Based on the first two books in The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, this movie had been in production since 1973 — twelve years! — before it got released by a Disney that wasn’t looking to play it safe. Actual production may not have started until 1980, but man — talk about a movie that was long in the making.
Another reason why the movie took so long to get to theaters was because of a horrific test screening of the rough cut inside Disney’s private theater in Burbank, California. The “cauldron born” sequence was so intense that most of the children in the theater literally ran out, which led to new Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ordering them to be cut. When producer Joe Hale objected, Katzenberg got an edit suite and did it himself. Hale went to Disney CEO Michael Eisner and put a stop to that, but the new edits causes a seven month delay and you can still see noticable jumps in what was removed.
The release of the film was a major loss for Walt Disney Studios and put the future of the animation department in jeopardy, giving The Black Cauldron the nickname “the film that almost killed Disney.” I guess that means that we’ll never see the other three novels in The Chronicles of Prydain huh?
Katezenberg would later say that the film 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.” As for the author, he claimed, “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.”
Look — it’s a movie with John Hurt’s voice of a gigantic Satanic Horned King, as well as voiceovers by John Huston as the narrator and John Byner as the heroic Gurgi. Of course I’m going to be inclined to like this, even if it came nowhere near my small town in 1985 and wasn’t released on video for more than a decade.
The film is all about the adventures of Taran who has dreams of becoming a famous warrior. A sorceror named Dallben worries that the Horned King will use his psychic pig — yes really — Hen Wen — double yes really — to locate the Black Cauldron, an occult tool that can create an invicible army of the dead. Why was this made? Who would have such a use for it? And why wasn’t it destroyed?
Well, we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise.
I had to step away from our live Disney week and make an exception for this film. I’d never seen it and it was high time I changed that.
It’s kind of amazing that after 2.5 million total drawings, 400 gallons of paint, 15,000 pencils, 300 erasers, 400 paint brushes, 1,165 different hues and colors and over 34 miles of film stock — according to Disney News Magazine Summer 1985 — that Disney buried this movie.
The legend of this movie has moved on past its failure. There’s a rumor that Legend of Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto based a lot of that game on this movie, which makes a lot of sense.