Monday, July 15, 2024

Does The Black Cauldron Deserve its Bad Rap?

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It’s the Disney film that no one ever speaks of; the one that flopped so hard it’s rumoured to have put the future of Disney Animation in jeopardy. The movie that, famously, got its butt kicked at the box office by The Care Bears Movie. But it’s Disney, so it can’t be that bad, can it?

I’ve never seen this film. (And neither had anyone else, especially not in 1985—that’s kind of the point.) But I’d always hear whispers about what a hot mess it was. I’ve since learned that it’s actually a (very loose) adaptation of a series of books called The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, a series heavily influenced by Welsh mythology. That sounds promising.

We begin with a voice-over exposition dump opening. Yes, that was a thing in fantasy movies even before Peter Jackson. Once upon a time, there was a king who was so evil that the gods trapped him in a black cauldron for all time. I guess that’s the Black Cauldron.

We cut to a cliche Disney cottage with blue birds flying around where an Old Codger is muttering exposition to himself about how he can’t let the evil Horned King get his hands on the Black Cauldron. This is Dallben. I have no idea what his role in the movie is.

He lives in this cottage with a boy named Taran, who I’m tempted to just call Insufferable Protagonist because, oh my god. He has two jobs, feed a (special) pig named Hen Wen, and complain. “Why do I have to be stuck here when I should be off fighting!? Why is everything about this pig and not about me!? I’m not a little boy anymore! No one understands! I’m a warrior and I should be doing great deeds!”

Shut up!

He continues to talk to himself for no reason (is this a normal Disney thing?) as we go outside to meet the adorable little piggy. Old Codger tells us once again that she’s “special.” We soon find out why when she goes nuts and Dallben immediately says that they need to take her inside. You see, Hen Wen is a magic pig who can impart visions of the future. And she knows where the Black Cauldron is.

Oh no! This means she’s in danger from the Horned King, so Taran needs to take her and hide in another cottage in the Forbidden Forest. Makes sense. Also, this is the last we see of Old Codger.

We go to an evil castle to meet the Horned King. He’s a walking skeleton (literally) who wants to take over the world, because he’s evil, and plans on using the Black Cauldron to resurrect his army of skeletons. Yes, yes!

Meanwhile, Taran is skipping through a meadow daydreaming about how one day he’ll be a great warrior! But oh no! He’s lost his magic pig! While he’s blundering through the forest looking for her, a talking dog thing named Gurgi just kind of falls out of the sky. He steals Taran’s apple, and it takes whole minutes to resolve the problem. Gurgi also has this weird speech pattern and refers to himself in the third person. He’s kind of like a proto-Dobby or something. Or Gollum. I don’t want to anger the Tolkien fans.

Taran hears the magic pig’s frightened squeals and runs towards her, though Gurgi runs away. We’re suddenly in a volcanic landscape and Hen Wen is being chased by two dragons. Taran tries his best to save her but she’s carried off. (And Taran has a bloody lip, pretty hardcore for a Disney movie.)

He climbs some rocks so he can see the evil castle in the distance. Gurgi pops up again out of nowhere and declares that he wants to be Taran’s friend, but Taran is mad at him for running away when he could have helped Hen Wen. Gurgi is sad.

Taran makes it to the castle and sneaks in through a hole in the wall. (The castle could use some restoration work.) He finds a hall full of clearly inept guardsmen who are busy getting drunk and creeping on a scantily clad dancer.

For kids!

There’s also a comic relief goblin named Creeper who everyone likes to abuse.

Suddenly, the evil Horned King teleports into this hall of lowlifes and Creeper is all obsequious. Evil Dude is very eager to see the Magic Pig and she’s brought into the hall in chains. That seems excessive. She’s just an adorable little pink pig. But she’s reluctant to tell the Evil Skeleton Dude where to find the ultimate evil. That is, until our Insufferable Protagonist falls from the rafters and the Evil Dude is able to force him to get Hen Wen to impart a vision by threatening to cut her head off. Again, rather hardcore for a Disney movie.

