Set in the mythical land of Prydain during the Early Middle Ages, the film centers on the evil Horned King who hopes to secure an ancient magical object known as The Black Cauldron that will aid him in his desire to conquer the world. He is opposed by a young pig keeper named Taran, the young princess Eilonwy, the bard Fflewddur Fflam, and a wild creature named Gurgi who seek to destroy the Cauldron, to prevent the Horned King from ruling the world.
The film is directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, who had directed Disney's previous animated film The Fox and the Hound in 1981. This is the first full-length animated motion picture to be recorded and presented in 70mm 6-track Dolby Stereo sound. It features the voices of Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, and John Hurt. A video game based on the film was released in 1986.
The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature film to receive a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), as well as the first Disney animated feature film to feature computer-generated imagery. The film was released theatrically by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution on July 24, 1985. With the budget of $44 million, it was the most expensive animated film ever made at the time. The film is notorious for being a major box office disaster, as it earned $21.3 million domestically, which it led to a loss for the studio, putting Walt Disney Feature Animation near to bankruptcy. Due to its poor performance, Disney didn't release the film on home video until 1998.
The film is considered one of the worst entries in the Disney Animated Canon (along with Home on the Range and Chicken Little, though The Black Cauldron does have the largest fanbase out of three of these films). However, the film has gained a cult following in recent years, most notably since the early 2000's, ironically during a time period known as The Second Dark Age.
As the film starts, a voice-over explains the legend of the Black Cauldron:
"Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain, there was once a king so cruel and so evil that even the Gods feared him. Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron. There his demonic spirit was captured in the form of a great, black cauldron. For uncounted centuries, the black cauldron lay hidden, waiting, while evil men searched for it, knowing whoever possessed it would have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors... and with them, rule the world..."
On the small farm of Caer Dallben, Taran, a young boy relegated to the life of an "assistant pig keeper", longs for joining the war against the evil Horned King and becoming a hero despite the insistence of Dallben, his guardian, that "war is no game". On a nondescript morning, Hen Wen, the pig Taran looks after, seems to go crazy. Dallben explains that Hen Wen is a magical pig who can create visions using water, which Taran was previously unaware of. Using Hen Wen's powers, Dallben discovers that the Horned King is after the Black Cauldron and that he seeks to capture Hen Wen, and use her to find it. Realizing that Hen Wen simply cannot fall into the hands of the Horned King, Dallben orders Taran to leave the farm and take Hen Wen into hiding. The scene, then, shifts to the Horned King, who plans to resurrect a number of fallen warriors as an army of zombies known as the "Cauldron Born" in a plot to capture the Black Cauldron.
Meanwhile, Taran starts daydreaming about being a warrior, but is shaken out of it when he sees that Hen Wen is gone. Taran looks for her in the forest, instead encountering a strange creature named Gurgi, who likes apples. Gurgi insists on being Taran's friend, but Taran is annoyed by Gurgi's mischievous behavior. In the midst of their confrontation, Taran hears a squeal and finds that Hen Wen is being chased by the Gwythaints, dragon-like creatures that serve the Horned King. Taran attempts to rescue her, but the Gwythaints carry her off. He follows them to the Horned King's dark castle. Determined to save Hen Wen, Taran heads for the castle, but the cowardly Gurgi elects to remain behind.
Taran sneaks into the castle and finds his way to a banquet hall filled with the King's partying henchmen, apparently celebrating the capture of the pig. The festivity ends abruptly when the Horned King appears and Creeper, a creature that serves the King, order Hen Wen to be brought out. Creeper orders the pig to reveal the location of the Black Cauldron, but she refuses. Taran stumbles onto the scene and the King, realizing Taran is the owner of the pig, orders him to make Hen Wen reveal the location of the Black Cauldron. Taran refuses, but when the King orders for Hen Wen to be beheaded, he relents. Taran ends up spooked by the Horned King's appearance, and helps Hen Wen escape before being captured. Thrown into the dungeons, Taran is left to brood over his failure. Just then, a piece of the floor opens and a magic bauble pops out, followed by a princess. She introduces herself as Princess Eilonwy, and is disappointed when she finds out that Taran isn't a warrior. Nevertheless, they team up to escape the castle.
