Directed By: Ted Berman & Richard Rich
Produced By: Joe Hale & Ron Miller
Based On: Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three & The Black Cauldron
Premiered On: July 24, 1985
Distribution By: Buena Vista Distribution
Now admittedly, I had called The Rescuers as one of the darker Disney films of this era but I meant that in the most literal of fashions. Aside from Madame Medusa and her willingness to commit murder, of varying degrees, to an innocent child, the film itself lacked a lot of the splendor of colors that most previous Disney Animated Films are famous for. The Black Cauldron on the other hand is a DARK movie in every sense of the word, from its villains, its scenery, and even its main protagonist this is not a film that I would ever recommend for really young audiences.
Yet, in a rather bizarre twist of fate, this is easily one of my favorite Disney films whilst simultaneously being one of my… I can’t say disliked because really there’s only a certain… element shall we say, in this film that deserves that word and more. Rather, this is a film that I will undoubtedly find myself soapboxing until this review is split in two, just to save reading space. As this movie is one that’s quite different from others that had come before or since, there will be a slight difference in how I review this film in particular, mostly with certain key moments that occur in the plot that, frankly, I’ve been waiting years to give my opinion on.
Now, first and foremost I should explain a wee bit of backstory to this film. Like most other Disney films, this movie is based on a book, two books to be specific, by author Lloyd Alexander who had, in turn, based these books on Welsh Mythology. Now I’m sorry to admit that I have next to little knowledge in most Welsh mythologies save for one aspect in particular. A good majority of… well… everything has difficult to pronounce names, something that even this film did not escape from entirely particularly so in the case of the comedic relief.
Moving on towards the actual plot of the film however, we begin with a narrative of a king who was so vile, so cruel, and so utterly evil that the very gods feared him. Now I want you all to think about that for a moment. Gods, beings who on the slightest of whim could turn the forces of nature upon us with extreme prejudice, were outright terrified of this king. Admittedly, Welsh gods might differ extremely from the likes of those found in say the Greek/Roman, Egyptian, or Norse Pantheons but the point still stands.
As no prison could hold him, and this is also taking into account those of immortal make here people, it was decided that throwing him alive into a crucible of molten iron was the only surefire way to contain him. Now, I may have mentioned this before in a previous review but that’s something of an interesting choice on the people’s part. Iron is commonly utilized as something of an “anti-magic” metal, capable of either stopping enchantments outright to even being able to harm magical and near immortal beings, such as fairies and elves, where most other metals couldn’t put a scratch on them.
Upon his death, the vile king’s demonic spirit transformed his metallic prison into a great, black cauldron that bore his visage upon its surface. For centuries following the demonic king’s demise, the Black Cauldron was hidden in wait as evil forces sought it out for the power it promised. For with the Black Cauldron in hand, one could raise forth an army of deathless warriors: the Cauldron-Born.
Following this rather epic narrative, we found our protagonist of the film, Taran lamenting at the idea that if the war is over, then he’ll never have the chance to fight and to prove himself as a “great warrior.” His master/adoptive elderly dude Dallben, an enchanter who lives in retirement in a quaint little cottage far from such dangers as war. Taran is completely oblivious to Dallben’s actual status and works as, and I kid you not, an Assistant Pig Keeper to Dallben’s pig Hen Wen who has more power in her snout than Taran does in his whole being.
As some of you might have guessed at this point, I hold more than a mite bit of dislike towards Taran, which I shall explain as the plot moves along.
As Hen Wen dines on her less than spectacular breakfast, Taran proceeds to whine about his lot in life of pampering a pig and that he is in fact a “warrior” not a pig keeper and that all he needs is a chance for him to become a famous warrior. He practices a few “sword moves” via a stick and laughs when he startles poor little Hen Wen into running for cover, saying that even she is afraid him before moving on to a flock of geese and making the horrible mistake of play-fighting with a goat that he pretends to be the Horned King.
The goat, rather justifiably, hands Taran’s butt to him into the mud.
However, life on the pig keeping scene comes to an end for Taran as Hen Wen suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, freaks out in the midst of her bath, leading Dallben to reveal the pig’s true power to the boy. Hen Wen is, and I kid you not, in possession of oracular powers that Dallben can call upon with a specific lyric that goes…
“Hen Wen from you I do beseech, knowledge that lies beyond my reach. Troubled thoughts beyond your heart, pray now those thoughts impart.”
Of course, he also says this whilst stirring his walking stick in a large bowl of water shortly before Hen Wen enters a trance and lays her snout upon the still waters, calling forth images of prophecy and foresight. While I try not to overanalyze too much when it comes to magic and sorcery, I again can’t help but wonder just when or how Dallben discovered that he had an oracular pig or how to access her visions. Seriously, I it’s like Mother Gothel and her rejuvenating flower, how much time did he spend trying to figure out the exact words and motions for this spell?
