Personal Overview: I was aware of the Lloyd Alexander books that this film was based on. I’d read them. They were entertaining enough, but nothing special to me. They themselves were loosely based on the Mabinogion, which is a well known Welsh legend.
The Black Cauldron didn’t seem to get a big theatrical release here and I never saw it until now. I had high hopes for it, but it unfortunately doesn’t live up to them. It’s relatively faithful to what I can remember from the books, but it just never seems to reach any heights.
The Gurgi wasn’t bad, but he’s more annoying than funny. I don’t think the Jar Jar Binks comparison is completely out of place.
It has pacing issues, the villain is far too dark and scary for young audiences and too cliché for older ones. It’s kind hard to know what audience they were going for, because it seems to fall in that odd middle ground. This could have been caused by the fact that Disney felt they went too jokey with The Sword in the Stone and tried to make this more faithful to the darker feel of the books.
The biggest problem for me were Taran and Eilonwy. There was no real life in the voices used for them. That meant a lack of chemistry and that hurt the film and made it hard to take to the characters or for audiences to believe them or their relationship.
It may have been the problems Disney had with doing people at the time as opposed to animals, but the film flopped and not just commercially.
Hero/es: very obviously Taran, and while he’s very much the farmboy becomes hero trope he falls flat in the film. Spirited princess Eilonwy is the other hero, again she struggles with a flatly portrayed character. Being a princess, being human, pretty and the secondary focus of a film really means Eilonwy should be part of the company’s Princess franchise. She isn’t. There’s never any real reason given, but ‘she doesn’t sing and her film wasn’t a musical’ is occasionally thrown up. The real reason is that the film flopped, so not all that many people know who she is. She also looks a lot like Aurora, so that makes her hard to market.
Villain/s: even this is bluntly obvious. It’s The Horned King. We never really see him much, but he just radiates evil behind his hood and when viewers do see him he’s rather skeletal in appearance, in fact he kept reminding me of Skeletor from the He-Man cartoon and toys. I think most of his menace is due to the performance of the role by John Hurt.
Cuteness Factor: there’s a few contenders here. The most obvious is Gurgi. Gurgi appears in the books too and in both he’s an attempt to lighten up and soften what is pretty dark material overall. He looks rather like a very large marmoset. His manner of speech and the way he was voiced by John Byner put me in mind of Andy Serkis’ Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He doesn’t totally work for me. Hen Wen the oracular pig is quite sweet with rather pigletish looks and large blue eyes. The final members of Team Cute in The Black Cauldron are the Fair Folk, they’re little pixieish/fairylike creatures. They really don’t play a big enough part as far as I’m concerned.
Animation: apparently a lot of money was spent on this film. It doesn’t show. The colour seems strangely washed out and the pedestrian story telling continues through to the animation. Eilonwy isn’t given a distinctive enough dress or look and those could be other reasons why she was never included in the Princess line up.
Final Words: the ball was dropped in pretty much every department here. It was no surprise that The Black Cauldron was a failure both critically and commercially. It was a case of being darkest before the dawn. The failure of The Black Cauldron very nearly brought about the end of Disney as a producer of animated films.