While exploring the dungeon, they share their stories about how they got thrown in the dungeon. Eilonwy was captured because the Horned King thought her bauble could tell him where the Cauldron was, and like Taran, she was thrown into the dungeons when his plan failed. They come across a burial chamber, where Taran obtains a sword. They then enter a room where a minstrel is being chained by another henchman. The minstrel, Fflewddur Fflam, tries to convince the henchman to let him go. But everything he says is a lie: he is cursed, and every time he lies, one of the strings on his harp snaps. Taran and Eilonwy attempt to set him free, but then they hear more henchmen coming. They run for it, while Fflewddur tries to save himself. Taran and Eilonwy get separated. Suddenly, Taran runs into a guard wielding an axe. The guard attempts to kill Taran, but before he can strike, Taran pulls out his sword, Dyrnwyn, and uses it to block the axe. The sword magically damages the axe, and the horrified guard runs away. Excited over the magic sword, Taran plays with it for a while, but then Eilonwy shows up, and they continue onward. They run into more guards, and Taran deflects them with the magic sword. Meanwhile, Fflewddur has escaped the dungeon, but is being chased by a dog. Taran slows down the guards by slashing some wine barrels with the sword. Taran and Eilonwy finally make it to the entrance of the castle, only to find the drawbridge closed. Creeper and the other henchmen have them cornered, but then Taran uses the sword to cut the chain to the drawbridge, allowing it to fall down. Creeper and the guards stand back in fright, while Fflewddur bowls past them. Taran and Eilonwy make it past the closing gate, but Fflewddur barely makes it with his pants ripped, and together they escape into the forest.
Back in the castle, Creeper nervously goes to the Horned King's throne room and informs his master of the pig-keeper's escape. He attempts to choke himself as punishment, but is surprised to find out his master likes the news: if Taran has escaped, he will find his pig, and then he can capture them both again. The King orders him to send the Gwythaints to follow the boy, which Creeper thankfully does. In the forest, Fflewddur is singing to the heroes (the only song in the film), while Eilonwy is sewing his pants. They are all very thankful that they made it out of the castle alive. But Taran starts to become arrogant and say that he wasn't afraid. He and Eilonwy get into an argument, wherein the Princess runs off crying. Taran storms off in the oppsite direction, ignoring Fflewddur's attempts to make peace. Taran goes to apologize to her, and she forgives him immediately, because they all need to work together to find the Cauldron before the Horned King does. Just then they hear Fflewddur yell for help. Taran draws his sword in case of danger, but sheaths it when he realizes that Fflewddur's assailant is none other than Gurgi.
After an argument, Gurgi reveals that he knows where Hen Wen is, and the others follow him. They come to an enchanted whirlpool, and are sucked down. They find themselves in an underground universe peopled by pixies, and ruled by the kindly King Eidilleg. He does not like humans in his home; the whirlpool, maintained by the bad-tempered court workman Doli, is supposed to keep them out. Nevertheless, he helps them. He knows where the Black Cauldron is, and instructs Doli to take them to Morva, the land where it is hidden. He also has Hen Wen, and she and Taran are reunited. But Taran is afraid to take her to Morva; the King says that he will send her back to Dalban's farm. He then conjures up magic clouds to transport Doli and the travellers to Morva.
The Cauldron, it turns out, is in a cottage governed by three witches: Orddu, Orgoch, and Orwen. They have a larder full of frogs. There is strong implication that they are humans who stole from the witches in the past, which are to be eaten. Orwen takes a fancy to Fflewddur, and will not allow him to be turned into a frog. The witches reveal that they never give anything away; they trade. Taran, seeing that they have nothing else of value to offer, trades his sword for the Cauldron. A storm blows up, and the heroes are transported outside. The earth shakes, and the Black Cauldron emerges from it.
The witches, now in the form of clouds, inform the heroes that the Black Cauldron can never be destroyed, but only its evil powers can be stopped. A living being must climb into the cauldron of his own free will, however the good person shall never climb out alive. They then disappear, saying they always keep a bargain... Gurgi, in a rare burst of bravery, had agreed to jump into the cauldron, but on hearing that he will die, his courage fails him.
