Monday, May 13, 2013

Most Underrated Animated Disney Film?

The Black Cauldron
Director: Ted Berman and Richard Rich
Voice Talent: John Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne, Grant Bardlsey, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones
Released: July 24, 1985


I have a bit of an interesting history with this movie, but before I get into that, a little background on it: it is one of the most underrated, if not THE most underrated animated Disney film ever. If you have never heard of this film (which honestly wouldn't surprise me) you are either too young...or you just have never heard of it due to its lack of exposure and success. It came out four years before The Little Mermaid when the animated movies at Disney started to find their groove after a long lackluster period of time. The Black Cauldron is NOT a musical, something that is common with Disney's animated films and it was the first animated Disney movie to receive a PG rating (not sure if any has received a PG rating since...) You're probably thinking, 'Big deal, PG is nothing. Tons of kids' movies are rated PG.' But it was kind of a big deal because Disney is known for its cutesy and innocent storylines. This movie is really dark, especially for a childrens' film and maybe that's one of the reasons it only made $21 million at the box office when it cost more to make. It is considered one of Disney's worst box-office failures. It wasn't even released on home video until 13 years after its theatrical release. Thirteen years! While it didn't do well with the movie-going public, it did get mixed reviews from the critics, so while it wasn't praised like a Pixar movie (but really, which movie is?), it wasn't completely panned either.

The Black Cauldron is based on the first two books from a series called "The Chronicles of Prydain" written in 1965 by a Mr. Lloyd Alexander. I know, what? Who? Maybe that's another reason the movie wasn't a success. I suppose if it had been a success, they would have made the other three books into movies, but don't worry about not getting a satisfying conclusion as the movie does have an ending.
Run, Hen Wen, run! 
Taran is our main character. He is a nice fellow and wants nothing more than to be brave and a great swordsman, but Taran is a little on the bland side and has no charisma and is not even remotely interesting.  I'm really not sure how old he is suppose to be, but I'm guessing anywhere between twelve and sixteen. He lives with an older gentleman named Dallben who is some sort of sorcerer. Dallben owns a psychic pig named Hen Wen and Taran's job is to take care of Hen Wen, even though Dallben prepares her food. Why this old man can't take care of a pig, don't ask me. Though he does have a cat, too. Hen Wen has the ability to locate the whereabouts of the Black Cauldron which has the power to unleash a great deal of evil upon everyone as it can bring life back to dead slaves and warriors who will then become part of the Horned King's army. He is the Big Bad of this movie and he is one scary dude. He will stop at nothing to obtain the Black Cauldron.

This would scary anyone, any age!
So here is my history with this movie: I don't remember seeing this movie when I was younger, but I must have because I remember being absolutely terrified by it. And I must have seen it in the theaters (I would have been four) because it wasn't released on home video until 1998! Although it's possible it was on video to rent so maybe that' s how I saw it. Something I do remember growing up is that I had the storybook with the audio cassette where you would put the tape in your cassette player (God, I feel old!) and you read/listened along to the the voice reading the story to you. There was one page that totally freaked me out because it was a full page of the Horned King's Undead Army....just picture a bunch of skeletons in tattered robes and if you were five/six years old, that would scare you too! This movie really did a number on me and has traumatized me for life! Forget the movie, the freaking storybook and cassette scarred me! It wasn't until the year 2000 when I discovered E-bay and how easy it was to use and how much fun it was to find and buy stuff, which for me, was mostly CDs and DVDs. It wasn't as though I just remembered The Black Cauldron existed and wanted to see it again. No, this underrated, under appreciated Disney movie had always been in the back of my mind after all those years (cuz you never forget something that fills your with fear!) and E-bay was the first place where I could find myself a copy of the DVD and that is how I obtained mine.

