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The Black Cauldron - The Film and the DVD **Warning Complete Story Spoilers**


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#1 of 34 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted February 13 2004 - 02:39 PM

In my personal opinion, at the root of every bad movie is a bad screenplay. Before we can jump into an anlaysis into the wisdom of making Cauldron, I think it's fair to first judge the movie itself. Fantasia was probably an unwise business decision, too, but Fantasia turned out to be a glorious movie and is today one of the brightest gems in the Disney crown. Cauldron is not a bright gem.

THE STORY

The primary reason Cauldron doesn't work is the story. Cauldron is a "chase" movie. Like The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, the good guys are in possession of an item that the villain desperately needs to consolidate his power. In the instance of Cauldron, that item is the pig, Hen-Wen, which has the magical ability to locate people and objects. The villain needs the pig to find the Black Cauldron, an evil object with the ability to create an Army of the Undead called the "Cauldron-Born". Those who have been charged with protecting the pig learn that the villain has learned of Hen-Wen's powers and they learn that the villain is now searching for the porcine oracle. The young "assisant pig-keeper", Taran, is ordered to take the pig into a secret location deep in the forest, to hide her from the villain.

Taran is a young man who dreams of proving his manhood. He thirsts for adult respect, and believes that if he were a great warrior and soldier, he would be admired and would be seen finally as a man, and not a boy. He resents his job as "assistant pig-keeper", because how on earth could anyone respect a man whose primary job is servant, and servant to a pig, no less? Fighting and defeating the Horned King in battle, however, would earn him respect.

So far, so good.

Taran heads into the forest with Hen-Wen, and begins to daydream of people cheering his name. When he snaps out of his reverie, he discovers to his horror that the pig has wandered off. He begins to search for the pig, and is waylaid by the small furry animal, Gurgi, who pounces on him to steal his food. While arguing with Gurgi, Taran hears the squeals of Hen-Wen. He runs into a clearing and sees that winged servants of the Horned King are pursuing her. Despite his best efforts, she is captured by the beasts, who then fly off to the Horned King's castle (victory through medieval air power).

Taran decides he must save her from the Horned King's clutches. Again, from a story stand point, so far, so good. Hen Wen is the "prize", and Taran is in pursuit. Taran asks the creature Gurgi to go with him, but Gurgi is a small coward who would never dream of such a thing. Taran goes alone.

He infiltrates the Castle and finally sees the Horned King - a mysterious cloaked figure possessing magical abilities. He is visually terrifying, but as a character, he lacks a personality. He should be "the Wicked Witch" of the story looking for the Ruby slippers, or the Lord Voldemort questing for Harry Potter's blood, or Darth Vader looking for the Death Star plans. The Wicked Witch is a gleeful sadist who enjoys torturing others more than she does killing them. Voldemort is an incredibly arrogant racist who despises Wizards who have breeded with non-magical humans, and he wants to slaughter them all (sort of like Judge Frollo, only without the sense of humour). Darth Vader is a violent, passive-aggressive fascist who persecutes others for his own failures. When angered by his inability to control the world, Vader is the sort who would walk across the street to kick a puppy, to take out his own internal rage on those weaker than himself.

The Horned King, when we see him in action, is like a skeleton on life support. His voice sounds like a strangled whisper, as if it is a struggle to even speak. Throughout the entire film, we learn nothing of who he really is. The hallmark of Disney animation is "personality animation", and yet, here is one of the most fearsome-looking Disney villains of all-time, and he has the all personality of a dying oak tree. We know the motivations of the Witch, Voldemort, and Vader. We don't know the Horned King's motivations, other than the woefully cliched hunger to "rule the world". Why does he want to rule the world? What makes him tick? We never know.

Taran manages to grab Hen Wen and is chased through the castle. He throws Hen Wen off a high ledge into the castle moat, freeing her, but he is captured himself. Taran is thrown into the dungeon, and at this point in the movie, the story abruptly changes direction.

Much has been made of the similarities between The Black Cauldron and Star Wars. With apologies to Carrie Fisher, Hen Wen is the Princess Leia of the story. Leia knows where the Rebel Base is, and Hen Wen knows where the Black Cauldron is. Luke infiltrates the Death Star to rescue Leia, Taran infiltrates the Castle to rescue Hen Wen. Vader tracks Luke and Leia to the rebel base, the Horned King tracks Taran to the Black Cauldron. Cauldron has also been compared to The Wizard of Oz, in that Taran/Dorothy and a group of unlikely friends try to face down an Unholy Evil who craves a magical object that will increase power.

There is a primary reason why Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz work so well - and this has been termed the "victim/villain relationship" by Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book, The Disney Villains. In both Star Wars and Wizard of Oz, the protagonist and the antagonist have a distinct realtionship with each other. Luke hates Vader because Vader killed his father. They are personally linked through a debt of blood. The Wicked Witch of the West wants to kill Dorothy, because she blames Dorothy for the death of her sister, the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy also wears the Ruby Slippers of the dead sister, and the Witch wants them, and so the protagonist and the antagonist are personally linked.

There is no personal linkage between the Horned King and Taran. They have no personal relationship at all, no personal conflicts. If you don't have have conflict, you don't have drama. You feel for Luke and Dorothy because they have suffered an injustice at the hands of the antagonist. Once Taran rescues Hen Wen, the entire dramatic arc of the movie shifts to Taran's quest for respect and heroism. All the drama in the film up to this point has been a Maguffin, we realize. The only real conflict in the story is Taran's battle with his own pride.

As the second act begins, Taran sits mournfully in the dungeon, deeply ashamed at his failure, his pride stinging as he recalls his own bold promises and dreams from the beginning of the story.