Later, the heroes are sitting around a fire trying to figure out what to do with the Cauldron. Doli gets frustrated and disappears. Taran blurts out that he's nothing without the sword, but Eilonwy assures him that he is somebody; he just needs to believe in himself. Taran is about to reply, while Fflewddur and Gurgi look on with happy eyes, seeing that the pair are attracted to each other. Then Taran turns to all of them, saying they've all been good friends thus far. Just then, a cry is heard. The Gwythaints circle above their heads; they have found them! Gurgi sneaks to safety, but when the others try to make a run for it, they're stopped in their tracks by the Horned King's henchmen. Gurgi looks sadly at his captured friends.
Back at the Horned King's castle, Creeper orders another cart to be taken into the castle. He, then, taunts the three captured friends while preparing the Cauldron for his master. The Horned King, then, enters, acknowledges the three heroes for finding the Cauldron for him, then prepares them for "what fate has in store for you...". He picks up a dead warrior, puts it in the Cauldron, and begins his great spell. The cauldron brings to life all the dead warriors in the castle and transforms them into the "Cauldron Born". All the Horned King's henchmen run away in fear. The three heroes begin to despair as now all hope seems lost. Creeper takes his master to the tallest tower so they can get a better view of the undead leaving the castle. Meanwhile, Gurgi sneaks into the castle, evading the horrifying soldiers brought to life by the Cauldron. He reaches Taran and the others, and unties everyone. Remembering the witches' advice, Taran makes up his mind then and there that he'll sacrifice himself to destroy the black magic. Eilonwy begs him not to, but is unable to stop him. Gurgi jumps in front of him, however, and insists that he sacrifice himself instead. He walks toward the Cauldron and says his final, desolate words: "Taran has many friends...Gurgi has no friends..." Taran tries to stop him, but Gurgi jumps into the Cauldron and destroys the black magic. Outside, Creeper and the Horned King watch in shock as their undead army falls and dies. Blaming Creeper for the screw-up, the King chokes his slave and decides to throw him into the cauldron to start the spell working again. Taran tells Eilonwy and Fflewddur to leave the castle while he attempts to save Gurgi. As the King and Creeper enter the chamber, they see Taran is free. Creeper blames Taran for the incident, and the King drops him and turns his anger on the boy: "You have interfered for the last time. Now, pig-keeper, you shall die!". He attempts to throw Taran into the Cauldron, but suddenly, the wind issuing from the cauldron turns on him, and he cannot escape. He screams in anger as he is violently sucked in. Once he's gone, Creeper begins to mourn for his master, but then realizes he is now free and will never be throttled again, and starts laughing. The Cauldron sinks into the ground and the castle begins to crumble. Taran finds his friends waiting for him. They escape in a longboat as the castle explodes and falls into the water. Creeper, still laughing, flies away on a Gwythaint.
Taran and his friends have just made it to shore when the Cauldron rises from the water. The witches reappear, again in the form of clouds, decide the heroes have no more use for the Cauldron, and prepare to take it back. But Fflewddur reminds them that they always keep a bargain by trade. Orddu doesn't want to give up the sword, but Orda and Orwen do. Orwen gives it to Taran. Taran no longer wants the sword, but will trade it instead for Gurgi's life. Orddu deems it impossible, but when Fflewddur starts goading them, they take away the Cauldron and the sword and leave a lifeless Gurgi in the cauldron's place. The heroes look tearfully at Gurgi, and Taran picks him up to hold him. But suddenly, Gurgi reaches for munchies and crunchies, and everyone is ecstatic to see him alive again. Furthermore, he pushes Taran and Princess Eilonwy's heads together when they are staring at each other, and they share a kiss. They all head home together. Back at the farm, Dallben, Doli, and Hen Wen are all watching the heroes through a vision. They all agree that Taran did very well on his first adventure.
