Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Films of 1985: The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron (1985), an animated epic fantasy film from Walt Disney Studios, boasts a long-standing reputation as a box office bomb.  

Reports indicate that the movie cost 44 million dollars to produce, and it recouped well under half that amount.

The movie -- very loosely based on Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning Chronicles of Prydain pentalogy -- was also the subject of protracted battles in the editing room. The first PG-rated Disney cartoon, The Black Cauldron was also denied a home video release for many years after its theatrical engagement.  

The source of the pre-release conflict? 

The original cut was deemed too violent and much too dark, and roughly twelve minutes were excised from the final cut. Much of the trimmed material involved the final battle, and the deaths of the Cauldron-Born, creatures who are, essentially, skeleton zombies.  Studio executives were so concerned about the film's violence that its release date was pushed back from the Christmas season to the following summer.

Today -- some thirty years after The Black Cauldron’s release -- it’s difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. 

This film hardly seems any more violent than any other fantasy film, animated or live action, of the 1980s.  

In fact, in 21st century terms The Black Cauldron now seems like, well, a typical child's movie. It's a little goofy, a little scary, a little emotional and never less than entertaining.

Although the film’s villain, The Horned King remains menacing and effective, he is well-in-keeping with long-standing Hollywood movie villain tradition, which has provided audiences the Wicked Witch of the West, Darth Vader, and other iconic monsters that might accurately be termed “nightmare fodder.”

It’s a little strange to write about it in this fashion, but The Black Cauldron was for many years ahead of its time, and now, contrarily, perhaps time has finally caught up with it. Yet I believe it still carries relevant value as a work of art, however, because it pokes and prods at the very narrative structure it adopts.

And what is that structure?  

Well, The Black Cauldron is an example of the Monomyth, or the heroic journey. And as I've written before, this is the standard (and oft-repeated) mode of the fantasy genre today. Often to the genre's detriment.

But The Black Cauldron seems quite wary, or suspicious of the hero's journey paradigm, even as it apes it. And that embedded conflict signals a creative, imaginative and worthwhile way to tell this story.

In other words, The Black Cauldron looks to be your standard issue hero's journey movie, very much in keeping with Star Wars (1977), The Dark Crystal (1982), or Krull (1983).

Scratch the surface a bit, however, and one can see that the film is actually a critique -- or more accurately a rebuttal -- to this popular and pervasive story structure.

"No more dreaming."

A young assistant pig-keeper, Taran (Grant Bardlsey) dreams of being a great warrior, a great soldier who experiences untold adventures.  In real life, his master, an elder named Dallben (Freddie Jones) takes care of a pig, Hen Wen, who has been gifted with the power of prophecy.

When the pig foresees a future in which the Horned King sweeps across the land thanks to the Cauldron born -- an army of zombies -- it is decided that Taran must hide Hen Wen at a cottage on the edge of a forbidden forest.

Unfortunately, the dragon minions of The Horned King capture the pig, leaving Taran to partner with a strange little creature, Gurgi (John Byner), a minstrel (Nigel Hawthorne) and a beautiful princess, Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) to rescue the precious animal and gain possession of the mystical black cauldron before The Horned King can harness its power.

Unfortunately, the cauldron is in possession of three sinister witches.

"We never give anything away. We bargain. We trade."

The Black Cauldron is indeed a hero's journey story. It focuses on a young hero who must answer the call to adventure when he hears it. 

Young Taran -- much like Luke Skywalker -- dreams of escaping a life of drudgery, and becoming a great hero or soldier. He actively fantasizes about that life, so much so that he can't focus on the present, or the chores before him.  Instead he is called instead to his visions of majestic adulthood. At one point, Taran literally imagines himself as a knight in shining armor.

Taran is aided on his quest in the film by a mentor (Dallben), and a motley band of friends like Gurgi, Fflewddur Fllam, Eilonwy, and Hen Wen.  Not a one of them is particularly imposing, and yet they travel with Taran on his "road of trials," another crucial aspect of the Monomyth paradigm.  Before the movie's end, they must defeat the villain and make the return home.

As I've noted many times on the blog before, the Hero's Journey has been done to death. It's a 'universalist' concept used and re-used by many movies of the fantasy genre.  Sometimes it can serve as a short-cut to thinking, or innovation, or even imagination. 

Yet The Black Cauldron provides an intriguing twist on the material. In the typical Monomyth structure, the young hero rises, succeeds on his trials, receives the ultimate boon (the achievement of the quest) and brings peace to his people or land.

By contrast, The Black Cauldron doesn't appear to accept the idea that wars make for great heroes. 