Back to the plot though, Hen Wen reveals that the Horned King is not only searching for the Black Cauldron but is somehow aware that Hen Wen can lead him to it. Dallben halts the vision and bids Taran to take Hen Wen to the hidden cottage at the edge of the Forbidden Forest and…
Sigh… Okay, seriously, show of hands, how many stories, be they book or film, have included a place called “The Forbidden Forest?”
Anyway, Taran does so, with much protest that he isn’t afraid of the Horned King, that he’s a great warrior, blah, blah, blah, before eventually making his way to said cottage with Hen Wen in tow.
With a quick scene change we are at long last introduced to the Horned King in all of his evil glory but that’s been said and done in a previous review so let’s continue on with Taran’s second bit of stupidity following the mocking of a goat shall we?
Whilst trekking through the forest, Taran once again gets caught up in a daydream of being a great warrior, complete with ridiculously over the top armor and sword, and fails to notice Hen Wen had wandered off. In an attempt to try and lure her out with an apple, it is stolen by the true hero of this tale, Gurgi, a…
Huh… In hindsight, there is no real name or explanation given to what Gurgi actually is. In the novel, he is described as being neither a beast nor a man but really a, and I quote directly here, “just a sort of a, kind of a thing.” The closest comparison I could make is something vaguely resembling a chimp but with a face filled with whiskers.
Gurgi is… somewhat like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings only so much that he has a wee bit of a speech impediment or three, constantly referring to himself in third person and speaking in awkward rhymes such as “munchings and crunchings” or “smackings and wackings.”
Anyway, though Gurgi thanks Taran for the apple, Taran demands its return with rather stupid vehemence. Honestly, he gives more care for the apple then for the fact that Hen Wen is still missing in the Forbidden Forest! Moving on, Gurgi helps Taran find Hen Wen if only so that he can have the rest of the apple but upon hearing the pig screaming in terror, makes a run for it while Taran tries to stop the Horned King’s wyvern-like Gwythaints from making off with Hen Wen.
He fails and chases after them to the treacherous foothills of the Horned King’s stronghold, which is apparently within spitting distance of the Forbidden Forest. To be fair to the old enchanter though, Dallben cannot be blamed for not being aware of this, as we’ll soon learn.
Gurgi tries to warn Taran of the dangers of the Horned King’s castle, saying that he came back because he wanted to be Taran’s friend, to which the foolhardy boy declines and calls him a miserable coward. He tosses the apple at Gurgi’s feet and makes his way into the Horned King’s castle where he finds a revelry of goons the likes of which I’ve yet to see in any other animated film.
Of course, the hootenanny of goons comes to an abrupt end the moment the Horned King enters the room in all of his wicked glory in what has to be one of the best entrances made by a Disney Villain ever.
Following this, the Horned King’s chief goon, the troll known as Creeper tries to force Hen Wen into showing his master where the Black Cauldron lays hidden, even going so far as to threaten her with a molten red piece of coal.
This of course leads to another bit of utter brilliance by Taran as he calls out “No, no!” and literally falls into the chamber because he was leaning too far forward. That’s… eh, I’ll be fair and say it’s his third biggest mistake so far in the film and continue on.
The Horned King bids him to make Hen Wen show him where the Black Cauldron can be found and Taran states that he can’t because he promised he wouldn’t to which the Horned King replies, rather nonchalantly might I add, that the pig is of no use to him then before shattering a goblet made of metal and glass with his bare hand.
Taran hastily changes his mind and casts the spell upon Hen Wen and her powers begin to show that the Black Cauldron is quite real and close to being within the Horned King’s grasp, which entices the black hearted devil enough to stand behind Taran and freak him the heck out upon seeing the Horned King’s face. The lad accidently causes the bowl of water to splash upon the Horned King’s face, scalding him. Taran makes a run for it with Hen Wen in his grasp and manages to make it to an outside pillar. He tosses Hen Wen into the moat but takes too bloody long to jump in himself and is captured by Creeper.
Taran laments once more in the dungeon, crying and cursing himself and his own stupidity before he finds an unexpected visitor in the form of the film’s secondary hero, or rather heroine, and chief chairperson of the Forgotten Princess Club of Disney Royalty, Princess Eilonwy and her enchanted bauble which glows and flies about with a will of its own.
Eilonwy, contrary to Taran, is surprisingly at ease about held prisoner by the likes of the Horned King with her only concern being rats because they do jump out at people so.
Having seen this for myself more than I’d care to on video and one really bad previous job experience, I can’t disagree with that sentiment.
Though rightfully disappointed in Taran being neither a lord nor a warrior but an assistant pig keeper, she invites him along in her escape. In her own words, she was hoping for someone to help her escape but if Taran wants to, he can come along regardless.