A stone in the floor suddenly lifts up, and a teenage girl enters from the floor below. Also a prisoner of the Horned King, she has escaped her cell and has heard Taran's mournful self-loathing, and so, she breaks into Taran's cell to see if he can help her escape. She is disappointed that Taran is just a young teenage boy, not a warrior, which rankles Taran (again, the wounded pride), but she invites Taran to come with her, anyway.

The girl says she is the Princess Eilonwy, and once again, we are given a character with no clear personality and motivations. Like the Horned King, she is a paper-thin cliche. A Princess of an unnamed kingdom, with a few token words of empowered feminism ("Girl? If not for this girl, you would still be in the Horned King's dungeon!"), she serves no narrative purpose in the story at all, except to scream at scary things and to give comfort and encouragement to Taran.

Why was Eilonmy captured? Because she is accompanied by a magic bauble, a swirling ball of light that swirls around her like Peter Pan's Tinker Bell. Eilonmy tells Taran that she was captured because the Horned King thought the Bauble could tell him "where some old Cauldron" could be found.

What is the Bauble? What powers does it have? Why does it appear and disappear throughout the story? What is its point and narrative purpose in the film? The answers to these questions never come. Indeed, the Bauble is forgotten about rather quickly, by both the audience and apparently, the creative team.

Taran and Eilonwy creep through the corridors underneath the dungeons, looking for an escape route. They accidentally stumble into an antechamber housing the tomb of the Good King who once ruled in the castle before it became a domicile of evil. Atop the King's stone casket is a sword. Taran's eyes glitter (he needs a sword to prove himself a warrior). Taran performs a bit of grave-robbery, and takes the sword for himself.

When Taran and Eilonwy are discovered by one of the Horned King's soldiers, the sword magically comes to life, slashing and shattering the weapons of the guard, who runs in terror. Taran is overjoyed -- the sword is the answer to his prayers...with the magic sword, he can finally be the great warrior he has always dreamed of becoming.

Taran and Eilonwy begin to make their escape, and they run into a cell housing another prisoner of the Horned King -- an old man named Flewdurr Flam, a travelling bard with a magic harp. The harp's magic power? It snaps a string every time Flewdurr tells a lie. Taran and Eilonwy rescue Flewdurr and the trio make a daring escape, with Taran's sword saving the day again and again.

What is Flewdurr's point in the story? Comedy relief, I suppose, and a few words of wisdom here and there.

Outside the castle, the group rests and regroups. They are set upon by Gurgi, who is looking for food. Taran calls Gurgi a coward, but Gurgi remembers that he has seen Hen Wen's footprints.

The group, with Gurgi leading the way, begin to try and find Hen Wen. They follow her footprints, until they stop at a large pond. The pond is a magical door into the land of the "Fair Folk", winged pixies who are aligned against the Horned King. They have been hiding Hen Wen, and Taran tells them the Horned King is after the Cauldron. Taran figures that if they can reach the Cauldron first, and destroy it, then they can stop the Horned King's plans.

The King of the Fair Folk, Eidelleg, knows where the Cauldron is hidden, and so he sends the cranky old pixie, Doli, to lead Taran and his friends. Taran says goodbye to Hen Wen, and the pig is never seen again until the last shot of the film. Again, she is a Maguffin, the true story of the film is Taran's quest for respect.

The party is led into the swamp of Morva, where the Cauldron is guarded by three witches. They bargain for possession of the Cauldron, and Taran reluctantly gives up his sword in exchange for it. Once the Cauldron is raised, the party suddenly realizes they can't damage it in any way. The Three Witches re-appear and tell them the Cauldron cannot be destroyed. Once it has been activated, and begins creating the Undead Army, the only way to stop it is by sacrifice. A living being must climb into it of its own free will, and give up his life.

The group sits dejectedly, and then the screenwriters realize they have no use for Doli anymore, and so he chastises the group for being incompetent, and he vanishes. Suddenly the party is ambushed by the Horned King's soldiers, who have been following them. Cowardly Gurgi runs away, and watches in the distance as the group is taken prisoner and led back to the Castle with the Cauldron in tow.

Why are Taran, Eilonwy, and Flewdurr taken back to the Castle? I suppose the Horned King suffers from "James Bond Villain" syndrome. Killing the group would be too easy. Far better to tie them up so you can call them names and then force them to be victims of the Cauldron-Born.

DR. HORNED KING BLOFELD
Mwah ha ha ha. Goodbye, Mr. Bond. I have you tied up so you can watch me turn on my destructive evil weapon. Now, I will leave the room, so you can figure out a way to escape and thwart my evil plan, which will surely end with my own ironic destruction. Come, incompetent lackey - let us watch from atop my fortress, which surely will explode and collapse just as the good guys escape.

The Horned King has the Cauldron taken to a room inside his castle which is full of decomposing skeletons -- bodies apparently dug up out of graves or collected on some distant battlefield and taken to the castle to be used as an undead army. The Horned King sneers at Taran and friends, then deposits a dead warrior into the Cauldron, and then, in a nod to The Ten Commandments, a creepy mist issues forth, which brings the dead soldiers to life.

The skeletons begin to rise and stagger around, killing a few of the Horned King's soldiers. This sequence shows heavy signs of editorial tinkering, with last-minute edits so jarring, they interrupt music cues (as the film cuts from one shot to another, you can hear the tail end of a symbal crash fading into the distance. If you have the Black Cauldron soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, you can "hear" the original sequence in its true form. It is well-known that Jeffrey Katzenberg - new to the company - took the scissors to The Black Cauldron in an effort to improve the film weeks before its release (or possibly, cut out certain shots to try to avoid a then-controversial PG rating). Nowhere is Katzenberg's tinkering more apparent than in these climactic scenes, though the rumour goes some lifts were also made during Taran's 1st act trip through the forest looking for Hen Wen before he meets Gurgi, as well as the removal of a character named Moose, who was one of the Horned King's less-intelligent soldiers. According to Disney insiders, the cut footage is nothing to write home about, and amounts to around two minutes, total.