- Grant Bardsley as Taran
- Susan Sheridan as Eilonwy
- Freddie Jones as Dallben
- Nigel Hawthorne as Fflewddur Fflam
- Arthur Malet as King Eidilleg
- John Byner as Gurgi/Doli
- Eda Reiss Merin, Adele Malis-Morey, and Billie Hayes as Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch
- Phil Fondacaro as Creeper
- John Hurt as Horned King
- Frank Welker as Hen Wen (uncredited)
- Wayne Allwine, Pete Renaday, James Almanzar, Phil Fondacaro, Steve Hale, Phil Nibbelink, and Jack Laing as the Horned King's Henchmen
- John Huston as Narrator
Walt Disney Productions optioned Lloyd Alexander's Newbery Medal-winning and widely acclaimed five-volume The Chronicles of Prydain series in 1971, and pre-production work began in 1973 when the film rights to Alexander's books were finally obtained. According to Ollie Johnston, it was he and Frank Thomas that convinced the studio to produce the motion picture adaptation of the series. As fans of the book series, the two animators hoped that if the film would be done properly, it might be "as good as Snow White". Because of the numerous storylines and with over thirty characters in the original series, several story artists and animators worked on the development of the film throughout the 1970s, where it was originally slated for release in 1980. Veteran artist Mel Shaw created inspirational conceptual pastel sketches in which then-Disney CEO Ron W. Miller considered to be too advanced for the animators. Therefore, in August 1978, the studio pushed its release date back to Christmas 1984 due to the animators' inability of animating realistic human characters; its original release date would later be assumed by The Fox and the Hound. During its development limbo, one of those writers was veteran storyboard artist Vance Gerry who was chosen to create beat storyboards that would outline the plot, action, and locations. Having set up the three principal characters, Gerry adapted the Horned King into a big-bellied Viking who had a red beard, fiery temper, and wore a steel helmet with two large horns. Desiring an experienced British screenwriter to write the screenplay, the studio signed Rosemary Anne Sisson onto the project.
The first director attached to the project was animator John Musker after he was proposed the job by production head Tom Wilhite. As director, Musker was assigned to expand several sequences in the first act, but they were eventually deemed too comedic. When production on The Fox and the Hound had wrapped, several feature animation directors Art Stevens, Richard Rich, Ted Berman, and Dave Michener became involved in The Black Cauldron. When Miller decided too many people were involved, he decided Stevens was not appropriate to supervise the project so he contacted Joe Hale, who was a longtime layout artist at Disney Studios, to serve as producer. With Hale as producer, actual production on The Black Cauldron officially began in 1980. He tossed out visual character artwork submitted by Tim Burton and along with The Fox and the Hound directors Richard Rich and Ted Berman, they desired a Sleeping Beauty-style approach and brought Milt Kahl out of retirement to create character designs for Taran, Princess Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflam, and the other principal characters. He and the story team (including two story artists David Jonas and Al Wilson that Hale brought to the project) revised the film, capsulizing the story of the first two books and making some considerable changes which led to the departure of Sisson who had creative differences with Hale and the directors. Animators John Musker and Ron Clements, also citing creative differences, were removed from the project and began development on Basil of Baker Street, later to be renamed The Great Mouse Detective. Displeased with Vance Gerry's concept for the Horned King, the Horned King became a thin creature donning a hood and carried a spectral presence with shadowed face and glowing red eyes where Hale decided to expand his role, making him the composite villain of the several characters from the books. Taran and Eilonwy eventually acquired elements of the past designs and costumes of earlier Disney characters, especially the latter who was drawn to resemble Princess Aurora.
The production of the film, which initially lasted from 1980 to 1984, represented the rift between the studio management of Walt Disney Productions and the newer and less-experienced animators of the studio's animation department. The second group - the newer and less-experienced animators - had always dreamt of working at Disney's animation department, were very enthusiastic about the film project, and really wanted to prove their worth by creating the film that would hearken back to the glory days of great Disney storytelling and filmmaking, as well as pushing the envelope of what can be accomplished in animation. They also felt that they're continually bogged down by the old guard (i.e. the studio management). The first group - the studio management - on the other hand, felt that the animators are spoiled brats and commanded them to follow orders and do as they were told. This has resulted in many instances of creative differences between the two groups and the final result is that neither may have gotten exactly what they wanted.
Invented by David W. Spencer from the studio's still camera department, the animation photo transfer process (shorten as the APT process) was first used for The Black Cauldron, which would enhance the technology by which the rough animation would be processed onto celluloid. First, the rough animation would be photographed onto high-contrast litho film, and the resulting negative would be copied onto the plastic cel sheets that would transfer lines and the colors which eventually eliminated the hand-inking process. But as the APT-transferred line art would fade off of the cels over time, most or all of the film was done using the xerographic process which had been in place at Disney since the late 1950s. Spencer would win an Academy Scientific and Technical Achievement Award for this process, but the computer would soon render the APT process obsolete.
