“The Black Cauldron” (1985)

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.

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“Oliver and Company” (1988)

Disney has a history of taking stories and books and changing them to make them more family friendly. Cinderella lost the cutting off of body parts and added in talking mice. Robin Hood had animals and made everything a merry gay time. But in some ways, Oliver and Company might be one of the most drastic departures from source material, and I’m including The Hunchback of Notre Dame in that statement.

Oliver and Company is taken from Dickens’ Oliver Twist, but this time with talking animals in Manhattan. Oliver (Joey Lawrence) is an orphaned kitten being sold from a box on a New York City street corner. After a rough rainy night, he meets a dog named Dodger (Billy Joel), and assists the canine in stealing some hot dogs. Upset that he doesn’t get any, Oliver follows Dodger to a boat on the docks, where Dodger lives with Tito (Cheech Marin), Einstein (Richard Mulligan), Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne) and Rita (Sheryl Lee Ralph). Oliver crashes through the roof and is adopted by Fagin (Dom DeLuise), a shady petty thief who owes money to Sykes (Robert Loggia). Sykes gives Fagin three days to repay his loan, so Fagin’s gang goes into town to try to ripoff some people.

After faking a car accident with the dogs, Oliver is adopted by Jenny (Natalie Gregory), who is the daughter of very wealthy people. Oliver, meantime, has to deal with Georgette (Bette Midler), the dog for Jenny’s family. However, Fagin’s gang decides to get Oliver, which then leads Fagin to get the idea of ransoming Oliver so that he can get the money to pay back Sykes.

This is of course a very sanitized version. Sykes, clearly based on Bill Sikes, is still evil, but does not have a prostitute girlfriend whom he beats to death. Fagin is made to be nicer, but he’s still a criminal with a gang that does his bidding. Mr. Brownlow seems to have Jenny as a stand-in, and everyone is nicer than their book counterpart.

But the failings of the film happen to be that it feels like a movie that is maybe only enjoyable for a child. As an adult, the biggest problem with the movie is that Fagin’s gang are a bunch of criminals and there really isn’t any of them that are appealing characters. They might posses a bit of a lovable rouge quality, but they aren’t even intriguing antiheros, although I would love it if Rita had gotten more screen time.

The only characters that get a decent amount of screen time that seem to be interesting are Oliver and Jenny. But then again, Oliver and Jenny seem to have a lot in common. The former is orphaned and is still trying to get his feet under him, without having much of a family. Jenny has parents, but they travel a lot and she seems to have more of a familial bond with her butler. This can help explain why the two get along so well because they both fulfill a need for a family in each other’s lives.

J.A.C. Redford’s music is fairly good, particularly with the catchy “Why Should I Worry?” But the music sometimes feels a little too clever, with lyrics such as “It’s raining cats and dogs outside” in the prologue number, “Once Upon a Time in New York City.” In the realm of Cute Little Animal Sidekicks, Tito fulfills the role even though most of the characters in this film are animals because Tito is loud and crazy, fitting the typical characterization of Cute Little Animal Sidekick. However, unlike some Cute Little Animal Sidekicks where you find yourself wish ill will on them because of how annoying they are, you feel sorry for Tito when he gets electrocuted multiple times.

As time has passed, Oliver and Company might prove to be an enjoyable film for children, but it’s not maybe a good movie to go back and revisit as an adult.