This weekend, marooned at home for my car being in the shop, I decided to watch The Black Cauldron, a Disney film mostly swept under the rug for being a huge flop in the theaters. I hadn’t seen it since it came out in the theaters, at a double feature with ET actually. I’m going to guess in that case it’d been out a bit, so I was probably about eight years old at the time. One reason I wanted to see it again was because mostly all I remember was my outrage at a couple of deviations from the book and wondered what I’d think as an adult, now that I no longer find it a sin to deviate a movie from a book.
It was Gurgi, the furry creature that befriends Taran, that originally had captured my imagination when my mother read me The Book of Three. My child self was deeply incensed to see that instead of a furry man-sized creature, a sort of neatherthal-like creature or perhaps a bit like bigfoot, movie Gurgi was basically an ewok. Now, as a child, naturally I loved ewoks, but that didn’t change the fact that Gurgi wasn’t supposed to be an ewok. He was supposed to be big!
Even worse, (spoilers ahead) it wasn’t Gurgi who sacrificed himself into the cauldron in the book version of The Black Caudron and the boy who did certainly didn’t come back to life. Never mind ET also dies and comes back to life (as common in movies as villains falling to their deaths is), but added onto the size outraged, my child self decided The Black Cauldron movie was terrible and sumerily wrote it off. Any contradictions with this and completely loving E.T. were not noticed.
Now and then over the years thinking about that double feature, I’d crack up. While still nostalgic about E. T. I also don’t think it’s nearly as good as I thought then, so it wasn’t that big a leap of logic to wonder if The Black Cauldron was better than I remembered. I read a few reviews that explained the reason it bombed in the theater was that it was a bit too graphic for the times, which naturally made it quite tame by modern standards. So, I thought I’d see what the movie was really like from an adult objective point of view.
Apparently my child self was right for the wrong reasons. The Black Cauldron is rather appalling as a Disney movie. If it was the He-man movie or Care Bears (which beat it out in earning in the theater at the time) I wouldn’t have been shocked. The movie is very much an 80s movie with lots of 80s movie flaws. Such as everyone standing around watching when action happens to one character, but lots of movies in the 80s were that way… it wasn’t any stodgier than say The Dark Crystal where the action is just as dorky and the mood just as creepy.
But Disney had set such a high prior standard that it took me by surprise this one was so typical of the 80s. It had none of the charm, characterization, or great storytelling of older Disney movies like The Jungle Book or The Sword in the Stone two notable examples with a character in them about Taran’s age (rather than the adults of the classic fairytales).
The scene where Taran meets Gurgi for example has him demand his apple back about five times… which is at least three times too many. The story crawled at some points, and yet the dialog was such those “character scenes” didn’t any character… and then suddenly, inexplicitly, random events would quickly happen without much explanation. This meant the story made about as much logical sense as a Miyazaki movie but without the beautiful art, the whimsy, the lovable characters, or the excuse of being constructed for Japanese audiences. Whoever Disney put for screen writing and storytelling on this one deserved to get fired (and probably did).
There were plenty of charming moments, in fact most of them centered around Gurgi. More of him would have helped the movie. Plus a couple of musical numbers (there were no songs at all in the movie and that was not to its benefit). While the reviews weren’t wrong it was animated violence before it’s time (the villain’s skin is peeled off him at the end as he screeches in death… it’s worth watching here) I found the scene in which one of the characters gets stuck between the witch’s boobs a bit more in startling. Seriously? Who thought that was a good idea in a kid’s movie in the 80s?
And why wasn’t I outraged that the Horned King was basically a rip-off of Skelitor? You’d think that’d be as sacrilegious as stealing ewoks, right? But at least I had a far more fun both watching and slashing it to pieces at thirty five than at eight. I just wish someone would make a real movie out of those books because it could have been so good. Disney ought to do a live action movie with the characters, but I’m guessing that’ll never happen since it was such a flop. It’s obvious now that was never the character’s fault, or even ewok Gurgi, ironically my favorite character in the film now after seeing it fresh. More of him might have saved the movie.
All in all a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.