Still, the cuts to this final sequence are readily apparent, and because these cuts were made to lessen the terror and violence of the Cauldron-Born, they therefore somewhat lessen the importance of stopping them. It would be nice to one day see a completely-uncut Cauldron, but it is doubtful two minutes of footage could solve the film's myriad problems.

The Horned King leaves the room so he can go to a high ledge of his castle and watch the Cauldron Born slowly walk forth and slaughter everyone in the Kingdom.

Meanwhile back in the dungeon, Gurgi suddenly appears, having had a change of heart, realizing he must not be a coward and that he must stand up for his friends. Gurgi frees the group, and then Taran decides to jump into the Cauldron and sacrifice himself to stop its evil. Gurgi will not let Taran kill himself, saying "Master has many friends. Gurgi has no friends." Gurgi throws himself into the Cauldron, the Cauldron switches gears from "Blow Green Mist" to "Suck Green Mist Back In". A fierce wind whips through the room as the Cauldron begins to vacuum the green mist back into itself.

The Horned King becomes enraged as he watches the bodies of his undead warriors stop in their tracks and fall to pieces. He storms back to the dungeon (as fast as he can, which isn't very fast), and sees Taran near the Cauldron. The Horned King decides to try and throw Taran into the Cauldron to "satisfy its hunger". Taran kicks the Horned King into the Cauldron's "vacuum", and the Horned King is swept across the floor to the Cauldron's base. The Cauldron glows red, the Horned King grabs a hold of it to try and hold on, and then then the wind becomes extremely fierce, ripping all the clothes and flesh off the Horned King's bones, leaving nothing of the King other than a shocked and stunned skeleton, which then explodes.

The Cauldron grows super-hot, Taran rejoins Eilonwy and Flewdur as they try to escape the castle by boat. Apparently, there is a sizable lake around the castle, a fact the filmmakers have forgotten to show us up until now. The castle collapses, pushing the boat to safety on a giant blast of water.

Taran and friends paddle to shore and watch silently as the castle submerges into the lake. The Cauldron suddenly bubbles to the surface, and floats towards them. The Three Witches then re-appear, to reclaim the Cauldron. Flewdurr (suddenly acting as Taran's attorney) refuses to give up the Cauldron for nothing. The Witches offer to exchange Taran's magic sword in exchange for the Cauldron so he can be a hero.

"I'm no hero. Gurgi was the hero." Taran says, grieving. "I'm not a warrior. I'm a pig-keeper." Taran says, finally at peace with his station in life.

Taran proves his inner strength and true quality of character by rejecting power. He offers to exchange the Cauldron for Gurgi. The Witches balk, and Flewdurr chides them. The Witches grow angry, and turn into streaks of light that swirl around the Cauldron. When the lights vanish, so has the Cauldron, and in its place is the lifeless body of Gurgi. Taran picks up Gurgi's body and the animal's head flops back, mouth open. It is an uncomfortable image, a degree of unnecessary realism that for my money is more distasteful than anything else in the movie.

The camera switches to a close up of Taran's face, and then we suddenly hear Gurgi's voice. Disney Ex Machina! Gurgi is alive! The band rejoices, and then they all happily march off into the sunrise. Meanwhile, Taran's aged mentor, Dallben, watches as magical pig Hen Wen projects a vision of all that has transpired. "You did well, my boy! You did well!" the mentor says.

Taran has achieved Adult Respect.

The End.

THE ANIMATION AND THE DVD

The Black Cauldron was photographed in Technirama 70, the same wide-screen process used for Sleeping Beauty in 1959. Lacking compelling characters and a compelling story and compelling drama, Cauldron tried to rely instead on rock-'em, sock-'em f/x animation, swooping camera moves, and booming 6-track Dolby Stereo Sound in the 70mm venues.

Several experimental procedures were used in the film. Cauldron was the first animated Disney film to incorporate Computer-Generated Images alongside hand-drawn images (*not* The Great Mouse Detective, which is often incorrectly cited by Disney as being their first film to use CGI in their hand-drawn films). In Cauldron, the escape-boat and Eilonwy's Magic Bauble were both created by Computer.

Another experimental choice was the use of live-action fog elements seen as a red, swirling background in the shots of Taran first approaching the Horned King's castle. Live-action elements were also used for the shots of green broiling smoke bubbling out of the Cauldron. The use of live-action film elements in Disney feature animation stretches all the way back to Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi, but these were somewhat subtle, used for rain f/x at night or revolving snowflakes seen in close-up. In Cauldron, these are not subtle.

The multiplane camera also received a work-out unlike anything seen in Disney animation since Sleeping Beauty in 1959. The DVD production notes state that Cauldron was the most technically elaborate animated feature since Pinocchio, but the final product has none of the refinement of Bambi, let alone Sleeping Beauty.

The quality of the clean-up animation and line work in Cauldron is best described as spotty, at best - some shots are pristine, some are alarmingly rushed, as the production team raced to complete the film on time. Some shots are as polished as anything seen in Alice in Wonderland, only to cut to another shot of a character riddled with obvious construction lines and line scrawl.

As for character animation, the film betrays the inexperience of the young animation team. An early shot of Taran swinging a stick like a sword is particularly unconvincing, with no weight passed down through the body. The Fair Folk are also weak in both design and animation, coming off like Smurfs with wings.