The Black Cauldron is notable for being Disney's first animated feature film to incorporate computer-generated imagery in its animation. The CGI was utilized for a lot of the film's special effects, which includes the bubbles, a boat, a floating orb of light, the Cauldron itself, the realistic flames seen near the end of the movie, and the boat that Taran and his friends used to escape the castle. The dimensions and volume of the animated objects were fed into a computer and then their shapes were manipulated through computer programming before they were transferred as physical outlines the animators could work on. Despite The Black Cauldron being released a year before The Great Mouse Detective, both films were in production simultaneously for some time and the computer graphics for the latter were done first. When producer Joe Hale heard about what was being done, the possibilities made him excited and he made the crew from The Great Mouse Detective project create some computer animation for his own movie. For the other effects, animator Don Paul used live-action footage of dry ice mists to create the steam and smoke coming out of the Cauldron.
The Disney sound editors began experimenting with newly-recorded sound effects, beginning with this film, to replace many of the classic effects heard in many Disney animated films up until after The Fox and the Hound. This included newer, more-realistic thunderclaps (to replace the "Castle Thunder" sound effect used on most 1937-1981 animated Disney features), newer crashes and explosions, and more. A rare 1985 trailer of this film, however, did use many old Disney sound effects in it (particularly "Castle Thunder"), and The Great Mouse Detective (released the following year) made heavy use of the old Disney sound effects. After that film, the classic sound effects (including "Castle Thunder") were officially retired from Walt Disney Feature Animation. The Walt Disney Studios sound team, then, went back to experiment with newly-recorded sound effects and sound mixing in Oliver & Company, and has continued to do so in every new Disney animated feature film onward.
The Black Cauldron is the first Disney animated feature film to have closing credits since Alice in Wonderland. This film was shot using the Super Technirama 70 widescreen 70mm film process, and is one of only two Disney films to have been produced in such a manner, the other being Sleeping Beauty.
Shortly before the film's initially planned Christmas 1984 theatrical release, a test screening for the rough cut of The Black Cauldron was held at the studio's private theater in Burbank, California. After the film, particularly the climactic "Cauldron Born" sequence, proved to be too intense and frightening for the majority of the children in the audience (most of whom fled the theater in terror before it was even finished), the then-newly appointed Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered certain scenes from The Black Cauldron be cut, as a result of the film's long length and the fear that the film's graphic nature would alienate children and family audiences. Since animated films were generally edited in storyboard form using Leica reels (later known as animatics: storyboards shot sequentially and set to temporary audio tracks), producer Joe Hale objected to Katzenberg's demands. Katzenberg responded by having the film brought into an edit bay and editing the film himself.
Informed of what Katzenberg was doing by Hale, Michael Eisner, the then-newly installed CEO and Chairman of Walt Disney Productions, called Katzenberg in the editing room and convinced him to stop. Though he did what Eisner insisted, Katzenberg requested that the film be modified, and delayed its scheduled Christmas 1984 release to July 1985, so that the whole film could be reworked, even though the film, itself, had just been completed.
The film was ultimately cut by twelve to fifteen minutes, all of which were fully animated and scored. As a result, some existing scenes were rewritten, reanimated, and reedited for continuity. Many of the cut scenes involved the undead "Cauldron Born", who are used as the Horned King's army in the final act of the film. While most of the scenes were seamlessly removed from the film, one particular cut involving a Cauldron Born warrior killing a person by decapitating him and another one killing another person by decapitating his torso created a rather recognizable lapse because the removal of the scene creates a jump in the film's soundtrack. Other deleted scenes include mostly shots of graphic violence such as the ones where Taran kills some of the Horned King's guards with the magic sword Dyrnwyn, while he and Eilonwy escape from the castle; shots of Princess Eilonwy being partially naked with her dress torn, as she's hanging for her life with Taran and Fflewddur Fflam; whole sequences involving the world of the Fair Folk; scenes of the Horned King with a flowing cloak; one scene featuring one of the King's henchmen being mauled by one of the Cauldron Born warriors, which causes him to form horrifically detailed lacerations and boils, before he rots away to become one of the Cauldron Born warriors himself (a couple of animated cels of that particular scene can actually now be found on the Internet); and a more action-oriented, dramatic, and intense climatic fight scene between Taran and the Horned King before the latter is sucked into the Cauldron. Had it not went through many last-minute drastic changes, The Black Cauldron would have held the distinction of being the only full-length Disney animated feature film and the first film released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner to be rated either PG-13 or R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). After months of hard work, the final film ultimately received a PG rating from the MPAA, the first ever for a Disney animated feature film and the only one until Dinosaur, fifteen years later, in 2000.
