THE BLACK CAULDRON (1985):
Written by: Lloyd Alexander (Original Book Series), Ted Berman, Vance Gerry, Joe Hale, David Jonas, Roy Morita, Richard Rich, Art Stevens, Al Wilson & Peter Young
This is a controversial one for many reasons.
It basically Disney-fies a semi-popular children’s novel (The Chronicles of Prydain, which noted Webcomic author Randy Milholland of Something Positive fame REALLY enjoys- he’s said some great stuff about it), but just the first in a set. It takes some Common Everykid character, teams him up with a precognitive pig, an old bard, a young Princess with a chip on her shoulder and OH MY GOD THE MOST ANNOYING CHARACTER EVER, and has them chased around by an Undead Wizard Lord guy.
It was highly-violent and frightening for a 1980s cartoon (to the point where Disney cut a bunch of stuff before release), but the results did not impress, though the movie’s had a bit of a resurgence among people who like darker stuff.
Me, I just don’t see it. The animation is pretty good, and the villain is kind of memorable, but this movie is just LOADED with flaws. LOADED with them. For starters, the main heroes are either bland or annoying. The main kid is a poor man’s Wart/Arthur being all generic and stuff. Princess Eilonwy was annoying and a know-it-all (and oddly-designed- having the face of a young woman, but looking about ten years old, which is creepy). The old man is your standard mentor/funny guy. The dog-man-thing is seriously as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks.
I’m not even kidding! He’s less omnipresent everywhere, but is EASILY more annoying and with a worse voice. That is like SCRAPPY-DOO levels of sucktitude here, and this is coming from someone who hates Scooby-Doo with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (if you think my hatred of Spider-Clones, Image Characters, and Symbiotes is something, set me off on Scooby Doo some day, I dare you).
The Horned King, combining two characters from The Chronicles of Prydain into one, is probably the most well-remembered part of this film, and for good reason. He’s almost a breath of fresh air in a Disney Film, in that he’s super-serious, obsessive without being comedic, doesn’t screw up a lot, and is genuinely SCARY instead of fabulously-outrageous.
The only problem is that, for all the uniqueness of this in a Disney Villain (which is full of feminine Large Hams and Butt-Monkeys, as I’ve noted), this is the standard FOR EVERY SINGLE FANTASY SUPERVILLAIN IN HISTORY. Seriously, it doesn’t count as unique if you just base it off of the tropes of ANOTHER genre, guys . However, I give him full props for looking cool and probably scaring the bejeezus out of young children. He’s still only half of someone like Maleficent.
The Horned King is basically an average “Dark Lord” villain who just wants power. Despite being a Wizard, all he does is Teleport and set off a Cauldon Awakening thing with a ritual or something. The heroes go on your standard “let’s go across the land and meet strange new groups of people” story, which is usually a plus, but I find everyone pretty uninteresting. In short- Bland Heroes, “Scrappy-Doo” like supporting character, Standard Plot & Villain With Lame Motivation and no fabulous songs = Mediocre Freaking Movie, and it just doesn’t do anything for me aside from show off some pretty animation (and the first use of CGI in a Disney film).
Reception & Cultural Impact:
Disney’s laid a lot of stinkers over their years, but very few films have ever almost destroyed the studio. THIS one nearly did. WOW did it ever bomb. It did so poorly that had The Great Mouse Detective not come out immediately afterwards and done well, it might have axed Disney’s Animated Feature Division entirely. That level of destruction cannot go unremarked upon- this movie nearly KILLED a huge portion of our childhoods- imagine a world without the Disney Renaissance.
It took an entire fifteen years for Disney to actually release the thing on home video- THAT’s how much they hated it.
And yet, it has a strange and growing Cult Following, largely due to the aforementioned frightening nature (okay, it’s just a bunch of skeletons coming to life and killing some people off-camera). I guess that kind of thing really works for the goth & dark-loving crowd, though it’s pretty mild by the standards of anyone who reads comics. I guess something of this stuck with those kids who recall being frightened by it as children.
There was also this INSANE attraction from Tokyo Disneyland, featuring an animatronic Horned King calling forth “Satan’s Kiln” to murder the audience in a tiny, dark, enclosed room: