Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #27 The Black Cauldron (1985)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the column where I give YOU, the beautiful, kind, Christ-like Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron an opportunity to choose a film that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site. And if you’ve already pledged for a Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 piece, the price goes down to seventy-five dollars. That’s my way of thanking y’all, and also saying, “Please do one of these! I desperately need the money!” but all cool and classy-like, so it doesn’t seem sad or desperate.
One of the neat aspects of this project is that it’s finally forced me to write about movies I’d been considering covering for other columns for ages. So if there’s a flop that you’ve always wanted me to write about for My World of Flops now you can make me write about that movie simply by pledging one hundred dollars to the site’s Patreon account.
I’d been considering writing about The Black Cauldron for My World of Flops because it is objectively an important and culturally notable cinematic boondoggle, a fantasy opus so expensive, dark and crushingly unsuccessful that it nearly bankrupted the company that produced it.
It was, and remains, one of the most staggeringly, fascinatingly off-brand Disney animated films of all time for reasons that go above and beyond a PG rating that was only achieved by cutting out ten to twelve minutes of exceedingly dark footage.
Instead of being a toe-tapping musical full of happy talking animals crooning infectious ditties, The Black Cauldron featured no songs, just a lot of nightmarish imagery sure to terrify and traumatize the young ones.
We are thrown haphazardly into the deep, dark end with opening narration from John Huston telling of a “king so evil even the gods feared him.” He goes on to say of this malevolent force, “Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron. There, his demonic spirit was captured in the form of a great Black Cauldron.”
Nothing says, “Fun Disney animation” quite like the phrase “thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron.” That’s not Disney, that’s metal. That’s badass. That’s family unfriendly. The Black Cauldron looks like an evil teapot or a distant ancestor of the Evil Bong from the motion picture Evil Bong and has the power to "resurrect an army of deathless warriors” for whoever controls it.
Our hero is Taran, a pig-keeping assistant with big dreams and even bigger plans. You’d naturally assume that these dreams and plans revolve around getting promoted to full-on pig-keeper but instead he dreams of being a warrior and serving his land. Yes, he dreams of being in a position where he can kill people for a living, which seems a little odd for a Disney hero.
In every other way, Taran is cut from very familiar cloth for an animated hero about to embark on a Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell style. He comes from almost comically humble origins yet is destined for greatness. He squads up over the course of his journey with comic relief sidekicks and fantastical beasts, meets a magical Princess and ultimately defeats a great evil.
For our hopelessly bland hero isn’t assistant keeper to any old pig. No, Hen Wen, the pig in question, is nothing less than an oracular oinker, a holy ham, a porker of power and prestige. Hen Wen has the preternatural ability to pinpoint the location of the Black Cauldron. This makes her the subject of intense interest throughout the land, particularly to the aforementioned Horned King (voiced by John Hurt), a figure of infinite, almost Stephen Miller-level darkness and evil.
When Wen Hen is stolen by The Horned King’s evil minions, Taran embarks on the journey of a lifetime to retrieve the blessed bacon before the bad guys can use her porcine prowess to raise an unholy army of the dead.
En route to retrieve his pig, Taran encounters Gurgi, a magical, mythical, mischievous creature who looks like a cross between a sheepdog, a groundhog and Albert Einstein. Who is Gurgi! Gurgi is a trickster. Gurgi is a scamp. Gurgi is a rapscallion. Gurgi is perpetually up to shenanigans. Gurgi is, in other words, a pre-ordained “fan favorite”, the Jar Jar Binks of the Black Cauldron universe.
If Taran has little to no personality, Gurgi has, if anything, entirely too much personality. As voiced by comedian John Byner, Gurgi sounds Robin Williams doing Donald Duck by way of Howie Mandel as Bobby of Bobby’s World fame and speaks of himself perpetually in the third person, using trademark Gurgiisms like “munchings and crunchings” for snacks.
Gurgi bleats things like, “Oh, poor miserable Gurgi deserves fierce smackings and whackings on his poor, tender head. Always left with no munchings and crunchings!”
If you want a character to stick out in audience’s minds, if you want them to really remember somebody, a good way to do so is to have that character constantly talk about themselves in the third person. That is because unless the puppety oddball in question is Elmo or Animal, talking about yourself in the third person is almost invariably obnoxious in a memorable and distinctive way.
Is it a coincidence that the world is a flaming garbage fire and its most powerful man refers to himself in the third person? I don’t think so. The other reason characters who talk in the third person stick out is because almost by definition they are constantly going to be mentioning their own name in a way that tattoos it onto the audience’s brains.
