Based on a series of books by Lloyd Alexander, while the tale may fit within the mold of classic Disney storytelling, the dark look is anything but Disney. The film actually carries a PG rating and is unquestionably not for the youngest of viewers.
The story revolves around Taran, an assistant pig keeper who quickly finds himself on a quest to protect the Black Cauldron from the evil Horned King who wishes to use it to raise an army of undead soldiers to rule the world (as evil people do). Taran is incredibly outmanned and lacks any sort of experience, but meets an odd little creature named Gurgi, a princess named Eilonwy, and a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam and together they manage to put a crimp into the Horned King's plans.
The Black Cauldron contains lessons about sacrifice, doing the right thing, and the power of friendship. It also has a cute, lovable, little creature in the form of Gurgi; bad guys; dragons; witches; magic; and adventure. The basic problem with it however is that all of those elements just kind of appear, there is nothing beyond the most cursory explanation of what's going on and why. There is, in short, quite obviously, a whole lot of backstory we don't get told. The screenplay (a quick look at IMDb indicates that it was a team effort) must get a lot of the blame for that, but part of the problem also lies in the selection of the source material.
Alexander wrote a series of novels that dealt with this world and some of these characters (and other characters as well), and the film is most definitely not simply the second novel, The Black Cauldron, or a filmic adaptation of that second novel. The credits for the film even state that the animated work is based on the "series." Trying to cram in all the necessary elements to tell a single cohesive animated story geared mostly (though with a PG rating not entirely) for children is not the easiest of tasks. All too often while watching The Black Cauldron one will get the sense of wanting to know more, to see more, to find out more, and that more is never given. The best, most simple, example of this is seen in Taran's picking up a magic sword in the film, a sword that is highly prized by the three witches they later encounter. The sword and its former owner have a story of their own, but no information on either is given – they simply exist, and why the witches want the sword so badly is never explained (beyond the fact that the sword looks pretty and is clearly magic). The tale of the sword and its owner just don't fit into the tale being told here, but they are still relevant and their not being included is disappointing.
The film is still a great deal of fun, and much of it still works despite the lack of wanted backstory because the basic outline is so familiar. Essentially, what you have is the story of a young man who longs for adventure getting more than he bargained for. There is good in the film, there is evil, and there is some comic relief. Were it less dark and a musical it could be any number of animated Disney features.
Truly, it is this second to last of these things that really differentiates The Black Cauldron – it is a dark movie. Outside of the opening scene in Taran's village there are few moments in it not filled with dread, despair, the undead, or other bits of evil. Disney movies certainly have had their dark moments, but none quite like this one. The darkness succeeds in aiding the subject matter and story, but is more pervasive than in other Disney works.
The new release contains several special features, although none, unfortunately, delves into the making of the movie. There is a deleted scene, a gallery of stills, two different games, and a Donald Duck short. They are all interesting in their own way (even if DVD-based games always seem terribly slow and none-too-engaging), but it really would have been nice to have a behind the scenes look at the creative decisions made in producing the film.
The Black Cauldron has a place – a solid place – in the Disney canon. It is an interesting, if at times clunky, movie and even if it not among the most loved or respected of the animated features, it has its fare share of admirers. However, with such a minimal release for the film's 25th anniversary one can't help but get the sense that even the folks at Disney are not all that enamored of it. Where are the making of featurettes? Where are the discussions with the filmmakers? Why is this a single-disc standard DVD release instead of being given the outstanding Blu-ray treatment so many other classic Disney films in recent years have been given? It is all almost a tacit acknowledgment that this isn't their best feature and that while it may have a devoted fanbase, it is a small one.
Despite its weaknesses, I enjoy The Black Cauldron and find it an interesting detour from what is thought of as traditionally Disney. The film clearly has an interesting pedigree, it's just a shame that this release doesn't make those elements known.
Article first published as DVD Review: The Black Cauldron - 25th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.