Disney's animated films will always, in my view, suffer from the fact that I compare them with Pinocchio. No one has ever made an animated film up to the technical standards of Pinocchio. Some of the contemporary Disney films came close, and The Secret of NIMH is the nearest modern equivalent, but their animation just isn't up to Pinocchio.
Which brings us to The Black Cauldron. Fool that I was, I thought that, since Disney's animators had spoken of this film as a return to the old standards, and since they took about a decade to make it, The Black Cauldron might be in the same technical ballpark as Pinocchio. The first shot, an incredibly bad multiplane camera effect, dispelled that delusion at once. While most of the other effects animation was of much higher quality, and The Black Cauldron had some very fine moments, it does not recall the Disney of the forties so much as the Disney of the early sixties. The Black Cauldron looks much more like The Sword in the Stone than Pinocchio.
Technical matters aside, The Black Cauldron is not at all bad, but neither is it the miraculous rebirth of quality animated films that the Disney advertising people would have us believe. The story, drastically compacted into less than 90 minutes from a four volume children's fantasy by Lloyd Alexander (which was based on certain themes from Celtic mythology), concerns a young lad, Taran, and his comrades, who must find and destroy the titular cauldron before it is discovered by the villainous Horned King. The cauldron allows its possessor to revivify the dead, turning them into an army of zombies. This may sound a bit dark for an animated film, until you consider the plot details of films like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.
The Black Cauldron benefits from some strong points and suffers from too many weak ones. One of the worst things about it is that the heroic characters are not very well animated and are fundamentally dull. Comparison of their facial expressions to those in Will Vinton's Claymation films shows how poorly they duplicate real humans. Another technical point: one can invariably tell which objects are to be used in a shot and which are merely background.
A further deficit is a over-commitment to the cute and the marketable. One of the good guys is Gurgi, a shaggy something. Gurgi is calculatingly cute, yet I couldn't help liking him, and the film would have been all right on this count if it had stopped while it was ahead. However, a bunch of cutesy fairies appearing later were too saccharine for my tastes. I strongly suspect that, six months from now, I will have had far more than I can take of Gurgi dolls and Gurgi lunchboxes and Gurgi pillows and Gurgi cereal and Gurgi notebooks and Gurgi teeshirts and Gurgi toilet paper and an ocean of other Gurgi paraphernalia, much in the manner of the oversold E.T. Now, unaffected by these waves of greed, I can appreciate the little sucker.
The compression of the story cut out some characters and reduced the roles of others. A bard who accompanies the heros serves no purpose but comic relief of a very tired sort. Also, removal of an important character forced the writers (eight or nine of them - compression isn't easy) into compromising a rather fundamental point of the saga, greatly softening the resulting film. The compression wasn't all bad, as the story does move briskly. Unfortunately, without some of the background material, certain actions of the heros seem exceptionally foolish. The core of the story, a good one, remains.
The best thing about the film is the villains. They are superb, especially the Horned King. His nasty retainers and charnel house surroundings offer him excellent support, and set the nightmare schedule of the younger viewers for the next couple of months. The animators rarely go wrong when they are dealing with the bad guys (some witches more or less copied from The Sword in the Stone crossed with Sleeping Beauty aside), just as whenever they focussed on Taran and the nice princess they had difficulty in achieving bearability.
The Black Cauldron is photographed in 70mm, which implies widescreen. This resulted in a lot of extra work for the animators, and a couple years of delay. Not surprisingly, the results are similar to those of most live action films shot in widescreen. Action and spectacle shots look better, intimate shots involving a couple of characters talking together suffer from irrelevant borders. Fortunately, more of the film benefits from the wide format than suffers form it.
The voices are generally good. Except for a brief prologue spoken by John Huston, they are not overly familiar, a great failing of recent Disney animated films. (Eva Gabor as the voice of Miss Bianca! Really, now!) There are a few well known names behind the voices. John Hurt isn't a bit recognizable as the Horned King, but speaks superbly. Freddie Jones does what can be done with the mediocre lines of the bard. John Byner adds immeasurably to the character of Gurgi with his vocal interpretation, almost a textbook example of matching character to voice. (The order it was actually done, by the way. Record first, draw later, thus ensuring synchronisation of voice to lips.)
The Black Cauldron is a must for animation fans and parents of not-too-small children, with said little folks in tow. It figures to be the divorced father movie of the summer. General audiences will probably appreciate it, but are unlikely to respond with vigorous enthusiasm. Considering its tremendous cost, the Disney people will probably be releasing it for years to come before they show a profit on their investment. Do your bit for the future of animation and see The Black Cauldron.
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