As of January 2018, the original version of the film with the removed scenes restored and intact has never been released on VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, DVD, or Blu-Ray. A version of the film with more cuts has appeared on the Disney Channel and Toon Disney. ABC Family, however, airs the film in its entirety with a TV-PG-V rating guideline.
In July 1985, Pinocchio was released on home video for the first time. The videotape that was released in 1985 features the trailer for The Black Cauldron, which contains one of the cut scenes from the original version of the film. In this trailer, three Cauldron-Born warriors jump up, as opposed to the film, where only two jump up – this is also the scene where the soundtrack jumped in the film, but in the trailer it is intact.
The Black Cauldron: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is the soundtrack album to the film. It was composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein and originally released in 1985. The tracks were performed by Utah Symphony Orchestra.
Unlike most other Disney animated films, the film contained no songs. At the time, Bernstein just came off the success of his Academy Award-nominated score for the 1983 film Trading Places as well as the score for the 1984 film Ghostbusters. Like in the latter of the two, The Black Cauldron saw the use of the ghostly ondes Martenot to build upon the dark mood of Prydain.
Because of the film's last minute revisions, much of Bernstein's score was cut and unused. In its minority, the score was re-recorded for the album original release by Varèse Sarabande in 1985. The album soon fell out of print and many of the film's tracks did not resurface until a bootleg copy entitled "Taran" was supplied to soundtrack specialty outlets in 1996.
The soundtrack was re-released in 2012 as part of Intrada Records partnership with Walt Disney Records to re-release several Disney films soundtracks. The album features a new expanded and remastered version of the score.
The score received positive reviews from music critics, and today is regarded as one of best works by Bernstein and for a Disney animated film, despite its obscurity. Jason Ankeny from AllMusic gave to the soundtrack a positive review, stating that "Bernstein's bleak arrangements and ominous melodies vividly underline the fantasy world portrayed onscreen, and taken purely on its own terms, the score is an undeniable success". The film score review website Filmtracks wrote: "The score for The Black Cauldron was for Bernstein what Mulan was for Jerry Goldsmith in the next decade: a fascinating journey into a fresh realm that required its music to play a more significant role in the film".
|United States||1985||Cassette, CD, LP||Varèse Sarabande||B000OODDXS|
|April 3, 2012||CD, digital download||Intrada Records||B007SYIQAM|
The Black Cauldron was released in North America on July 26, 1985. The film was also screened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, New York. It was the most expensive animated feature made as of its release in 1985 with a budget of over $44 million, although some other sources suggests that the film's budget was at $25 million. The film, however, grossed only $21 million at the North American box office and it is considered one of the worst box-office failures from Walt Disney Pictures. It resulted in a loss for Walt Disney Studios and put the future of the animation department in jeopardy. It performed so poorly that it was not distributed for a home video release for more than a decade after its theatrical run. To make matters worse, the film was beaten out of the box office by The Care Bears Movie, which was released several months earlier, to which Disney call this the proverbial "rock bottom".
The film was the last Disney animated film completed at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The animation department was moved to the Air Way facility in nearby in December 1984, and, following corporate restructuring, became a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Studios known as Walt Disney Feature Animation (later renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios).
The Black Cauldron received mixed-to-negative reception from film critics, upon its initial theatrical release. It has earned a "rotten" score of 55% at Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus "Ambitious but flawed, The Black Cauldron is technically brilliant as usual but lacks the compelling characters of other Disney animated classics." While the film earned praise for its animation, breakthrough technological achievements, and John Hurt's voice-over performance, the screenplay and lack of appeal on the dark nature of the Chronicles of Prydain book series were among the popular targets for criticism.
Roger Ebert gave a positive review of the film, while Charles Solomon of the Los Angeles Times praised its "splendid visuals". London's Time Out magazine, on the other hand, deemed it "a major disappointment", adding that "the charm, characterization and sheer good humor" found in previous Disney efforts "are sadly absent".
Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was dismayed by the final product and the animators felt that it lacked "the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander's work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted."
Lloyd Alexander, the author of the books on which the film was based, had a more positive, yet complex reaction to the film: "First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I'd also hope that they'd actually read the book. The book is quite different. It's a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book."