The best character animation seen in the film is saved for the comedic supporting characters, such as Gurgi, and Creeper, the Horned King's abused lackey. Some bravura animation was also employed for the Horned King's dragon-like spies, the Gwythaints.

The best the film has to offer for animation buffs is the f/x animation. The emergence of the Cauldron in Morva, complete with ground-ripping earthquake and landscape-shredding tornado, is a stand-out, as is the moment when the Cauldron is brought to ghastly life by the Horned King.

The film was not the huge flop people today assume it was. According to Disney, the film had a production budget of $25 million dollars, and had a domestic gross of almost $22 million. Still, in 1985, Cauldron was the first Disney animated film to not recoup its production budget in domestic theaters in over two decades, and as such, it stood out as a failure. The film was never re-released theatrically in the U.S., and it sat on the shelf in the Disney vault for over a decade, before finally seeing home video release in Europe, followed by a pan-and-scan only home video release in Region 1 in 1998.

The VHS release of Cauldron featured muted colors, a drab and fuzzy transfer, a stereo mix that could not possibly replicate the film's wall-shaking sound design, and because of the severe frame-cropping, the film's wide-screen staging could not be appreciated at all. This is the version of The Black Cauldron that most Americans are familiar with, and it's a shame.

Finally released on DVD in 2000 as part of Disney's Gold Collection, the film was given a substantial digital makeover. Disney chose to present the film on DVD in its original aspect ratio, and created a new transfer that dramatically improved upon the previous release image in terms of both color saturation and sharpness. The wide soundstage of the 5.1 audio track also restores the intended sonic-oomph of the film, with aggressive use of isolated sound f/x in the front left and right channels, as well as the eerie omnipresent voice of the Horned King, reverberating through the rear channels to surround you with John Hurt's strangled whispers.

Though it lacks a wide-screen enhacement, it is still miles ahead of the VHS release, and if you ever choose to view The Black Cauldron, the DVD is the only way it should be seen.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Black Cauldron didn't fail because of spooky animated skeletons or scary visuals - it failed because the writers and directors could not place them in a fantasy context that audiences could connect to. Snow White and Pinocchio feature moments of great horror, but they are rooted by solid story construction and characters that audiences could relate to and care about. There is little empathy with anyone in the film, because the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes. Unlike The Wizard of Oz or The Dark Crystal or Star Wars, the film fails to establish a compelling fantasy realm. Prydain should be a land rich in visual imagination, instead, it is made up of locations that almost feel as if they're recycled sets from some animation back-lot, from Maleficent's haunted castle in Sleeping Beauty to the Dwarfs' Log Bridge in Snow White.

Ultimately, the film is a failure of imagination, which is a shame, because so much hard work was obviously put into it. Somewhere within all that pre-production work was an opportunity for The Black Cauldron to score with mass audiences, but the muddled story and limp screenwriting scuttled the film before the first frame was ever drawn.

At the end of the day, story and character are what matter the most in any film of this kind. Without them, all the visual and sonic gimmicks in the world will not save you. Cauldron is an interesting, ambitious film, with some bold choices and strong visuals, but it serves animation fans best as a prime example of what happens when you can draw a great dragon, but can't write a great character.

-- Ernest Rister, 2/7/04

#2 of 34 OFFLINE   MatthewLouwrens

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Posted February 13 2004 - 03:40 PM

Whoa, deja vu.

Not a criticism - it is a great article, and buried among discussion about Disney vs Pizar, people might not see it.
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#3 of 34 OFFLINE   Adam_S

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Posted February 13 2004 - 04:20 PM

and I didn't see it in that thread. Excellent article.

I loved the Prydain chronicles, and was flabbergasted and furious at the haphhazard mismatching of the plots of various books. The film's storyline is a patchwork, lifting 'money' sequences left and right leaving nothing in between the next big sequence. There's never a chance for the story and characters to breathe, let alone develop. Just hop from one spectacle to the next and then attempt a big manipulation at the end. A big disapointment, although there is some very nice animation.


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#4 of 34 OFFLINE   TonyD

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Posted February 13 2004 - 04:54 PM

i didnt catch that in the other thread either.

maybe you should have your own thread or something were you do reviews of the older disney movies.


now i want to finally watch mycopy of cauldron.
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#5 of 34 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted February 13 2004 - 05:49 PM

I figured the review would get lost in that thread, especially with new Disney/Comcast/Pixar news surfacing on almost a daily basis, so I just made a thread out of it over here, since the wide-screen DVD is the only way to watch that movie. Too bad it doesn't have a widescreen enhancement - hopefully whoever ends up in control of Disney will eventually re-release it someday with the deleted footage and a proper enhancement for wide-screen TVs.

And since I'm pulling reviews out of threads, here's another one, from a thread discussing Disney's planned live-action DVD releases for 2004. I had placed notable titles in "bold" and Robert asked the following:

Hey Ernest--why no bold for "The Black Hole?" I know the movie was riddled with it's fair share of problems, but what's your take on it? I guess this question is kind of similar to my question about The Black Cauldron in that both movies made some noise before release, and then sank. They're mostly curiosity pieces now.

------------

Watching The Black Hole is an odd experience. There is some outstanding work in the film - what the film gets right, it nails (art direction, matte paintings, miniature work, lighting, music). But what it gets wrong, it gets wrong in an equally spectacular way...watching it is sort of like watching a baseball team with a roster including Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and the Bad News Bears pre-Matthau.

The movie is essentially a horror-film take on Disney's 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea -- travellers come across a ship that is commanded by a mad genius, and then they must struggle against the ship's crew (and each other) to escape. The Black Hole embellished this simple plot with haunted-house atmosphere, some ghoulish revelations, and a jolt of PG-rated violence. Disney's f/x department came up aces with terrific matte paintings and model work, and John Barry contributed a wonderful score.