Throughout the film, the screenplay pushes back hard against the very structure it utilizes. Taran is told, flat out, "war isn't a game. People get hurt." for example.  His fantasies of being a great warrior are thus revealed for what they are: childish, juvenile, or unrealistic dreams.  "Is the burning and killing still going on out there?" One character asks, caustically.

War, such dialogue informs us, is not some romantic, rarefied thing in which destinies are forged and heroes rise.  It is ugly. It hurts people.

Later, Taran must make a (bad) deal with the three witches that costs him one object of his quest: his magic sword.  

Again, consider that Luke Skywalker doesn't have to give up his father's light saber in the first Star Wars. Colwyn doesn't trade his glaive to battle the Beast and save the world in Krull (1983).

Yet to accomplish his "heroic" mission, Taran must forsake the very tool that traditionally, marks him as a hero, and allows him to win wars.  He loses his weapon.  He loses his ability to win a fight.

But if you accept that war isn't a game, Taran's trade makes abundant sense. The film's climax follows that point rather explicitly. Taran is not allowed to die in a heroic sacrifice, nor win a victory with a weapon.  Instead, a silly, unimposing little creature, Gurgi -- ostensibly the film's comic relief -- steps up and sacrifices his life instead.  

Thus Taran's quest is resolved through no traditionally heroic deed of his own. Instead, his ability to make a friend is the thing that saved his world from the Horned King.  What he did right was not win a fight, but win a friend.

The antidote to evil, then, according to The Black Cauldron is not great strength, not battle training, and not combat.  

Instead, friendship is the key.  

People succeed against evil by making connections to one other.  This idea, actually, is replayed (and replayed well, despite conventional wisdom) in The Phantom Menace (1999), a film that features a seemingly foolish creature like Gurgi (named Jar-Jar Binks), who also provides a key link in a "symbiotic circle" of his world. Without Gurgi (or the Gungans, actually) the heroes on their respective journeys cannot succeed. 

Taran is not a great hero in the traditional or stereotypical sense. He is not a great fighter, especially without the gimmick of his magic sword (which he trades away).  He also is not a "Chosen One" with great inherent powers.  Instead, a special pig has the power of second sight, or prophecy.  The hero's special sight, in this case, has been transferred to livestock.

These notions have always struck me as being very anti-hero's journey in a significant sense. 

In terms of villains, The Black Cauldron's most powerful moments arrive in the careful enunciation of a subtext about this fantasy world, and about real world history too. 

A cauldron is not just a metal pot, after all, but a situation characterized by “instability and strong emotions.” The world depicted in the Disney film qualifies as being an example of such instability. 

The movie reveals a world in which there seems to be no established force for good, and no functioning infrastructure to stop the sinister plans of The Horned King.  Instead, this villain plans to use the cauldron, and revive the darkness of the past. The cauldron is the container that keeps alive the memory/soul of an evil king from that past. It is thus a repository for all the ingredients of mankind's history, ingredients that may yet endanger peace.  

So The Black Cauldron reminds us that the past is never really dead at all. 

Instead, it is always threatening to boil over, to spill into the present with dire consequences.  Old conflicts and hatreds -- prejudice, nativism, violence -- don't seem to truly disappear, only to hide for awhile before bubbling to the surface once more.  And the cauldron, we are explicitly informed, can never be destroyed; just like man's bloody past can never be truly expunged, either.

We have to go on living with that cauldron, just as we have to go on living with the mistakes of the past.  

That’s not a bad motif for a fantasy film, and many of The Black Cauldron's stirring, dark visuals, aid in telling of a story in which unlikely heroes rise to quell a new threat to the present. 

As I noted above, the film also makes a powerful point about sacrifice.  Here, a character who is not a great warrior -- nor even tall in stature -- saves the world out of friendship.

The typical monommyth or hero's journey gives us a hero (often selected by destiny or fate) to "answer the call" to adventure.  The Black Cauldron features a hero's quest, all right, but the hero succeeds not by fighting, not by battle, and not by killing.  He thrives, instead, because of the friends he chooses to make.

It's difficult to understand why Disney saw that as such a "dark" concept back in 1985.  Friendship -- not war and strife -- says The Dark Cauldron, is the proper antidote to darkness.


  1. Anonymous10:09 AM

    I'm glad to read this. Lloyd Alexander's books are some of favorite from my childhood, and I have a soft spot for this film. When the Harry Potter films were at their peak, I had hoped a live action series might be made from the Chronicles (if I misremember not, Disney still has the rights), but this cartoon remains the one underrated production. This is a film that has been, I think, the victim of reputation more than anything else.
    --Hugh Davis

  2. What could have been for animation had this film been a hit.