In production for seven years and the first Disney movie to include computer-aided animation, The Black Cauldron was a box-office failure and wasn't released on VHS for over a decade after its theatrical run. For years, I didn't even realize this movie was made by Disney, so I never sought it out. As Seanie and I poked around the library to see if we could find another movie to knock off our Disney list, we found a battered Black Cauldron DVD in the childrens' section, and knew that we had found our evening's entertainment.
I haven't read the books on which this movie is based, but The Chronicles of Prydain series is generally very well regarded. The Black Cauldron was a Newbery Medal honoree, and The High King, the final book in the series, won the Newbery in 1969.
At the beginning of the movie is a bit of narration to set the scene, and the instant it started I shouted “GANDALF!”and elbowed Seanie, hard. It turns out the introduction's narrator also voiced Gandalf in the animated Lord of the Rings movies, which would have been in production at roughly the same time as The Black Cauldron. Random trivia, eh? But that definitely helped set the mood for a fantasy movie; funny how something as simple as the sound of a voice has that power.
We have Taran, assistant pigkeeper, who dreams of becoming a hero. He is prone to fantasies about become a great warrior, but when he is given the chance to protect a clairvoyant pig he blows it royally and ends up a prisoner of the evil Horned King. With the aid of Eilonwy, Taran and Fflewddur Fflam, a wandering bard, escape the Horned King's prison and set out to find the Black Cauldron, a magical object of great power. It's a race to destroy the cauldron before the Horned King gets his evil hands on it.
The animation in this movie is just fantastic. Thanks to ambitious experimentation with computers and the darker, crueler storyline this movie doesn't really look like other Disney films. The colors are darker and the villains are scarier. One of the Black Cauldron's magical that would have scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. The smoke and fog generated by computers just looks amazing, too. They clearly took their time making the movie, and it looks great for it.
The rest of the movie? Eh, not so good. Like I said, I haven't read the books so I can't say how closely the movie follows them, but the plot of the movie just seems so Lord of the Rings. I mean, saying this doesn't seem fair – LOTR has had such a HUGE influence on fantasy in general that almost anything will make me think of it – but it's still true. Like I mentioned before, the animated LOTR movie was released in the late 70s so its very possible the animators were influenced by it.
Eilonwy and Taran and even Fflewddur are flat characters but they aren't offensive by any means...just a tad dull. However, this little hairball creature Gurgi is one of the most annoying creatures has ever brought to the big screen. He sounds like Donald Duck, looks like the dirty end of a mop and spends most of the movie hiding from danger. He turns out to be important in the end, but for most of the movie I just stared and the screen and thought “Why is Disney forcing this nasty little thing on us?” Also annoying were the fairies/elves/Smurf-like creatures that the adventurers encounter midway through the movie. They didn't add much to the story and were ugly little twerps.
The pacing was pretty good in that something was always happening, and with the exception of those little Smurf-knockoffs there wasn't a lot of wasted time. Prior to the movie's release, in fact, several scenes were trimmed or cut (although according to IMDB this was to ensure the movie got a PG rating instead of a PG-13 or an R) and this kept the plot moving along. But it was predictable and unexciting. Seanie fell asleep halfway through and didn't even seem disappointed that he'd slept through the big finale.
7/10 stars. But at least two of those stars were given only because the animation was so good.
Side note: So the first half of the movie revolves around Taran protecting his oracular pig Hen Wen, and then rescuing her after she falls into the clutches of the Horned King. Now, if I were him I would not let that pig out of my sight once I had rescued it, but Taran just hands the pig over to the Technicolor Smurfs and Hen Wen disappears from the rest of the movie. Seemed weird.