There’s a reason that on the rather inconsistent checklist that I have in every Disney52 post there is the ‘traumatic’ category. Disney have terrified audiences ever since Snow White fled into the seemingly demon infested woods, and many of their best films have really scary or bizarre moments. Some of the most effective scares are sustained sequences where things just get more horrific, such as Pinocchio fleeing the satan-whale or the dance of the damned in Fantasia. The other kind of scare most regularly used by the House of Mouse are the baffling, strange moments of surrealism that are so out of this world that it becomes deeply unnerving. Remember Pink Elephants on Parade? Just look below at some of the screenshots from their Golden Age films that may just terrorise your nightmares.
The Black Cauldron, the first of Disney’s feature animations to get a PG rating, is the strangest, scariest Disney yet, full of moments that will either leave your jaw on the floor or your trousers in a mess. It has the sequences of sustained terror that are there to create pure fear, and the surrealist horror that will screw with your brain like a bad drug trip. If you want to know why The Black Cauldron flopped commercially then take a look at the villain’s introduction – a robed, skeletal creature broods in a tower surrounded by the skeletons of dead warriors as he schemes to bring them all back to life to kill the mere mortals he is surrounded by. Maleficent was scary, this is a whole new level of terrifying. It just gets worse, as well, as the adventure continues with witches, sorcery and said undead army that swarm out into the black landscapes of this alien world. The Black Cauldron is the kind of thing that will scare audiences of all ages, so you can understand why Mum and Dad weren’t rushing to buy their kids tickets back in 1985.
The plot in itself is baffling and weird. Taran is a kid that looks after a pig, Henwin, who turns out to be a magical prophetic pig. That’s right, the Maguffin is a pig. Said porcine is then kidnapped by the villain who wants to find the location of a Black Cauldron that can raise an army of skeletal soldiers. Taran goes to rescue the pig but is captured instead and put in a tower where he meets Princess Eilonwy – who is followed around by a magic bauble – and the old bard Fflewddur Fflam. He finds a magical sword that can defeat just about any enemy. They visit some fairies where they are reunited with the thaumaturgical hog, go and visit some witches who give them the Black Cauldron which they then use to try and defeat the big hornèd one, but they accidentally set off some kind of green misty vortex that acts like a vaccum that can only be stopped by someone voluntarily dying in it. This is just scratching the surface of the relentless bizarreness of this film.
The whole thing is just so strange. There’s an indeterminate creature named Gurgi who sounds like Gollum and occasionally follows this mismatched group of friends around. By the end he sacrifices himself by throwing his little furry body to certain death within the cauldron (yes, this is a Disney film). The bard that joins the merry crew has a lyre that apparently snaps its strings whenever the singer tells a lie. This is never really explored, it’s just assumed. There’s a brief and unexplained foray into the world of fairies that live beneath a well (I think?) that doesn’t serve much of a purpose. Perhaps this narrative oddness is because the film is based on far richer source material, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, so it only shows glimpses of a world that had previously been expanded upon over five books. In that way it could be like the early Harry Potter films, jumping between events and parts of the world without really explaining them.
Much of the stilted nature of the storytelling can be attributed to the arguments that went on in the production, with Jeffrey Katzenberg falling out with Michael Eisner over the edit of the film. The version we don’t get to see had a fleeing Eilonwy with ripped clothes, more of the fairy world and an undead soldier slicing someone up the torso. Getting rid of such scenes leads to a jarring continuity, and the troubled production occasionally shows in the finished product (Katzenberg, not long for the studio, was apparently disappointed with it). You can see why this was such a contentious film, and also why it isn’t as famous as, well, most other Disney films.
Yet here’s the thing – The Black Cauldron is the least Disneyish of the lot and it is certainly the strangest and scariest in the canon, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot to enjoy about The Black Cauldron, even if it’s not quite as family friendly as some of the studio’s more famous films. The animation isn’t great – more Saturday morning TV cartoon than some of their more artistically accomplished films – but there’s something charmingly rustic about the look of it. The unashamed fantasy setting is a fascinating one for Disney to explore, the old crumbling castles and magical swords apparently inspired by Welsh mythology. It’s also, to use a reviewing cliché, something of a rip-roaring adventure, flitting from event to event and never really letting up the pace. It doesn’t all work (the fairies section feels especially unnecessary), but this is often exciting and different. Princess Eilonwy, meanwhile, is the most interesting Princess so far, so naturally isn’t in the range you can buy in the Disney stores.
The Black Cauldron is a curiosity, perhaps a film more for completionists than casual fans, but it is undoubtedly a fascinating film. It’s full-on fantasy, and it embraces that at the cost of accessibility and enjoyment for younger audiences. A unique experience.