Gurgi talk about Gurgi so much that I couldn’t quite tell if I liked Gurgi or found Gurgi hypnotic in his attention-grabbing obnoxiousness, weirdly charismatic in his shameless play for attention and adoration. I had a powerful response positive and negative to Gurgi. He was simultaneously my favorite and least favorite character. He brings a whole lot of personality to a movie in desperate need of it but he’s also deliberately overbearing and overwhelming. His entire being screams out “Love me, love me, love me!” in ways that are both maddening and weirdly ingratiating.
On his journey, Taran also befriends a harp-playing minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) and Princess he meets while perambulating about a suspiciously poorly guarded dungeon deep in the Horned King’s castle. Our hero just turns around and bam, a Princess is standing there because you cannot have a Disney movie without a Princess and while The Black Cauldron is a very different kind of Disney animated film it still abides by many of the conventions of the form.
In his trip to find the Black Cauldron Taran becomes the wielder of a magical sword of destiny that goes a long way towards helping him realize his dreams of heroism and glory. Taran and The Horned King embark on a high-stakes quest to locate Hen Wen and the Black Cauldron before the story resolves the only way it can, with Gurgi, its ingratiatingly unbearable comic relief and Poochie figure, seemingly choosing certain death by climbing into the Black Cauldron to fight evil or some such shit, knowing that he will not emerge alive, or at all.
Like the popular Christian Messiah Jesus, Gurgi sacrifices himself to save a world that may or may not be worthy of his martyrdom. And, like Jesus, Gurgi comes back from the dead, but not before a morose few moments where Taran holds what appears to be Gurgi’s dead, lifeless body in his trembling arms.
The Black Cauldron is maddeningly uneven. One moment it’s a dark and kaleidoscopic tour de force of cutting-edge animation combining the best of the old ways with exciting new tools like computer animation and a process called Animation Photo Transfer that helped give the movie a distinctive look even as advances in computer animation would soon render it irrelevant. The next moment the animation is frustratingly pedestrian, with disappointingly static backgrounds and overly familiar character design.
In its theatrically released form The Black Cauldron feels like a neutered beast. Its great strength is its trippy, gothic, ghoulish darkness but that bleakness has been compromised by a PG rating that pares the movie down to eighty minutes, seventy-five before credits. That’s not much time to tell any kind of a satisfying story cinematically but it’s particularly insufficient for a movie with epic aspirations.
The Black Cauldron wasn't just a literary adaptation: it was an adaptation of the second novel in a five-volume series entitled The Chronicles of Prydain by Newberry winning author Lloyd Alexander. That only adds to the film's sense of being rushed and incomplete, abrupt and cut together (largely under the direction of Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was appalled by the film’s darkness and violence and the possibility of a Disney film hitting theaters with a PG-13 or even, god forbid, an R rating) with a seeming machete.
The Black Cauldron represented an honorable attempt from one of the most prestigious and dependable brands in all of entertainment, Walt Disney animation, to try to create something markedly different from the films that had made the company legendary sabotaged by the studio’s own skittishness about straying so far from the tried and true.
To be honest, I never covered The Black Cauldron for My World of Flops because I have never been a big fan of what one of my old co-workers used to refer to as “movies about wizards and shit.” If a movie has a dragon in it, that’s strikes 1, 2 and 3 against it as far as I’m concerned. If it’s got a witch or a demon or fantastical creature in it? Those are strikes 4,5 and 6. I’m certainly not one to cast judgment on the genre as a whole. It’s just never been my cup of tea. It doesn’t float my boat. I’m not partial to fantasy as a genre, in animated or live action form.
That held true of The Black Cauldron as well. Some of the animation is gloomy and impressive, daring and original but I found it more interesting as a cultural artifact and scary commercial nadir for Disney animation then as a story about characters I did not care about in a gloomy realm in need of a little sunshine and nuance.
The Black Cauldron is the kind of unloved little orphan you want to champion because it occupies such a strange, singular place in the pantheon of Disney animation but to be brutally honest, it didn’t do a whole for me.
Instead of marking a new beginning for the studio, where it would experiment with darker, more adult, non-musical stories in addition to the musicals it was famous for The Black Cauldron ended up being something of a dead end, a movie so dark and violent that no amount of cutting could entirely obscure its tricky, ghoulish and fundamentally family unfriendly core.
If you’d like to suggest a movie for this column you can do so over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace but if you give me any amount of money it would be