It is hard to believe there was a time when Disney movies were not the powerhouse they are today. During the 1980s, having very little success producing new movies the studio relied more on older films like 101 Dalmatians or The Fox and the Hound. To give the powers that be credit (including a young Jeffrey Katzenberg) they were still giving it the old college try, though with only mediocre results. Having grown up in the 1980s I don’t remember many new projects that came out during this time. I was very surprised that I remembered the movie I am going to discuss, The Black Cauldron, at all. I vaguely remember seeing it at the local duplex back in the day with my sister, which was a double feature with a Winnie the Pooh flick. Other than that until I actually re-watched the film I barely could describe the plot.
What is interesting about this film is it is very different from their other work. Most Disney films in the past were based on well-known fairy tales that people recognized. This film was based on a series of books by Lloyd Alexander that retold a group of Welsh legends about a young pig farmer who becomes a great warrior. These books were mildly popular at the time, but not to the point where they were a household name. It was a bold gamble that unfortunately didn’t pay off like they wished. They went all in on this one creating new filming techniques and using computer graphic design long before it became a common practice.
Visually, the film is quite stunning. Probably one of the best they produced up to that point. It is a much darker film than they were used to making, both visually and in tone. At this time Disney was getting a run for its money from films that tended to be much darker that people flocked to, including The Secret of NIMH. Disney wanted to tread in waters that they normally weren’t comfortable with. They tried, but they went back to old habits very quickly. They still had the bright fluorescent colors with the fairies and the obligatory comic relief with Gurgi. The attempts at cuteness and clownish humor in this type of movie did not work at all. It is unlikely they were ready to give their audience too much credit for being ready for this new type of film as Katzenberg cut several portions of the film to make it more family friendly.
It is ironic that a film like this if it were made today in the proper way it would probably have been a major smash hit. With the success of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones this is absolutely the right time to do a remake of this film that is more true to the books. Just as long as it is someone else other than Disney taking the helm. They still aren’t entirely ready for such a project. That is the main reason they failed with this film. It wasn’t bad, but you feel as if they couldn’t decide if they wanted something light and fun or dark. There was no single vision at play here making the whole thing seem confused and without focus. I almost didn’t write about this movie as I wasn’t sure it was even available on DVD. It deserved to be a flop. Somehow it has managed to develop cult following. Perhaps that is all it should have at this point until someone can make it properly.