How disconcerting it is to watch a movie with so much working great, and so much going wrong, all at the same time. Lurking at the center of any bad movie is a bad screenplay, and The Black Hole is no different, with characters who sound like they've been kidnapped from a 1950's B-movie. The characters are so bland, so stiff, that to this day, I struggle to remember their names. I just know them as "The Captain", "The Cocky Guy", "Ernest Borgnine", "Psychic Lady", "Mad Hairy Doctor with the Perm" and "Poor Anthony Perkins".

Sample Dialogue:

COCKY GUY
What does your intuition tell you, Kate?

PSYCHIC LADY
That Dr. Reindhart is walking a tightrope between genius...and insanity!


or

POOR ANTHONY PERKINS
So - he neglected his duty to his country for a higher ideal! So what! What basis in fact do you have for these macabre speculations? I agree that his style is somewhat unconventional, but he's willing and eager to share his knowledge with us! Doesn't that mean anything to you?


What is this, "Plan 9 from Buena Vista"? Did Ed Wood do an uncredited assist?

MAD HAIRY DOCTOR
The word impossible is only found in the dictionary of fools!


Where is the word "stilted" found?

Many films survive screenplays with thin characters and stiff dialogue (see Halloween and Titanic), but The Black Hole doesn't stop there. It is, in fact, only getting warmed up.

It is interesting to note that in a film where audiences struggle to remember the names of the human protagonists, everyone seems to remember the names of the following Black Hole characters: Vincent, Old Bob, and Maximillian. Vincent is a short, wise-ass robot who has the voice of Roddy MacDowall and also has a knack for quoting Ben Franklin during moments of high stress. Maximillian is the red, one-eyed, homicidal robot who has a knack for killing Anthony Perkins during moments of high stress. Old Bob is the same type of robot as Vincent, only he has the voice of Slim Pickens. Old Bob has been beaten severely for years by Maximillian, and he has a knack for dying during moments of high stress (bless him, he even says that great ubiquitous line of all B-movies, "Go on without me!").

The robots are a hoot. They look as if they've been designed by Disney's feature animation department, complete with black pupils inside of white "eyeballs", and like a Disney cartoon character, they express emotion through body language and movement. In fact, they look like "audio-animatronic" versions of robot cartoon characters, and watching them interact with the human actors makes one wish for a Black Hole blooper reel.

All films ask you to suspend your disbelief in one way or another. The robots in The Black Hole *beg* you to suspend your disbelief. In one amazing shot towards the end of the film, Maximillian and Mad Hairy Doctor even couple with each other in outer space, creating the first-ever moment of suggested Disney porn.

And that reminds me -- the film's notorious ending. Apparently the "Voyage through the Black Hole" sequence was always in a state of flux and indecision, even during production. Basically, the ending that was finally agreed upon by the creative team was this:

The end of the film finds our remaining heroes forced to travel into a black hole. A "black hole" is a collapsed star that has become so dense, light itself cannot escape its gravitational pull. In the film, the black hole is ultimately proved to be a wormhole of a sorts, zipping our heores to some distant corner of the universe.

As the ship descends into the phenomenon, the camera trucks in on the eyeball of "Psychic Lady", and we see her psychic vision. Mad Hairy Doctor and Maximillian get it on, then, the Evil Part of Mad Hairy Doctor's soul goes to Hell, which we see in vivid detail, while the Good Part of Mad Hairy Doctor's soul goes to Heaven.

Hell is full of flames and figures in black cloaks walking in an endless line, sort of like the Santa Monica Department of Motor Vehicles (oddly enough, these images are the demonic flip side to the images in the "Ave Maria" seqeuence of Fantasia). The path to Heaven is seen as a long succession of crystal archways, or giant ice scultpures. Heaven is apparently clean, pretty, and expensive.

After having this vision of the death of Mad Hairy Doctor, we see the ship in some unknown part of space. A star peeks out from behind a planet. The ship moves towards it. Roll Credits as John Barry blasts triumphant music to try and convince you the story has ended on an up note.

The problems I had with this ending, even as a kid were: Where are they now? How are they going to get home to Earth? How long until they run out of oxygen? What does Mad Hairy Doctor in Hell have to do with the rest of the movie? You are on your own in creating your own answers. The Black Hole comes on like a mass-market spooky space film, and then it ends like a bad dream Bergman had after eating too many tacos before bedtime.

Now for my confession -- The Black Hole was the first DVD I ever bought. In fact, because there was no laserdisc for The Black Hole ever released in wide-screen in the U.S., not only did I buy the DVD, I bought my first DVD *player* in order to watch it. Why? Why go through all that trouble for such an incredible trainwreck of a movie?

Because, like many bad movies, The Black Hole is fun. Plan Nine From Outer Space is a riot if you watch it with the right people. Ditto The Black Hole. Also, it's part of my childhood, and just watching it today is a kind of silly nostalgic thrill. I can watch it with friends and we can laugh our heads off, or I can watch it alone and fast forward to the meteor storm, and turn up my sound system.

At the end of the day, why we choose to like certain films has very little to do with logic and reasoning. More often than not, emotion and affection determine why a certain movie can strike a chord with people. Sometimes liking a movie is no more complicated than a film reminding you of your childhood, and that's the way it is with me and The Black Hole. I would never argue that it is a "good movie". In fact, as a movie, it's absurdly awful. But does it make me smile? Yes, yes it does, and most days, that's "good enough" for me.