That right there deserves a round of applause for Eilonwy because she knew, right then and there, that Taran was inept at doing the simplest of tasks given to him and that she’d be carrying most of the weight herself. That kind of brilliance is one to be commended, especially when Taran answers with an excited “Can I?” to her invitation.
I’m sorry, but are you or are you not a prisoner to a man who would make the Devil himself run away in fear? A man who is, quite literally, hoarding the bodies of warriors from all across the land like a dragon does gold? The correct response to this situation is not “Can I?” but rather “Out of my way, I’m out!”
As the pair make their way through the catacombs of the castle, Eilonwy explains how she ends up in the danger and makes it no secret that she doesn’t really believe that Hen Wen is truly an oracular pig and tells Taran to stick close by or he’ll get lost. The two eventually stumble into a burial chamber of the great king whose castle and domain the Horned King had stolen. While Eilonwy makes her way further along, Taran is drawn to the coffin of the king, presuming the man to have been a great warrior because as we all know any king worth their crown is a master in the art of combat.
… Admittedly, such is often the case in medieval lore, particularly in Arthurian mythologies, but for pity’s sake Taran, not everyone in the whole of the world is some warrior of great renown. More to the point, if he truly respected this king and his so-called martial accomplishments, Taran would not do what he does next.
He steals the king’s sword.
Our protagonist, a Disney protagonist, commits grave robbery.
Eilonwy, who has just witnessed Creeper and the brigands dragging a cart full of bodies into another chamber, is more disgusted by Taran committing this act of thievery and rightfully so as the boy’s response to her surprise that he would actually do such a thing is, and I quote:
“Well, he’s not going to use it!”
That. That right there, is the BIGGEST mistake that Taran could ever make. Forget the questionable morality of stealing from the dead, let’s question the outright callousness of the act itself! Don’t get me wrong, considering the situation that the two of them are in at this moment, Taran was not entirely wrong in taking the dead king’s sword. Rather it’s the first thing that he says in his defense is what makes him a protagonist, not a hero, in my eyes.
He could have said it was a means of protecting themselves, a weapon to defend themselves against the brigands, or even a tool to help get them out of the castle, but nope! He goes with the callous remark that the dead guy in the other room won’t be using it so that makes it okay to steal it! The dead guy who happens to have been a KING no less! Grave robbing on its own is a serious crime but stealing from dead royalty?
Boy, you best be prepared for some serious karmic retribution, it is coming and it is NOT going to be happy with you.
The two eventually find themselves in another chamber where, of all things, a bard is being held captive. A bard by name of… oh for pity’s sake… Alright, let’s just spell check this real quick… Okay, here we go, a, ahem, Fflewddur Fflam is being chained up because of his harp’s inability to find the location of the Black Cauldron. Admittedly, the instrument in question makes for a serious good lie detector but apparently only to the one it claims as its master, its strings snapping free whenever he tells a lie.
… That’s… undeniably weird as far as lie detecting magical instruments go but hey, that’s magic for you.
Moving along, Eilonwy and Taran free Fflewddur as best they can but their escape has been noticed and the Horned King’s underlings are on the hunt for them. Though he’s still partially trapped, Fflewddur bids for the two of them to run before he realizes that he might want to do the same himself and hastily finishes freeing himself.
Whilst on the run, Eilonwy and Taran get separated, though only because, and boy do I wish I was kidding, Taran trips, freaking trips and drops the sword and stops to grab it. Though he tries to find Eilonwy, Taran ends up face to face with a brigand, who prepares to make mincemeat out of him whilst calling him a little scut, a name I’ll likely be using for the second half of this already ridiculously long review.
It is here that Taran discovers that the sword of the dead king is no mere blade of steel but an enchanted weapon that quite literally causes the brigand’s bladed axe to explode into pieces upon contact. The brigand makes a run for and Taran… pretty much acts like a kid on Christmas morning with the sword, swinging it around and laughing like a lunatic, making Eilonwy question his sensibilities when she finds him in the midst of this deluded dance of delight.
Filled with a confidence by way of enchanted sword in hand, Taran proclaims that it’ll be he who gets Eilonwy out of the castle and drags her off by the hand. They run into another band of brigands with one attempt to slice Taran only for his blade to meet the same as his fellow’s axe with the addition of being sent flying head over heels into the horde behind the pair.
Taran has Eilonwy run ahead of him while he stays behind to stab at the barrels of mead, with the sword sparkling and zapping bigger than normal holes into them. As before, he’s laughing like a loon while he does this, making me question whether or not he’s that insane or if there’s more to the sword than we know.
Anyway, the two make it to the castle gate but are cornered by the approaching brigands led by Creeper. While Taran flounders about at what to do, Eilonwy helpfully points out that he has a magic sword and that maybe, just saying mind you, he should consider using it. Taran does so by way of slicing the chain holding the gate up and escaping with Eilonwy and Fflewddur escaping just before the secondary gate comes crashing down.
To Be Continued…