and the Magic Cauldron. Only a forum post from someone and an article detailing Disney’s slate says The Magic Cauldron. My theory here is that some cities tested just “Magic Cauldron” as a title.
As for the release year… Well, the UCLA article and the Bend newspaper clearly show that this re-release was from spring of 1990. The uploader of the Portuguese spot may say March 1989, but this could’ve merely been a typo. Are maybe not? Now, what about that 1990 version of the Walt Disney Pictures logo that I mentioned earlier?
That TV spot for Taran and the Magic Cauldron opens with the 1985 Walt Disney Pictures logo. The 1985 logo is pictured to the left below, and on the right is the logo Disney used since 1990. Like I said earlier, in the 1985 logo, the arch-line cuts through the “W” in “Walt”. That’s the easiest way to tell the difference between the two logos.
As far as I know, the 1990 Walt Disney Pictures logo first appeared in July, at the start of the re-released The Jungle Book. This is evident in the TV spots for the re-release and the French-Canadian VHS from 1991. It makes sense that a TV spot for a spring 1990 re-release of Black Cauldron would contain the 1985 logo, as it was ostensibly still in use Prior to this re-release, there were no other mainline Disney releases in the first two quarters of 1990. Everything was either a Touchstone release or a Hollywood Pictures release, films like Dick Tracy and Pretty Woman. So, right now, it seems as if the 1990 Walt Disney Pictures logo first appeared in July of that year… So, the Black Cauldron re-release being from spring 1990 is not farfetched… And again, we have printed evidence as back-up.
Now, an alternate theory could suggest that Disney staggered the test releases. Maybe in early 1989, Disney did a couple Taran and the Magic Cauldron screenings, and then tried again almost exactly a year later.
However, I think there is evidence that contradicts that. If late March is the window we’re looking at, then Taran and the Magic Cauldron would’ve opened opposite of The Rescuers in 1989. Walt Disney Pictures re-released The Rescuers to theaters on March 17, 1989, filling that spring slot. That tells me that the uploader of the Portuguese broadcast made a typo. Combine this with the newspaper clipping and the UCLA article, and yes, it becomes apparent that all these test releases of Taran and the Magic Cauldron occurred in late March 1990. NOT 1989. It’s very possible that the Taran version debuted internationally (or more specifically, throughout Europe) before the test release in the United States, as the movie reportedly fared a little better across the Atlantic. IMDb claims a French re-release occurred in July 1989, not even four years after the first release of the movie in that country or most of Europe, including the UK. This *may* explain why the TV spot contained within the Portuguese program is presented in English. (Note: When I say Portuguese, I’m saying it’s a broadcast from Portugal, not Brazil.)
Again, in 1990, Disney didn’t have a new mainline release on hand until August, which would be DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp. Everything else was Touchstone/Hollywood fare. Before the Jungle Book re-release in July, there was nothing from Disney between The Little Mermaid‘s release (November 1989) and then. I think it makes sense, a re-release of Black Cauldron was set to fill that gap, and that explains why the TV spot contains the 1985 Walt Disney Pictures logo.
So… What must’ve happened then: Disney wanted to give The Black Cauldron a second chance amidst the grand rebirth of the feature animation studio, and they attempted to make it look more family-friendly, more inviting to a young audience, and possibly lift it from flop status to at least respectable status. Taran and the Magic Cauldron was given short trial runs in select cities across the United States in late March of 1990, and none of these trial runs amounted to much. Disney quietly moved on from the re-release, and the film itself, with no attempt at re-releasing it or remarketing it.
So now, the home video part… What was the real reason Disney waited so long to finally release it on video?
A video release wasn’t in the cards because by early 1990, Walt Disney Home Video had been focusing on getting the older films out on video formats for the past 5 1/2 years. It’s telling that the first string of video releases in their “Classics” line, barring the already-released Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland, were Robin Hood, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and Bambi. Again, mostly decades-old films that were following up theatrical re-releases. Never in 1987 did Disney release The Great Mouse Detective, fresh off of its summer 1986 run, on video. Never in 1989 did Disney release the big hit Oliver & Company on video, which was certainly unusual in hindsight… But it took them a while to get more contemporary animated movies out on video. The Little Mermaid, due to how much of a runaway success it was theatrically, changed everything. The Little Mermaid was released on video in May 1990, just two months after the trial run of Taran and the Magic Cauldron, and six months after opening weekend.