-- Ernest Rister

(A New DVD Release for The Black Hole is Scheduled for August, 2004)

#6 of 34 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted February 13 2004 - 07:23 PM

Quite a review of the film. Mine would have been a lot shorter. When I originally saw the movie I thought it was absolutely one of the worst Disney movies ever made. I could almost hear Walt rolling in his grave. I mean, no matter what a person thinks of Walt Disney as a person, he really was a natural storyteller. He instinctively had a good idea about what worked and what didn't. Even his least successful films couldn't be called completely awful.

The same cannot be said about the THE BLACK HOLE. It was a monumental piece of garbage. It is one of the few films that Disney Corp. should be ashamed of. I think if Disney had still been alive he would have burnt the negative.

They will keep a movie like SONG OF THE SOUTH in the dungeon because a group of people are incapable of looking at the film from a rational perspective. They conveniently ignore the historical context of the era in which it was filmed. They also conveniently ignore the fact that, regardless of its less than stellar -by today's standards- depiction of Blacks, it did have one thing going for it. It cast a black man in a leading role. I doubt that that was a common occurence in the era when the film was made. The other thing it had going for it was some very good animated segments.

What does all this have to do with THE BLACK HOLE? Just this. Regardless of its now discredited depiction of black people, at least SONG OF THE SOUTH was a well told story. It had a sympathetic main character, good music, and decent animated "folk tale" segments. What does THE BLACK HOLE have going for it? Absolutely nothing. Yet the stinking pile of horse manure called THE BLACK HOLE gets released on to home video, while SONG OF THE SOUTH -a better film by a country mile- gets to rot and moulder away in the Disney dungeon.

The only decent thing in THE BLACK HOLE was the miniature work. The work done on the spacecraft was some fine model work. In fact, I feel sorry for the people who put such work and detail into those miniatures. I feel sorry for them, because all of their hard work was wasted in the service of a film without one reedeeming feature in the entire plot. I know a lot of people seem to have a soft spot for THE BLACK HOLE, but for the life of me I cannot see why.

The only thing Disney Corp. got right in the film -other than the model work- was the title. How fitting it is that a movie without wit, creativity, or a decent story would be titled THE BLACK HOLE.
"You bring a horse for me?" "Looks like......looks like we're shy of one horse." "No.......You brought two too many."

#7 of 34 OFFLINE   MatthewLouwrens

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Posted February 13 2004 - 08:08 PM

Quote:
They will keep a movie like SONG OF THE SOUTH in the dungeon because a group of people are incapable of looking at the film from a rational perspective. They conveniently ignore the historical context of the era in which it was filmed. They also conveniently ignore the fact that, regardless of its less than stellar -by today's standards- depiction of Blacks, it did have one thing going for it. It cast a black man in a leading role.

Hell, didn't James Baskett win an honourary Oscar for SOTS?
Films watched in 2005 / 2006 / 2007 / 2008 / 2009 / 2010 / 2011
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#8 of 34 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted February 13 2004 - 08:24 PM

I looked it up on imdb. He was awarded a special Oscar for his work on SoTS. I wonder how he viewed the "Uncle Remus" character. Did he feel demeaned by portraying a "stereotypical" character?
"You bring a horse for me?" "Looks like......looks like we're shy of one horse." "No.......You brought two too many."

#9 of 34 OFFLINE   Marius W

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Posted February 13 2004 - 09:02 PM

Here in Norway, The Black Cauldron didn't get a theatrical release at all. This was becaue it was given a higher rating than the other Disney animated films. I believe some tie-in's were available, but for the most part people did not know about this film.

This lead to an interesting story when the movie was released on VHS 6 years ago. Even Buena Vista Home Video in Norway didn't know much about it, so when their sales rep (I work for a large video rental/retail chain) was trying to sell the movie, he asked _me_ if _I_ knew anything about the movie, because he didn't.

-Marius

#10 of 34 OFFLINE   Brian Kidd

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Posted February 14 2004 - 01:22 AM

Ernest! What great reviews!

My favorite reviews are written by people who have an understanding and knowledge of the film about which they are writing. I must say that your reviews have been among the finest I've ever read at this site. Please do more! I'm a huge Disney buff and devour anything and everything I can concerning the films and their production.

Thanks again.
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#11 of 34 OFFLINE   Lars Vermundsberget

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Posted February 14 2004 - 02:15 AM

Very interesting reviews.

About The Black Cauldron, I'd like to see a "Criterion Collection"-class special edition some day - not for being one of Disney's greatest (it's far from it), but because of its long and troubled process of creation and its position in Disney (animation) history.

#12 of 34 OFFLINE   Mike_Richardson

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Posted February 14 2004 - 02:28 AM

I don't agree with your criticisms of the movie necessarily, but I do respect your well-written review. I enjoyed the books on which the film was partially based/condensed from, and I thought the picture was very entertaining. Along with Elmer Bernstein's outstanding score, it's a far better movie than most of Disney's recent work (do I need to bring up TREASURE PLANET and BROTHER BEAR?).

#13 of 34 OFFLINE   Todd Phillips

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Posted February 14 2004 - 02:41 AM

Quote:
THE BLACK HOLE. It was a monumental piece of garbage. It is one of the few films that Disney Corp. should be ashamed of.


Pretty strong reaction, Edwin. Perhaps if SOTS were released, you wouldn't feel so negative?

Quote:
What does THE BLACK HOLE have going for it? Absolutely nothing.


I have to say that I share Ernest's view of this film. I loved it as a kid. And part of that is because of the strong production design, special effects, and score. And watching it as an adult now, I still truly enjoy those aspects. The script was written by the Amazing Automatic Cliche Generator, which will anger you if you want real characters, but if you watch it expecting that, it is unintentionally funny.

It is a tragic mess, but still fun. I haven't seen the Black Cauldron in a long time, but I feel I would enjoy it less than the Black Hole.

