In 1985, Disney would release an animated film based on Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydian. It would get the first PG rating to ever be given to a Walt Disney film and it would fail at the box office. The film was entitled The Black Cauldron and is generally regarded as the darkest and most frightening of Disney’s films.
In hindsight, The Black Cauldron seems like it might be Disney’s underrated film. Yes, it’s a dark children’s movie, but in terms of themes it somehow manages to feel less dark than The Hunchback of Notre Dame and manages to feel very cohesive with the tone and world due to be based off of a fantasy series.
The Black Cauldron follows Taran (Grant Bardsley), an assistant pig keeper, who learns from a vision from the pig Hen Wen that The Horned King (John Hurt) is searching for the Black Cauldron to raise an army of undead soldiers, the Cauldron-born. Taran is trusted with taking care of Hen Wen, but due to Taran’s day dreams of being a warrior, he loses track of the pig. While searching for Hen Wen, he meets a creature named Gurgi (John Byner). Taran’s searching leads him to the Horned King’s castle, where the pig is being held captive. The pig escapes and Taran is captured. While in the dungeon, he meets Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), who has also been captured, grabs an awesome magic sword and helps a bard named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) escape. The trio then decides to find Hen Wen and the Black Cauldron, the latter of which they intend to destroy.
This film, directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich–Rich went on to direct The Swan Princess and its sequels as well as The King and I–looks very much like a classic Disney film in terms of the character design. If someone isn’t looking closely, they could mistake Princess Eilonwy for Princess Aurora when she’s living in the forest. There’s also great coloring in this filming, such as shades of green that highlight areas of the Horned King’s castle as Taran approaches the building for the first time.
Although I can’t criticize the film in relation to its source material as I’ve never read that series, I can say that pretty much everything in the film works because it is set in a mystical fantasy world. From the presence of the adorable Fair Folk that are very fairy-like to vision-granting pigs to witches to the very presence of Gurgi, a talking creature that looks like a dog, but also like a small human, this all works because of the world of the film, which is easy to buy into and believe in this film.
Gurgi, meanwhile, serves as this film’s Cute Little Animal Sidekick. At first, Gurgi comes across as an annoying character thrown in to make the film cuter for kids, but as the film goes on, it becomes more clear that Gurgi is as important in this film as the Horned King or Taran. More importantly, Gurgi sacrifices himself to save the world, which is something that most Cute Little Animal Sidekicks would not do. And unlike most Cute Little Animal Sidekicks, Gurgi is not obnoxious or wisecracking, he’s simply a cute creature that talks in a muffled tone.
As for the violence, the violence in The Black Cauldron is no worse than what I’ve seen in some episodes of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, which is rated TV-PG. That being said, if you’re a parent who won’t let your children watch Adventure Time, then it might be best to not let them watch The Black Cauldron for a while. On another note, while I’m all for allowing children to watch potentially scary movies, I remember being a bit bored by The Black Cauldron as a child. Perhaps as an adult the movie is easier to appreciate because it’s easier to follow the plot. It still remains that The Black Cauldron is an underrated Disney film that will probably never get its deserved recognition.