So now The Black Cauldron had to wait in line, because several other older classics and forthcoming new movies were going to come to video first, including more recent films. The Great Mouse Detective got a theatrical re-release in early 1992, and then a video release mere months later. Oliver & Company was theatrically re-released in early 1996, and the video came out later that year. The Fox and the Hound had only one re-release in spring 1988, the video didn’t appear until spring 1994. Even some oldies, like The Aristocats, took a long while to get to video in North America. The Black Cauldron was simply last on the list, and had fallen to the wayside. Pretty much every old feature that wasn’t one of the package films was on video by 1996. The Black Cauldron actually debuted on VHS in the UK first in 1997, and then we got the film in 1998.
But check out this video release. Look at that cover! Embossed details, shiny stuff all around. The tape contains the theatrical cut from 1985, yes, and it bares the original title too. Here’s something on it that’s worth watching…
Here’s a TV spot for the video release:
Chromium FX Packaging… Yes, Disney didn’t really do this for other video releases then and now. They really went all in with this, and perhaps it was more than just a gift to the fans who had been begging for its release for years and years. Disney did guess right with this particular strategy, as The Black Cauldron reportedly sold 5 million units, likely culminating in a $130 million+ gross. A second life well-lived… No timidity, they just released the movie on video and called it a day. Maybe that’s just what they needed to do in spring of 1990 with the theatrical re-release. No new title, no overly family-friendly posters, no nonsense… Just The Black Cauldron, back in theaters. One can only imagine how the re-release would’ve performed back then…
This leads me to my final question…
Why is this particular chapter in The Black Cauldron‘s long history virtually nonexistent? Why don’t Disney’s own records list a trial run of a retitled Black Cauldron in the spring of 1990? I feel that this is a rather important little nugget of their history, because it shows that at one time – between the original theatrical release and the first video release – Disney wasn’t ready to drop this ambitious film into the pit.
UPDATE (1/14/2020): More evidence has been found!
So, apparently someone read this and had actually seen the Taran and the Magic Cauldron re-issue of The Black Cauldron. In Oregon. But not in Bend, but in Portland. Not in March 1990, but in January 1990.
Taran and the Magic Cauldron screened in Portland, Oregon on January 12, 1990. Almost exactly 30 years ago… Two months before the Bend screening that I covered here…
The person in question runs a website called Platypus Comix. In their piece, there are plenty of details on this re-release, complete with visual evidence. Give it a read!
Another clue to the puzzle has been unearthed, and it helps that the person who found it is one who actually attended this re-issue.
Another friend of mine sent me an image of a 1994 letter he had gotten from the late, great Disney archivist Dave Smith also confirms that the film was given a test run with that alternate title in early 1990.
UPDATE (12/29/2020): Even more evidence has been found!
Surprise, surprise! Almost a year later and I’m **still** seeing hidden clues to the enigmatic Taran and the Magic Cauldron puzzle. These findings come from a fellow Disney VHS collector named William, who goes by “Willdubguru”. (His website here.) He uncovered some mid-January 1990 newspaper clippings from multiple cities. Taran and the Magic Cauldron trial runs occurred in Madison WI, Salem OR, Minneapolis MN, and Las Vegas during these few weeks, in addition to screening in Portland. Again, Bend got it as late as late March.
William also found evidence of a re-cut version of the film, that was indeed tested under the title The Magic Cauldron… Looks like the forum poster WAS right in 2007… On the clipping below, you’ll see a G rating certificate in addition to the shortened title. This particular release occurred March 3, 1990… Merely over a week before the regular cut with the “Taran” in the title ran in Bend.
I doubt anyone who attended this particular screening remembers what was possibly cut to attain a G rating. The Black Cauldron itself was already cut down severely during post-production, to the point where you can hear jumps in the soundtrack and detect other edits… I can only imagine what else got cut (likely some of the very brief blood scenes) in order to get a pass, and how obvious the cuts were… Unless this was a self-applied G rating, I couldn’t tell you.