The Horned King sees about half the vision, but Taran manages to escape by throwing wine in his face, grabbing the pig, and running like hell.

Hen Wen manages to get away by jumping into the moat, but Taran is captured and thrown in the dungeon. But it’s okay; within a minute a random girl literally shows up out of the floor. This is Princess Eilonwy. The fact that’s she’s a princess will be relevant zero times through the course of this movie. She has this little glowy floating sphere with her that she calls her bauble. It kind of looks like Navi. It also contributes nothing except that apparently the Horned King thought it could help him find the Black Cauldron. Also it disappears as soon as this sequence is over.

I’m not sure if Eilonwy has freedom of the castle, or if she escaped her cell, or what, but she and Taran are soon wandering around and blundering into ancient tombs. It’s apparently the tomb of the king who build the castle. Taran finds a sword on top of it and feels compelled to take it.

They wander some more and come across a random minstrel who claims he blundered into the castle by mistake and didn’t know who lived here. The kids come and untie him the moment the inept guard leaves. And it turns out that he knows all about the Horned King. Just not where he lives, I guess. The minstrel name is Fflewddur Fflam and he has a harp whose string snaps when he lies. Guess how many times that will be relevant.

They try to escape the castle but are soon set upon by the inept guardsmen. Fortunately, Taran discovers that the sword he stole is a magic sword that makes lightsaber sound effects, so they’re able to fight them off and get out of there. The minstrel is coming too.

Poor Creeper has to tell the Horned King that “the pig boy” escaped. But it’s cool. The Evil Dude wants to go with the “letting the Millennium Falcon escape so we can track it” plan. Pig Boy will lead him right to the pig. Yes, yes.

The good guys are just chilling in the forest while Princess Eilonwy sews up the minstrel’s pants. It’s thrilling. Taran goes on and on about how brave he was, and that makes Eilonwy upset because no one likes annoying braggarts. But they make up. And just in time for Gurgi to show up again. After being annoying himself for a bit, he tells the group that he’s seen some pig footprints. They all follow him to the middle of a stream but then get stupidly (and randomly) sucked into a whirlpool.

And this was the point in the movie where I said “give me a fucking break!” because at the bottom of the whirlpool, there are fairies. Because that’s what this movie needs. Fairies. There’s a king fairy who likes to micromanage minor infrastructure projects, four adwable kid fairies who contribute nothing, and an inept Janitor Fairy. No, really. They live down there because they object to all the “wars and killing” that people get up to.

Anyway, Hen Wen is there and the fairies know where the Black Cauldron is. Taran decides that he’s going to destroy it. The king fairy asks the Inept Janitor Fairy (his name is Doli) to take them to the Marshes of Morva, which he grumpily agrees to do. Oh, and they take Hen Wen “back home” because I guess she’s suddenly safe there, and we don’t see her for the rest of the movie.

So the good guys teleport to the marshes and they happen upon an evil cottage full of frogs. We’re told that they were once people. In the back, there’s an entire pile of cauldrons. If you think there’s some kind of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade thing coming… you would be wrong.

Three evil witches appear. One of them is fat and thirsty and immediately begins sexually harassing Fflewddur Fflam. But he’s a man, so it’s funny. Remember that, kids. It goes on for a very long time.

Taran asks them for the Black Cauldron, but they’re reluctant. However, when one of the witches sees his magic lightsaber sword, she offers a trade. The good guys agree, and the witches disappear. Then a wind picks up, the evil cottage blows away, and the Black Cauldron breaks out of the ground.

The witches appear in the sky a la Mufasa and inform our heroes that the Cauldron is indestructible, but its evil can be stopped if someone is willing to climb into it – and die!

The good guys then just sit around a campfire chilling. Inept Janitor Fairy is so disgusted with them for some reason that he up and leaves. Taran has a moment of self doubt where he’s all down on himself and says this is all his fault. But Eilonwy tells him he’s great and they have a… romantic (?) moment.