The Black Cauldron represented Walt Disney Productions' attempt to reach out to teenage fans of fantasy novels, a popular genre at the time. The gamble, however, proved unsuccessful as the film failed at the box-office, received mixed-to-negative reviews from critics, and nearly bankrupted Walt Disney Feature Animation. It had also reignited debates about whether or not the animation film genre can appeal beyond the children audiences, in light of the film's dark, graphic nature; Jeffrey Katzenberg's controversial decision to reedit and rework the majority of the film when the whole film had already been completed prior to his arrival at the Walt Disney Studios; and the growing concern that mature audiences wouldn't pique any interest to sit through and watch an animated film, let alone any film that was produced by the Walt Disney Studios.
The negative response from audiences, critics and Disney fans is the reason why Eilonwy is not included in the official Disney Princess line, despite being a princess from a film produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation.
Although Disney traditionally re-released their animated features every seven or so years to theaters, The Black Cauldron remained out of circulation (both theatrically and on home video) for well over a decade after its release. Following many requests from fans, The Black Cauldron was first released on VHS in 1998 in a pan-and-scan transfer. A DVD release with a non-anamorphic letterboxed 2.39:1 transfer followed in 2000, featuring an art gallery, a new game "The Quest for the Black Cauldron", and the 1952 Donald Duck short Trick or Treat.
In 2008, Disney announced a Special Edition DVD release of the film to be released in 2009, but failed. It was re-advertised as a 25th Anniversary Edition and released on September 14, 2010, in the US and UK. It contained a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the new "Witch's Challenge" game, a deleted scene centering on one of the whole sequences of the Fair Folk (which had been finally been made available to the public for the first time, if only in storyboard and rough animation form), and all of the bonus features from the 2000 DVD release.
Differences between the film and the novels
The Black Cauldron is based on the first two novels in the five-volume The Chronicles of Prydain book series written by Lloyd Alexander: The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron. Since that the decision was ultimately made for the basis of the film's story to be based on the first two novels, the filmmakers and animators took artistic liberties with the source material in the creation of the film. Among the many noticeable differences between the film and the first two novels include:
- Quite a number of significant characters were omitted from the film, including Coll, an assistant to Dallben, an evil queen/witch named Achren, a war hero named Gwydion, and an evil lord Arawn who was actually the master to the Horned King.
- Also missing is Ellidyr, a prince who sacrifices himself to the Cauldron; Gwystyl, a Fair Folk who has a way post near Annuvin; Adaon, Son of Taliesin; Medwyn, an enchanter who helps the companions; Morgant, a king who tries to use the Cauldron for himself; Smoit, a king who helps Gwydion find the Cauldron; and Kaw, a crow who can talk.
- In the books, Princess Eilonwy is described as having red-gold hair and bright blue eyes, but in the film, she has long blond hair and light blue eyes.
- Dallben had a beard in the books, perhaps having an appearance closer to Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings.
- Creeper, who served as the henchman to the Horned King, is an added character in the film, not found in the books.
- Fflewddur Fflam is described as having more yellowish hair in the books, as well as being lankier and much younger than what he appeared as in the film.
- In the first novel, The Book of Three, Taran does, indeed, find Dyrnwyn (the magical sword), but is injured when he attempts to clear it from its scabbard. Dallben later tells him that had he drawn it completely, it would have likely killed him. (He is able to wield it in the fifth book, The High King, since by that point he is able to draw it "for noble worth").
- The Horned King did not try to get his hands on the Black Cauldron. Unlike the film where the Cauldron is hidden and being sought by the Horned King, in the novels the Horned King was the servant to the evil lord, Arawn, who already owned the Cauldron to release the Cauldron-Born. In the beginning of the second novel, The Black Cauldron, the good characters planned to steal it from Arawn, only to find it had already been stolen (by the Witches of Morva).
- In the first novel, Prince Gwydion defeats the Horned King by shouting his true name aloud. In the film, the Horned King dies by being swallowed up by the Cauldron.
- In the film, Doli is clearly able to disappear/become invisible. In the first book, The Book of Three, Doli's main wish is to be able to have the power to become invisible.
- In the film, Taran meets Eilonwy in the dungeon of the Horned King's castle. In the first book, "The Book of Three", Taran was trapped in the evil witch, Achren's castle, and was then rescued by Eilonwy.