Gollum redux?
It had been well over a decade since I had last seen it as a child and this time I was watching it as a college student. Even watching it at that age, the movie still had this really creepy element to it that was quite disturbing that it could still have that effect on me. There's even something unsettling about the style of the animation. Being that it was made in the early '80s, it has this archaic feel to it that I'm not sure may or may not have been intentional. There's a furry little creature named Gurgi who Taran befriends after Hen Wen is captured and brought to the Horned King's castle and Taran must rescue her. There's a lot of elements of this movie that is very reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Taran = Frodo. The Horned King = What'shisface. The black cauldron = the ring (powerful object that can destroy the world). And Gurgi = Gollum. You can tell that The Lord of the Rings was a big influence for this story. Gurgi even sounds like a mix between Gollum and Donald Duck even though Gollum from the movies didn't even exist back then. Like Gollum, Gurgi also loves to eat and is always searching for "munchies and crunchies." The only difference between Gurgi and Gollum (their names even start with the same letter!) - and it's a big one - is that while Gollum was completely selfish and could never be redeemed (I always started out feeling sorry for him, then hated him by the end of the trilogy and thought he got what he deserved), Gurgi starts off very selfish, but ends the movie by sacrificing himself to save his friends. First let me back off and explain how we get there...

Taran manages to make it to the Horned King's castle even though it's a long distance between the castle and where he lives with cragged rocks and cliffs and a moat between the two places. They never really show how he got there. One second he's looking at the far away castle, the next he's just snuck into it! Poor Hen Wen. That pig goes through so much emotional drama in this movie. First she is chased like prey and captured by dragons who bring her to the Horned King. Then when she refuses to use her powers to show him where the cauldron is (which is looking into a vat filled with some kind of potion), he threatens to chop her head off with an axe and comes within seconds of doing so until Taran screams for him to stop and makes Hen Wen use her psychic ability. She manages to escape, but Taran is captured and put into a cell where he meets Princess Eilonwy (pronounced I-lon-wee) who is quite chipper and well-groomed for someone who has been a prisoner for who knows how long. While attempting (and managing) to escape they come across another prisoner, an older gentleman named Fflewddur Fflam who provides the comic relief when Gurgi is not around.

Warning: This segment contains a major spoiler!
After visiting some annoying underground pixies and three witches (one of which is quite smitten with Fflewddur), Taran trades the magical sword he found at the castle for the Black Cauldron with the head witch who knows where it is (it is in her collection of other black cauldrons). It is only AFTER Taran trades the sword that he is told the cauldron is indestructible and the only way you can stop its demonic powers is for someone to step inside it and sacrifice their life. Gee, thanks, you bitches, I mean, witches!  The Horned King finds out they have the cauldron and captures the three humans while Gurgi escapes and hides. Using the cauldron's powers, the Horned King creates his undead army and thousands upon thousands of skeleton warriors rise from the cauldron. Gurgi realizes what a horrible....creature he is for shunning his back on his friends, so he goes back to the castle and frees them. He then sacrifices himself by jumping into the cauldron. That causes the undead army to shatter and for the Horned King to be killed. Back when I saw this for the first time after a long hiatus, I was bawling when Taran holds Gurgi's lifeless body. I had totally forgotten that after a few minutes of appearing to be "dead", Gurgi opens his eyes and is acting like his old self again. Guess what? He's alive! Now that I know that, this scene does nothing to affect me since I know he ends up alive and well. I wonder if they had intended to kill him off all along, but because this was a Disney film, they wanted to go the happy ending route where everyone lives happily ever after and all the evil from the world is gone for good. Since I've never read the books this movie is based on (much less never heard of until recently!) I have no idea what happens to his character in those. The ending would have had a lot more impact if Gurgi had died...and stayed dead.

The Black Cauldron is far from being a perfect movie and has many flaws and despite being a fairly short movie, there are scenes that feel too dragged out (annoying underwater fairy children, anyone?), but it is quite different from any Disney movie you've ever seen (the absence of songs for one) and should be considered for giving a watch. I wouldn't recommend it for young children, though!

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