Not As Bad As Its Reputation
Originally Released: 1985
The Black Cauldron has what must be one of the most interesting behind-the-scenes production stories of any Disney film. It had an extremely troubled production history which lasted from 1971, when Disney acquired the rights to the books, all the way to 1985, when the film was finally released. At the time of release The Black Cauldron was such a financial disaster that it almost caused Disney’s animation studios to be shut down for good.
To give a brief summary, the story goes something as follows. When Disney got the rights to Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain book series in 1971, members of the team subsequently took multiple stabs at developing story concepts, only to shelve them and focus on other projects. However, throughout the 70’s the story was a source of excitement and Disney used it as a key recruiting tool on young animators coming out of college. They promised that it would be a revolutionary film, like a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of the new generation. Clearly the expectations were very high for The Black Cauldron.
The team at Disney finally went into full production around 1980 and would spend five years working the story, reworking the story, tinkering with new techniques, failing with some of these techniques, and in general just hitting bumps along the way, causing the production time to be extended and adding to costs. Then to add icing on the cake, The Walt Disney Company had a big shakeup at the executive level in 1984, and incoming leaders Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were not too pleased with The Black Cauldron. Katzenberg didn’t like the tone of the nearly-completed film, so he took it upon himself to edit entire minutes from it.
There are more fascinating details about the unfortunate events during production of The Black Cauldron that can be found on other websites. There is also a fantastic documentary film called Waking Sleeping Beauty which chronicles this entire period in the history of Walt Disney Animation. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the “dark ages” and subsequent “renaissance” of Disney animation.
But now over 25 years have passed since the days when those events occurred. It was interesting to watch this film in a time when we’ve seen The Lord of the Rings and other fantasy movies become so popular, and where animated films like Princess Mononoke have been met with such high critical acclaim. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Disney had waited another 20 years or so to go off in this bold new direction. Perhaps The Black Cauldron could have been that revolutionary film envisioned so long ago if it were produced in today’s setting.
As I watched the film, I certainly saw that there was potential for something truly special. Some scenes have terrific animation and visual effects. Some of the darker, scarier moments are quite interesting and definitely add to the film. It makes me wonder what the finished product would have been like if it was left as originally intended.
Yet while there are great elements to The Black Cauldron, it is not without its flaws. Some questions go unanswered, such as where the oracle pig came from in the first place, how the black cauldron works, and how the witches aren’t powerful enough to destroy or neutralize the cauldron but they can bring someone back who died in it. I didn’t appreciate some of the more mature elements (i.e. the frog down down a shirt). But on the other side of the maturity scale, the cuteness of some sidekick characters didn’t mesh particularly well with the darker tone of the movie.
To me, The Black Cauldron really isn’t that bad. It isn’t for everybody, and the dark tone and scary skeleton scenes mean that the film absolutely merits its PG rating (which was a first for Disney animation). But I found enough of the movie to be entertaining and enjoyable that I can overlook its flaws. And to me, knowing the story behind the story makes it even more enjoyable.