The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary
Directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 80 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English. 2.0 stereo surround French, Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 19.99
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Review Date: September 10, 2010
During all of those years before The Little Mermaid when the Walt Disney Company couldn’t buy an animated hit no matter what they tried, the problem was never with the quality of the animation. The artists were talented and their resources were enormous, but they had a vast history of success to live up to: the number of animated classics in the studio’s vaults was (and is) astonishing making for a daunting challenge for anyone no matter how gifted. The Black Cauldron came after the lukewarm reception to The Fox and the Hound, but despite a $25 million production cost and years of labor, the film didn’t meet with much favor. It didn’t produce any characters of either immediate or lasting popularity in the Disney universe, and even in this new twenty-fifth anniversary edition, it’s easy to see why the film met with indifference. It’s beautifully animated, but the characters aren’t strikingly different except for their difficult to remember names, the comedy is rather tame, there are no musical numbers to give the predictable story a kick, and the overwhelming downbeat mood of the piece is rather oppressive. It may have been based on Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning series of books The Chronicles of Prydain, but the animators’ inspiration seems to have been something closer to Raiders of the Lost Ark (without the fun).
Alexander’s tales are based on his research into Welch mythology, and the result is that the film is loaded with unusually named beings both human and supernatural, and the names take some getting used to. Taran (Grant Bardsley) is given the mission of protecting the magical pig Hen-Wen who can see into the future. The pig knows the secret whereabouts of the Black Cauldron, an enchanted pot whose power can enable its owner to conquer the world with an army of death spirits. After the pig escapes from his control and is captured by the evil Horned King (John Hurt), Taran must rescue it, aided by the already captured Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), a captured minstrel Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), and a cowardly creature named Gurgi (John Byner). Along the way, the heroes must cope with a trio of ornery witches and the Horned King’s weasely assistant Creeper (Phil Fondacaro) along with a duo of flying dragon-like creatures and the King’s burly army of slow-witted, muscle-bound soldiers.
In fashioning the story for the movie from the lengthy and heavily detailed children’s book series, a cadre of screenwriters have jettisoned a large amount of the drier details, but what has emerged is a fairly pedestrian adventure tale complete with a klutzy teen hero (who thinks he’s stronger and more resourceful than he actually is) and a series of predictable action set pieces for him and his friends. Characterization isn’t really plumbed to any great depths, so it’s hard to develop more than a rudimentary rooting interest in the protagonists. There’s no denying, however, that the animation is quite beautiful and an advancement on The Fox and the Hound which had preceded it. The artists use many sophisticated shadow effects throughout, and surprise entrances pop up constantly (which may cause the viewer to jump in his seat). The slinky green fumes pouring from the cauldron are sensationally portrayed, and the final destruction of the palace is quite an awesome sight. The twelve years in development and production show in the artists’ work if not in the writers’.
There isn’t much spark in either Grant Bardsley’s or Susan Sheridan’s voice work, and the chemistry is lacking between the couple as well making the innocent romance seem like an afterthought. Stalwart British actors Nigel Hawthorne and Freddie Jones (master magician Dallben) give their best efforts to make something out of the lackluster roles they’ve been given. John Byner pushes for cutsey too much as Gurgi. As usual in a Disney cartoon, the villain steals the show, and in this one it’s John Hurt as the Horned King. He has a rollicking good time with the part relishing every outrageous threat and thundering, bellowing fit of fury he has to portray.
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully reproduced and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Compared to the previous DVD release, this new DVD has been scrupulously cleaned and now shows no evidence of dirt, scratches, or other debris. Color is very impressive with strong hues that are deeply saturated (though there is an occasional mottled quality to the shading). There is some flickering present and some slight banding as well though these aren’t major concerns. There appears to be some edge enhancement with the image, too, though this is also limited and not a major problem. Sharpness on the whole is quite excellent except in the cave scene with the fairfolk which is unusually soft. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix makes very effective use of the entire soundfield with Elmer Bernstein’s engaging score wonderfully spread through the fronts and rears. A great amount of directionalized dialogue is present in the mix and though the recorded voices are easily discernible, the sound quality of the vocals is sometimes a bit hollow and thin though this is only a sporadic problem. The LFE channel gets a nice workout with this mix.
There is one deleted scene which is presented in nonanamorphic letterbox and runs for 9 ¾ minutes.
The still frame gallery presents a collection of photos and drawings divided into seven categories: Visual Development, Character Development, Behind the Scenes, Voice Talent, Layout/Backgrounds, Tokyo Disneyland, and Promotion.
There are two games presented on the disc:
- Quest for the Black Cauldron is a question and answer game requiring the players to remember trivia from the film. There are two different versions of the game offered.
- The Witches’ Challenge requires the player to answer a series of riddles and then find in answers in a series of four pictures.
“Trick or Treat” is the 1952 Donald Duck cartoon presented on the disc. Presented in 4:3, it runs for 8 minutes.
There are trailers for Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, Beauty and the Beast, and Tangled.
3/5 (not an average)
While it’s very disappointing that Disney chose not to release a Blu-ray version of The Black Cauldron in its 25th anniversary year, the DVD looks the best this film has ever looked on home video. It’s not a great film, but those who have memories of it from childhood or who have read the series of Lloyd Alexander books it’s adapted from may find something of merit in it.