I have a philosophy that life is too short to sit through bad movies. And yet, out of sheer morbid curiosity, I sat through The Black Cauldron, a film in the Disney animated canon that they have tried desperately to pretend doesn’t exist. (Mostly because it was a massive commercial and critical bomb!) It was the only film in the canon I hadn’t even seen clips of yet (I’ve even seen those “South America is great you guys!” anthology films made during WWII), so I figured I might as well watch it, just to say that I had.
And dear god, people were not kidding how terrible this film is. As of my writing this, I still have a whole half hour to slog through, and I paused it just so I could take a few minutes to collect my thoughts. There is only one redeemable aspect of The Black Cauldron, and that’s John Hurt providing the voice of the Horned King. That’s. It. (Okay, I guess the score is decent, if a bit overdramatic)
Why is The Black Cauldron so terrible, you may ask? Have a spoiler-free summary!
- THE PLOT: It is the most by-the-numbers generic fantasy plot ever. I have not read The Chronicles of Prydain series, so I can’t judge how much of the character and plot points in the story come from the original source, or whether Disney is to blame here. But we’ve got the orphaned farm boy hero protagonist who dreams of greater things, the sassy Princess (who is also the Token Chick because women don’t like fantasy stories don’t be silly), an old dude who does and says mysterious things which sets the hero on his path, a magic sword, a “Let’s find the MacGuffin before the bad guys do” narrative device, an EEEEVIL castle, an EEEEVIL dungeon, an EEEEVIL King, and three really fucking annoying comic relief sidekicks.
- THE HEROES: I disliked Taran from the very moment he was introduced. It might be because it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but as soon as he started whining about how he didn’t want to be a pig keeper and wanted to be a hero and a great warrior and blah blah blah I tuned out. And so far, every remotely heroic action he has taken in this movie was based on either luck, necessity, or sheer stupidity. Princess Elionwy, the Disney Princess that Time Forgot, is duller than a rock that has been pounded by erosion for over 200 centuries. She does the “I’m plucky and capable!” thing, then she does the “I know better than you do” bit and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to wholeheartedly take her side or not (probably yes, since Taran acts like a sexist dick in that argument), and then she does the “I am an emotionally broken flower” bit and auhhhgh stop being so boring and terrible
- THE SIDEKICKS: I cannot articulate properly just how much these sidekicks annoy me, holy god. First is MacGuffin #1/Sidekick #1, a fortune telling pig named Hen Wen. No, I’m not kidding. The fucking pig tells the future. Also, she is not a chicken. If anything she should be Sow Wow. And the story can’t quite decide how intelligent Hen Wen actually is. First she seems fully capable of understanding human speech, but next she’s running away from her keeper when she’s aware she’s a target for the bad guys. I guess consistency in characterization doesn’t matter when there are plot contrivances to be used! Sidekick #2 is a furry horrid thing called a Gurgi that sounds like a cross between Elmo and Gollum. His referring to food as “munchings and crunchings” is so Gollumesque, which is not a good thing because all it does is make me wish I was watching LOTR instead. (Also, Gollumesque is totally a word.) The Gurgi steals and lies and is a coward and WHY AM I SUPPOSED TO LIKE THIS THING I WANT TO KILL IT and Sidekick #3 is an old bard who is also a lying coward who keeps making polite cowardly Britishy observations on what is going on, and he also spends time as a frog caught in a witch’s cleavage. Yeah, you read that right. There’s also some glowing fairy person who can’t repair things for shit and he’s constantly yelling and ugh just go away everyone except the Horned King
- THE CONFLICT: I honestly didn’t really give a shit about the heroes, I wanted the Horned King to talk some more and also to find said Black Cauldron (MacGuffin #2) so he could destroy the world of Prydain and everything in it. I’m usually someone who is a fan of the villains, but I’m not even kidding this time. The protagonists are so aggressively unlikable I really, really wanted the good guys to lose. Bad sign, movie.
- THE CONTENT: So remember how I mentioned that the Bard sidekick, who is transformed into a frog, repeatedly gets caught in a witch’s cleavage? That happens in this movie. There is an extensive fat/boob joke in a Disney movie. Like, I know this film famously got a PG, but WOW. Multitudes of people signed off on that scene and said, “Yup, this stands with the Disney tradition. Let’s animate this!” And I know from watching Waking Sleeping Beauty that Jeffrey Katzenberg loathed this film (one of the few things he and I will agree on) and cut a hell of a lot of already completed footage from it…but he didn’t cut “frog bouncing in and out of a fat witch’s cleavage”? Oh yeah, apparently the Horned King’s soldiers have a seedy bar in which there is a borderline exotic/can-can dancer (who is clearly meant to be a stereotypical Roma, which makes no sense at all as this is not Earth) who is also fat and is gifted with boobage. I’m trying to decide if the filmmakers thought fat bodies were inherently less sexual and therefore they would be able to get away with this kind of content, or whether someone on the staff has a major boner for big women.
- THE ANIMATION: Excepting a few special effects, this film is HIDEOUS. I can see Don Bluth’s influence everywhere in this movie, and not in a good way. It’s hard to describe, but he has this bad habit of animating his characters so they’re gesturing and moving around and changing expressions constantly. Princess Elionwy tosses her head and hair around while she talks and it is driving me crazy. People don’t move around that much when they’re just talking! The horrible Bard person makes the ugliest “Oh I am so Britishly frightened” expressions, the Gurgi is an abomination against God, and I think a lot of Taran’s animation was cribbed from Arthur’s in The Sword in the Stone because he keeps making these unattractive scrunchy “I am such a put-upon teenager you guys” faces.
- IN GENERAL: It’s BOOOOORINGGGG. Really, really, really boring. The plot moves from one episodic scene to the next (to the point where I could visualize where the chapter breaks would have been in the original books) and the story is just one big precarious pile of cliche. The characters are irredeemably unlikable and hideously animated. Don’t make the mistake I did, everyone. Don’t watch this film. Also: Fuck that Gurgi. Holy fuck do I hate that fucking Gurgi. Die, Gurgi, Die.
P.S. Spoiler alert! WHY DIDN’T THE GURGI STAY DEAD