It’s been a long time since I saw The Black Cauldron, probably the most neglected and sorely-criticized of Disney’s films. Aimed at older kids but marketed at younger ones, it flopped – though not horrifically, not quite making back its high budget at the box office. I’m sure it eventually recouped its losses once the home versions came out, though confidence was so low that it took quite a while for the first video release and a decent version didn’t come out until 2010. I’ve had it as a VHS for many years, but barely watched it – I found Gurgi and Fflam annoying, cared little for the main characters and thought the plot functional and insipid, though I did go and read the Chronicles of Prydain books to see if they were better.
The follow-up to The Fox and the Hound, it was one of the few films unambiguously in the age of Disney feature films that come after the end of the ‘Golden Age’ and before the Disney renaissance, and also the key moment in the final transition from the Nine Old Men to the new Disney age, and if The Fox and the Hound was the moment the coin flipped, this is the first film the new crew were making their mark with. That said, it was also the victim of hierarchies not being established, with the new chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg stepping in to neuter some of the film’s attempts to come over as more adult, with the cut scenes being some of the very things that could have made the film appear to make progress, and the resultant slight mess making the film seem less focused.
But rewatching it today, it struck me that it was markedly better than I had remembered it being. The story is simple but coherent. Gurgi – though he will now eternally suffer comparisons with Gollum because of similar vocal performances – was actually kinda cute, and orders of magnitude less irritating than the comedy characters in The Fox and the Hound. The Horned King was awesome to look at and refreshingly simple. The animation looked gorgeous and crucially, I found that this time I cared about Taran and Eilonwy, the former being endearingly insecure and determined, and the latter being remarkably forceful and self-confident for a pre-90s Disney princess. Their designs were cute and where I found their performances stiff and unlikeable before, this time they struck me as sweetly prim and awkward.
And that seems to be crucial – if you take a liking to Taran at least, the film is quite tolerable, because it’s really the story of him, his pig, his sword and his cauldron. If you find him dull and inept, then the rest of the cast will probably not redeem him and it’s unlikely that the adventure will resonate. He’s really the heart of the piece, so finding I liked him changed my experience – because my problems had never been with the film’s aesthetics, technical accomplishments, lack of songs (no negative in my book), low level of humour or overall story, all of which are at least functional.