Anyway, no time for that. The Horned King’s dragons show up and they all get captured, except for Gurgi, of course. Oh, and the evil guy has the Black Cauldron now.

We cut to Taran, Eilonwy, and the minstrel tied up right where the Evil Dude is going to do some Cauldron related magic. He puts a skeleton in there, and that causes all the skeletons he’s been collecting all over the castle to come to life. He commands them to go forth and kill everything. Sigh. Isn’t that always the way? I kind of wish this villain were more fleshed out. And less stupid. Why would he leave the room where the Cauldron is? And also where the good guys are tied up.

While this is happening, Gurgi breaks into the castle to let them loose. I guess this is character development because before he was a coward and ran away, but now he’s brave and coming to save them.

He gets them untied, but Taran wants to stay so he can stop the evil by jumping into the Cauldron. (It’s quite convenient, since they’re alone in the room with it.) Gurgi stops him; he’s going to do it because Taran has friends but he doesn’t have any. Awww… Over Taran’s objections, he throws himself into the Cauldron, and this causes all the reanimated skeletons to fall.

The Horned King is pissed! He storms into the Cauldron room. Taran had stayed behind in a desperate hope that he can save Gurgi, somehow, but now he finds himself in danger both from the crazed Evil Dude, and from the Cauldron which has suddenly decided to suck everything into itself.

Evil Dude wants to feed Taran to it, to reactivate it or something, but it decides to suck the Horned King into there instead. And then it explodes. The whole castle is falling down, but the three remaining good guys manage to escape on a boat into the lake surrounding it.

They find some land and the Cauldron just happens to bob up to the surface near them. (How serendipitous!) Taran wonder if Gurgi is still in there, but the witches appear in the sky again (sure) and offer to trade back the Cauldron for the magic sword.

Taran is very down on himself at the moment, though. He says they can keep the sword, all the wants is his friend Gurgi back. After two or three minutes of meaningless shenanigans, the witches agree and his seemingly lifeless body appears.

There’s another minute that’s just a death fake out that I doubt fooled the four-year-olds in the audience, but oh look! Gurgi is alive! Hooray! Everyone is happy! Taran and Eilonwy kiss! (What.)

“Let’s go home!”

And our adventure is over. The final scene is Old Codger, Hen Wen, and Inept Janitor Fairy looking at a vision of our heroes walking off into the sunset. Just to remind us that the writers of the film didn’t literally forget about them, I guess. They’re very happy everything work out too.

Now that I’ve seen this film, I think I can understand why it wasn’t successful. It’s reasonably watchable, but the script is a total mess. Finding out this was an adaptation of a book series kind of made everything click into place. They were just clearly trying to shove too much stuff into this movie, and none of it had time to be properly introduced, let alone developed. (Also, this film is barely 70 minutes long.) There’s a magic pig! There’s an evil king! There’s a talking dog! There’s a princess! There’s fairies! There’s witches! Like, pick two of those, and maybe you would have had a chance.

The result is that things constantly feel like they’re happening suddenly and for no reason. Gurgi’s sacrifice could have meant something if that character were more developed. The bare bones are there, but it’s as substantial as the Horned King’s skeleton army. And don’t get me started on the forced romance(?) subplot. No. Just no. Also no to the classic Disney trap of feeling the need to shove in quirky “comic relief” characters.

The fairies especially, though. I feel like it would have taken the writers (there were nine of them, according to wikipedia, which also might explain a lot) just a few minutes to come up with a way to get the plot done without them. And also how Hen Wen just vanishes halfway through the movie.

The world building suffers from the over-stuffing as well. I get the impression that the setting for The Chronicles of Prydain is a very interesting place with a rich history, but there was just no time to establish or explore any of it. So you just end up with girls who are princesses for no purpose and a bad guy who wants to be evil and destroy the world, for reasons.

It’s not so bad that I support Disney’s efforts to pretend this movie never existed, but yeah, you’re allowed to skip this one.

I think I may just read The Chronicles of Prydain instead.

Images courtesy of Disney

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