In addition to these clippings, William even found that Taran and the Magic Cauldron did indeed have a theatrical run in Portugal in March of 1989, starting the 17th to be exact. Here is his finding below:
I also want to add that a couple of months ago, Drew Taylor wrote a comprehensive history of The Black Cauldron‘s making over at Collider. While his piece doesn’t make any mention of these Taran and the Magic Cauldron trial screenings, it does mention that then-Disney executive Peter Schneider requested for a new cut of the film from veteran editor Arthur Schmidt and long-time Disney producer Don Hahn in the early 1990s, presumably after the trial runs didn’t yield the desired results. Either that, or this could be that G-rated Magic Cauldron cut. Taylor’s article, however, says that this cut was meant for home video – despite the film not getting a domestic home video release until 1998. Says Hahn:
“We tried. But we could only make it shorter. It just didn’t work. After a while you can’t take the basic quality of what you have. It’s trying to make a fine piece of furniture out of a flawed piece of wood… You whittle it and sand it down and pretty soon there’s nothing left. After it was made, as much as we tried, we couldn’t do anything to reshape it.”Don Hahn, Collider, 2020
With all of this information gathered, here’s what we now know about this mystery re-release of a fairly obscure Disney animated feature:
- Upon The Black Cauldron‘s initial release in 1985, it was known as some variation of “Taran and the Magic Cauldron” in several international territories, notably France. While The Black Cauldron was a box office flop in North America, the film was actually among the top 5 highest grossing films of 1985 in France. Disney animated features did very well in Europe, and this film was no exception. The film can be even seen in Walt Disney Home Video’s international intro sequence from the late 1980s, indicating that this film was more popular abroad than here. This also could explain why Disney was willing to test that “Magic Cauldron” title for this film, as Disney had never done such a thing for an animated feature of theirs in the past. Nothing prior to The Black Cauldron had ever been re-titled outright to help it do better the next time. (Some re-issues of Pinocchio used posters that said “Wonderful Adventures of” above the title, but that wasn’t used in the film proper. After this North American test re-release, Disney would re-title 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective to The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective for its 1992 re-release.)
- At one time, there was an attempt to re-title it to The Dark Cauldron. Little information on this phase of the film’s second life is unknown to us.
- The Black Cauldron‘s first release in Portugal was on March 18, 1986, under the title Taran e o Caldeirão Mágico. It was re-released with that same title in Portugal on March 17, 1989. The TV show that the Portuguese Taran and the Magic Cauldron spot comes from is called Clube Amigos Disney. That program was like a regional variation of Mickey Mouse Club, and served as a debut for Disney Afternoon cartoons in Portugal. The show ended its run in July 1989, the extract in this article is – again – from 3/19/1989. The Sunday after opening day. A listing for this Portuguese re-release of the film is nowhere to be seen on IMDb, but it did indeed occur. Now why is this spot in English? No dub of the film was made in European Portuguese, so the Brazilian Portuguese dub had been used for the film up until a proper European Portuguese dub was made in 2009… so the program used an English trailer with subtitles for some reason. Now you may ask, if Disney didn’t do the test run of Taran and the Magic Cauldron in North America until January 1990 at the earliest, why make a trailer as early as March 1989? My guess: They made it in advance, and for use internationally, for maybe a possible UK re-release. A planned re-release might’ve been on the boards for a while, so a trailer was made long beforehand just in case plans were to change.
- A trial run of Taran and the Magic Cauldron occurred quietly in a few cities across the United States from January to March 1990. Given that a proper wide re-release didn’t happen, these trial runs presumably did okay at best. Disney reverted back to using the original Black Cauldron title for the video releases and merchandise.
- Some markets did indeed run a re-cut, G-rated version of the film that went by, simply, The Magic Cauldron.
- In the early 1990s, Peter Schneider requested a new cut of the film for the eventual home video release, which didn’t materialize. (Or this could be the G-rated re-cut that was tested in early 1990.)
So there we have it, the ever-expanding saga of The Black Cauldron…