Published on SoCal.com
The Black Cauldron is an animated Disney classic, but not exactly one of those animated Disney classics. Yes, it features a princess (Eilonwy, voiced by Susan Sheridan), but not one you’ll find on any sleepwear or fruit snacks. It has a dark villain (The Horned King, a menacing John Hurt), but this one is truly terrifying, more reminiscent of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings than Cruella De Vil. And while the movie does features that classic Disney device, magical beings, these creatures do little to make the film the sort of lighthearted family-friendly movie the House of the Mouse is revered for. Plus, there isn’t a single bit of song to stick in viewers’ heads days afterward.
The movie takes place in the fictional land of Prydain and is based on Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series (which, in turn, was based on Welsh mythology). Viewers begin by meeting a young assistant pig keeper named Taran (Grant Bardsley), whose first words are a lament that the war might end before he has a chance to fight. His master, Dallben (Freddie Jones), tries to temper his bravado with tales of the fearsome Horned King, but Taran seems more fired up than ever, especially when he learns that his pig, Hen Wen, has powers beyond rooting in the dirt. Unfortunately, Taran discovers that she has the ability to deliver hidden knowledge in the form of visions just as The Horned King becomes aware of it.
Taran is entrusted with taking the pig to a safe location, then promptly loses track of her as he daydreams of being a great warrior and defeating The Horned King. As he searches for his lost charge, Taran encounters Gurgi, sort of a cross between a Shih Tzu and a human, who tries to steal the apple Taran is using as bait for Hen Wen. Gurgi tells Taran that he knows where the pig has gone, only to run in fear when they discover Hen Wen being chased (and ultimately grabbed by) two black, dragon-like creatures and taken to a dark castle.
A quick side note: this sequence, just 10 minutes into the movie, is every bit as terrifying as the final scene in Sleeping Beauty, where the prince must fight his way through thorns and a dragon to reach the castle, and it is just the first of many such scary scenes throughout the runtime of this film. There are gnashing rats, brutish henchmen, narrow escapes and the reanimation of corpses, all of which combine to give The Black Cauldron a PG rating, though it actually seems more like PG-13.
Inside the castle, Taran rescues the pig but is captured himself and thrown into the dungeon, where he meets Princess Eilonwy and minstrel Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne). After a daring (and hair-raising) escape, the trio embark on a quest to find (and destroy) the ancient Black Cauldron, which The Horned King seeks in order to create an army of reanimated corpses and rule the world…definitely not the typical Disney plotline!
Along with the animated film, which features a new digital transfer, The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, MSRP: $19.99) also includes a new, never-before-seen deleted scene entitled “The Fairfolk,” which is actually just a different version of a scene that made it into the final cut. Watching deleted scenes in animated features, though, always carries an extra bit of fun, as they are mostly line drawings and rough sketches, with even some of the main characters’ looks shifting from cel to cel. It’s a fascinating peek at the storytelling process, but ultimately not as interesting as the scene that made it into the film.
A gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and the original movie trailer are nice, but a more interesting addition might have been a feature on the fact that The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature to use a new system known as computer-generated imagery (better known today as CGI) as well as the APT process, which replaced xerography and hand-coloring of cels in the animation process (and later was used on The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid). Such a significant historical moment should have been recognized.
Two games are also included on the 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD; the first, “Quest for the Black Cauldron,” is a trivia game in which viewers race The Horned King to reach the titular Cauldron and was carried over from the original 2000 DVD release. The second, “The Witches’ Challenge Game,” dares viewers to solve riddles posed by the Witches of Morva in order to claim a magical sword. Both are easy to play and require only the DVD player and a remote.
Finally, classic Disney fans will get a kick out of the 1952 short “Trick or Treat” featuring Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie. However, just like the still frame gallery and “Quest for the Black Cauldron,” those who already own The Black Cauldron on DVD will have this bonus feature, too.
The Black Cauldron, the 25th animated feature produced by Disney, was notable for more than its dark feel (which, reputedly, was toned down by new studio head Jeffrey Katzenberger before its release). It was also the most expensive movie Disney had produced to date at $25 million. But does The Black Cauldron, which only earned $21 million domestically at the box office, deserve the 25th anniversary treatment? On its own, the movie is just middle-of-the-road in terms of memorability and appeal, although its dark overtones and lack of a peppy soundtrack make it stand out from other frothy fare. But it’s the historical aspect of the film that marks the beginning of a new era in animation and CGI that ultimately earns the recognition this DVD release provides.
The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary Special Edition is now available on DVD.