(Maybe Disney should avoid making movies about evil, dangerous Black things?)

edit: fixed typo
"Safe? Who knows what's safe? I know a man who dropped dead from lookin' at his wife. My own grandmother fought the indians for sixty years, then choked to death on lemon pie."

#14 of 34 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted February 14 2004 - 06:49 AM

Treasure Planet isn't great, but it's not a bad movie by far. Beautiful animation -- the clean-up animation and line work are the finest of any modern Disney animated feature, hands down, and if I was to list the 25 best scenes in Disney animation, I'd have to include the "Separation Flashback/I'm Still Here" montage from Treasure Planet.

#15 of 34 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted February 14 2004 - 09:18 AM

Pretty strong reaction, Edwin. Perhaps if SOTS were released, you wouldn't feel so negative?


My negative feelings about the THE BLACK HOLE aren't due to the lack of SONG OF THE SOUTH being unreleased. My view of the film comes from the utter feeling of disgust I had after seeing it.

IIRC, the advertising for the film left the impression that the film was aimed at an older, narrower, demographic than your typical Disney film. The advertising was geared to make the film look like a dark science fiction story.

Being a science fiction fan I had high hopes for a story involving something as esoteric as a black hole.I went to the film expecting to see Disney finally break out of the mold and tell a non-family orientated story.

I went in expecting to watch something dark and ended up watching something dumb. I expected to see a science fiction (or at the least a sci-fi) film and ended up watching ????......I still don't know what the hell it was. It was some kind of horrid mish-mash of sci-fi and quasi-religous imagery, combined with some of the most cliched and stupid characterizations I've ever seen in a Disney movie. Some cliched cowboy clown "astronaut" a hootin' and a hollerin' and riding a robot? What was that supposed to be? A homage to Slim Pickens riding the bomb in DR. STRANGELOVE? Give me a break.

And then there was the quasi-religous tripe such as the imagery of Hell. Lakes of fire???? It was like some bad rendition of Dante's INFERNO.

I came out of the theatre feeling nauseous and then angry. Angry at myself, because I sat there and allowed my intelligence to be assaulted for 90+ minutes.

I guess people who like the film can at least justify it by saying that it was awful but that it was fun in its awfulness. I'm not one of them. I never saw anything fun or funny in the film. All I can ever think of when reminded of THE BLACK HOLE is a heaping serving of tripe. It is quite possibly the worst film ever released under the DISNEY trademark.

My annoyance over the SOTS issue comes from the fact that a piece of tripe like THE BLACK HOLE is repeatedly released for home video. Meanwhile a much better film is allowed to moulder because a bunch of self-styled "protectors of the innocent" feel that it is their duty to protect us from ourselves.

I don't need "Big Mother" deciding what I should watch. If I think something isn't worth watching then I won't buy, rent, or watch it on TV; however, as far as I'm concerned that decision should left to me.....not to some faceless bureaucrats or "do-gooders" who want to pretend that the conditions depicted never existed.

If a person thinks that the film is "inappropriate" for their children, don't buy it. But I don't need people who consider the film "insensitive" telling me that, since they don't like it, I shouldn't have the freedom to watch it either.
"You bring a horse for me?" "Looks like......looks like we're shy of one horse." "No.......You brought two too many."

#16 of 34 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted February 14 2004 - 10:20 AM

But you *can* watch Song of the South. It is available as an import from myriad websites. I've had the Japanese import of Song of the South since 1992!

Just my own personal feelings about SOTS, Edwin - and everybody else - speaking for myself only, I think Song of the South is a pretty weak film. Like Black Hole it has its merits. It was lensed by no less than Gregg Toland (famed DP on Citizen Kane), it has an outstanding musical score, and the three animated sequences rank among the best short subjects Disney ever did. Problem is, the great animated sequences only occupy 30% of the film's running time. I'm reminded of the spot-on criticism of Bosley Crowther, who wrote, "the ratio of live action to animation is approximately two-to-one, and that is approximately the ratio of [Song of the South's] mediocrity to its charm." The animation is great, but the banal live action sequences are like watching paint dry.

EDIT

Oh, yeah - forgot about this:

"It is quite possibly the worst film ever released under the DISNEY trademark."

Three words:

Ten Who Dared

As Leonard Maltin put it: "Rock Bottom Disney".

And I know this is a matter of taste, but I'll take Song of the South and The Black Hole over those 1960's and 70's live action comedies starring monkeys:

Monkeys Go Home
The Monkey's Uncle
The Barefoot Executive (in which a monkey picks the lineup for primetime TV shows)
Moon Pilot (co-starring, you guessed it, a monkey)
Lt. Robinson Crusoe, USN (yet another wacky monkey co-star)

And last but not least:

Million Dollar Duck (Dean Jones kinda looks a monkey)
Unidentified Flying Oddball (apparently written and directed and photographed by monkeys)
Superdad (so bad it actually would have been better with Monkeys)
Herbie Goes Bananas (Sounds like Herbie is acting like a Monkey)
Rocketman (again with the Space Monkeys)

And I won't even get into the Touchstone films...three more words:

Super Mario Bros.

In retrospect, is The Black Hole *really* the worst film ever to carry Walt Disney's name? Naaah. As amazing as Walt's career was, he still found time to produce one-hour TV shows with titles like "Ida the Offbeat Eagle" and "Sammy the Way-Out Seal" and "Joker the Amiable Ocelot" and "Minado the Wolverine" and "The Hound That Thought He Was A Racccon" and "The Ballad of Hector the Stowaway Dog" and "Greta the Misfit Greyhound" and "The Wetback Hound" (no kidding) and "Sancho the Homing Steer" "Chico, the Misunderstood Coyote" "Flash, the Teenage Otter" and "Wild Burro of the West" and "Concho, the Coyote who Wasn't".