- In the film, Taran and Eilonwy meet Fflewddur Fflam in the dungeon. In The Book of Three, however, Taran and the war hero, Gwydion are separated in different dungeons. Taran sends Eilonwy to rescue his war hero friend, but mistakenly takes Fflewddur Fflam for Gwydion.
- At the end of the film, The Horned King's castle collapses. In the middle of the first book, Achren's castle collapses.
- There were inconsistencies in character motivations. Doli is presented as a bit of an oaf in the film, when in the books he is an ill-tempered but talented craftsman. Eilonwy is much more hot-tempered, stubborn, sarcastic, and resolute in the novels than in the film. The Witches of Morva, in the second novel, are more care-free about the Black Cauldron, opting to trade it to Taran for Adaon's Brooch. When the Witches (who really aren't all that afraid of Arawn or the Horned King) meet the protagonists, they are much more motherly and kind and much less sinister and cruel.
- In the film, Gurgi puts his body into the cauldron to destroy its powers. In the second book, however, it was a character named Ellidyr. Ellidyr goes into the Cauldron and dies. (In the film, Gurgi died, but was brought back to life by the Witches of Morva.) The Cauldron is also destroyed when Ellidyr jumps into it, but he is not restored to life. The Cauldron is destroyed, but Arawn's Cauldron-Born warriors still serve him.
- In the film, Hen Wen is a piglet. In the books, she is a full grown white sow.
- In "The Book of Three", Hen-Wen runs from Caer Dallben because she is frightened by the nearby presence of the Horned King. Taran is hooked into his adventure when he chases after her to return her to Caer Dallben. Dallben wants to keep her home so she can read a prophecy that might help them fight the Horned King. In the film, however, Dallben is sending Hen-Wen away with Taran to keep the Horned King from getting her.
- In the film, Hen-Wen uses her oracular abilities by gazing into a dish of water. In the books, Dallben has a set of ash-sticks with symbols carved on them. Hen-Wen, then, points to the symbols with her snout to dictate the prophecy.
- In the film, Eilonwy's bauble is depicted as a semi-sentient object which floats through the air under its own power. In the books, it is described more like an orb of gold which must be carried.
- In the film, Eilonwy tells Taran that the Horned King kidnapped her so that her bauble would give him information about the Black Cauldron. In the books, Eilonwy lives, more or less reluctantly, with her "Aunt" Achren, who is keeping Taran prisoner.
- In the film, Taran and the others are pulled into the Fair Folk realm by mistake. In the books, the lake is made to pull people in on purpose, as it is felt that if they reach the lake, they are already "too close" to Fair Folk territory to leave.
- In the film, Doli is depicted as a fairy. In the books, he is depicted as a dwarf.
- The Black Cauldron was inspired by the book series by Lloyd Alexander, The Chronicles of Prydain.
- It should be noted that this currently only film adaptation of the books written by Lloyd Alexander.
- Tim Burton worked on The Black Cauldron as a concept artist, and it was the first film he worked on that he was credited for. This was the second Disney movie he had worked on, the first being The Fox and the Hound. It was when he was working on this film, during his down time, that he came up with some drawing sketches of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Black Cauldron became Burton's last involvement with a Disney animated film, before he became a filmmaker in his own right.
- This is the first Disney film to not feature any musical numbers or any characters singing.
- This was the first animated Disney film from the canon to use sound effects made exclusively for the film. Though some were used in later Disney films (like the lightning strike sound effects). And the film only used some of the Jim McDonald Disney sound effects.
- The Black Cauldron is currently, as of 2018, the last motion picture to date to be filmed in the Super Technirama 70 widescreen 70mm film process.
- This is the first Disney animated feature to use the Walt Disney Pictures logo in the opening credits. This variation would be modified for some later movies, but the original music and logo variations played for most movies between 1985-2006. The music for the logo is actually composed by John Debney who also composed the logo for Touchstone Pictures in 1985.
- The Black Cauldron is the first full-length Disney animated feature film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to have completed scenes cut prior to release.
- This is Walt Disney Pictures' first full-length animated motion picture to receive a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
- The film Once Upon a Halloween implies that the Black Cauldron takes place in the same setting as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but centuries earlier.
- Along with Home on the Range and Chicken Little, this is considered one of the lowest-rated films in the Disney Animated Feature Canon.