Black Hole the worst Disney film?

Naaah.

#17 of 34 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted February 14 2004 - 12:52 PM

Just my own personal feelings about SOTS, Edwin - and everybody else - speaking for myself only, I think Song of the South is a pretty weak film.


It was lensed by no less than Gregg Toland (famed DP on Citizen Kane), it has an outstanding musical score, and the three animated sequences rank among the best short subjects Disney ever did. Problem is, the great animated sequences only occupy 30% of the film's running time.



I will not disagree with you on this account. My impression about SOTS as a film are based on the animated segments. I really don't care about the live sequences in the film. My ONLY reason for acquiring the movie would be for the Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox segments.

Watching the Wonderful World of Disney segment on the "Alice in Wonderland" disc reminded me of just how good those sequences were. I would really like to see them again; however, I shouldn't have to buy an R2 disc and R2 capable player in order to see an American film. Not that it matters much any more, since I have now ordered some R2 discs and have to look at acquiring a player.

The Brer Rabbit segment from the "Alice in Wonderland" disc just reminds me of how much at the top of their game the old Disney animators were. I know people will disagree with me, but nothing that Disney has done post 50's comes close to the work in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

That is not to say that their animated films post 50s are bad. I just don't think they come up to the standard of work that came out in the earlier years: not even with the help of computers.

Maybe I think that way because films like BAMBI are what I grew up with. For me, BAMBI, was Disney's best animated film. A stand that lots of people would disagree with. A lot of people cite DUMBO as the best. Personally, I disliked DUMBO. I thought it was maudlin.

Maybe people who grew up with THE LION KING would argue that that is Disney's best film.

Personally, while I liked TLK, I thought it had one problem that marred the film: namely the "I Can't Wait to be King" sequence. I thought that sequence was just totally out of place in the film. It jarred with the way everything else was depicted in the film.
"You bring a horse for me?" "Looks like......looks like we're shy of one horse." "No.......You brought two too many."

#18 of 34 OFFLINE   Lars Vermundsberget

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Posted February 14 2004 - 01:07 PM

Quote: "I know people will disagree with me, but nothing that Disney has done post 50's comes close to the work in the 30s, 40s, and 50s."

Even though Disney has done some good things over the past couple of decades, I certainly don't disagree with you. As I'm 29 years old, the films of the 30's, 40's and 50's were old before I was born, so one's own age and what one "grew up with" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it...

#19 of 34 OFFLINE   Edwin-S

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Posted February 14 2004 - 01:20 PM

I should have said "some people will disagree." The age comment wasn't too well thought out either. Disney maintains a release pattern that ensures that all their animated films are accessible to successive generations.

As Homer Simpson would say, "DOH!"
"You bring a horse for me?" "Looks like......looks like we're shy of one horse." "No.......You brought two too many."

#20 of 34 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted February 14 2004 - 02:52 PM

The Brer Rabbit segment from the "Alice in Wonderland" disc just reminds me of how much at the top of their game the old Disney animators were. I know people will disagree with me, but nothing that Disney has done post 50's comes close to the work in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

I certainly don't disagree with that. Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi make up the Mt. Rushmore of American animation. Beauty and the Beast has great songs, and some good characters -- but it is nowhere close to the awesome ambition of Fantasia, and certainly can't touch Pinocchio for production values, nor Bambi for quality of animation.

The people who choose Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King as the best animated feature of all time need to take my two-day course, "You're Wrong and Here's Why", in which I replay all of LeFou's scenes and all the scenes in Beauty and the Beast with townspeople and all the shots of off-model animation in Beauty and the Beast on an endless loop for 46.5 hrs straight. For the last 90 minutes, I show Pinocchio. If the shock doesn't kill you, you graduate.

"That is not to say that their animated films post 50s are bad. I just don't think they come up to the standard of work that came out in the earlier years: not even with the help of computers."

Just watch Pongo straining against Roger's leash in 101 Dalmatians, then watch those animals in the opening of The Lion King and try to tell me something fundamental has not been lost.

"Maybe I think that way because films like Bambi are what I grew up with. For me, Bambi was Disney's best animated film. A stand that lots of people would disagree with. A lot of people cite Bambi as the best. Personally, I disliked Dumbo. I thought it was maudlin."

One man's Columbus is another man's Spielberg.

Personally, while I liked TLK, I thought it had one problem that marred the film: namely the "I Can't Wait to be King" sequence. I thought that sequence was just totally out of place in the film. It jarred with the way everything else was depicted in the film.

The film doesn't take itself seriously at all. It keeps winking at you, telling you, "Don't worry, kids, it's only a movie." The creative team of The Lion King openly admit they were trying to remake Bambi, only for a 90's audience. Look at Bambi. Look at that final act, with the forest fire, and the animals blown to bits off-screen, birds flying up in terror, their feathers blasted back into the frame. No cutesy in-jokes here, friends. Bambi doesn't ever stop to take the pressure off, doesn't start throwing out Bruce Lee and Sidney Poitier and Taxi Driver jokes.

Same thing with Fantasia/2000 compared to the original Fantasia. The 1940 version challenged you. It was a bold statement of ability. The theory of evolution. Dinosaurs eating each other. Abstract animation. Ballet. Mickey going Nicholson on a broom with an axe. Bare breasted vampires and ghouls. New iconography for man's eternal struggle to serve God. Fantasia/2000 is fun, but it's almost like the child-friendly version of Fantasia. Fantasia is for adults. Fantasia/2000 seems like it was intended for middle-school kids on a field trip to an IMAX theater.





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