Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Black Cauldron

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Black Cauldron

Year: 1985

Source materials: The first two books in The Chronicles of Prydain: The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

Budget: $44 million 1

Box office: $21.3 million

Plot: In the land of Prydain, Taran is an “assistant pig-keeper” on the small farm of Caer Dallben, home of Dallben the Enchanter. Dallben learns that the Horned King is searching for a mystical relic known as the Black Cauldron, which is capable of creating an invincible army of undead warriors, the “Cauldron-Born”. Dallben fears the Horned King may try to steal his pig Hen Wen, which has oracular powers, and use her to locate the cauldron. Dallben directs Taran to take Hen Wen to safety; unfortunately, Taran’s foolish daydreaming causes Hen Wen to be captured by the Horned King’s forces.


Taran follows them to the Horned King’s stronghold. Along the way, he encounters the small, pestering companion Gurgi, who joins Taran on his search. Frustrated by Gurgi’s antics, Taran leaves the former to sneak into the castle and rescues Hen Wen, but although Hen Wen escapes from the castle, Taran is arrested and thrown into the dungeon. A fellow captive named Princess Eilonwy frees Taran as she is trying to make her own escape.


In the catacombs beneath the castle, Taran and Eilonwy discover the ancient burial chamber of a king, where Taran arms himself with the king’s sword. It contains magic that allows him effectively to fight the Horned King’s minions and so to fulfill his dream of heroism. Along with a third prisoner, the comical, middle-aged bard Fflewddur Fflam, they escape from the castle and are soon reunited with Gurgi.


Upon discovering that Taran has escaped, the Horned King orders his dwarf companion Creeper to send the Gwythaints to follow Taran and bring him back alive. Following Hen Wen’s trail, the four stumble into the underground kingdom of the Fair Folk who reveal that Hen Wen is under their protection. When the cheerful, elderly King Eiddileg reveals that he knows where the cauldron is, Taran resolves to go destroy it himself. Eilonwy, Fflewddur, and Gurgi agree to join him and Eiddileg’s obnoxious right-hand man Doli is assigned to lead them to the Marshes of Morva while the Fair Folk agree to escort Hen Wen safely back to Caer Dallben. the marshes they learn that the cauldron is held by three witches—the grasping Orddu, who acts as leader; the greedy Orgoch; and the more benevolent Orwen, who falls in love with Fflewddur at first sight, which causes a frightened Doli to abandon the group. Orddu agrees to trade the cauldron for Taran’s sword, and he reluctantly agrees, although he knows that to yield it will cost his chance for heroism. Before vanishing, the witches reveal that the cauldron is indestructible, and that its power can only be broken by someone who climbs in under his own free will, which will kill him.


Although Taran feels foolish for aspiring to destroy the cauldron alone, his companions show their belief in him; and it seems that Eilonwy and Taran will kiss. Suddenly, the celebration is interrupted by the Horned King’s soldiers who have finally reached the marshes themselves. They seize the cauldron and arrest everyone but Gurgi, and take their prisoners back to the castle.


The Horned King uses the cauldron to raise the dead and his Cauldron-born army begins to pour out into the world. Gurgi manages to free the captives and Taran decides to cast himself into the cauldron, but Gurgi stops him and jumps into the cauldron himself. The undead army collapses. When the Horned King spots Taran at large, he infers the turn of events and saying that Taran has interfered for the last time, throws the youth toward the cauldron; however, the cauldron’s magic is out of control. It consumes the Horned King in a tunnel of fire and blood, trapping him in the cauldron as well as destroying the castle, using up all its powers forever.


The three witches come to recover the now-inert Black Cauldron. However, Taran has finally realized Gurgi’s true friendship, and he persuades them to revive the wild thing in exchange for the cauldron, forcing him to give up his magical sword permanently. Fflewddur challenges the reluctant witches to demonstrate their powers by the revival, and upon hearing Fflewddur’s remarks, the witches honor the request, restoring Gurgi back to life. After Gurgi is resurrected, he pushes Taran and Eilonwy into a kiss. The four friends then journey back to Caer Dallben where Dallben and Doli watch them in a vision created by Hen Wen, and Dallben finally praises Taran for his heroism despite the fact that he prefers to be a Pig-Boy.

Black Cauldron Taran, Eilonwy and FflamBackground: Walt Disney Productions optioned Lloyd Alexander’s five-volume series in 1971, and pre-production work began in 1973 when the film rights to Alexander’s books were finally obtained. According to Ollie Johnston, it was he and Frank Thomas that convinced the studio to produce the movie, and that if it had been done properly, it might be “as good as Snow White”.

Several story artists and animators worked on the development of the film throughout the 1970s, where it was originally slated for release in 1980. In August 1978, the studio pushed its release date back to Christmas 1984 due to the animators’ inability of animating realistic human characters; its original release date would later be assumed by  The Fox and the Hound.

Originally veteran storyboard artist Vance Gerry designed the Horned King as a big-bellied Viking who had a red beard, fiery temper, and wore a steel helmet with two large horns. Ron Miller 2 contacted Joe Hale, who was a longtime layout artist at Disney Studios, to serve as producer. Hale tossed out visual character artwork submitted by Tim Burton and brought Milt Kahl out of retirement to create character designs for Taran, Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflamm, and the other principal characters.

Eilonwy eventually was drawn to resemble Princess Aurora. Animators John Musker and Ron Clements cited creative differences and were removed from the project and began development on  The Great Mouse Detective.  Displeased with Vance Gerry’s concept for the Horned King, under Hale the Horned King became a thin creature donning a hood and carried a spectral presence with shadowed face and glowing red eyes. Hale decided to expand his role, making him the composite villain of the several characters from the books.

Shortly before the film’s initially planned 1984 theatrical release, a test screening of the rough cut was held. After the film proved to be too intense and frightening for the majority of the children in the audience Jeffrey Katzenberg 3 ordered certain scenes cut. 4 Hale objected to Katzenberg’s demands. Katzenberg responded by having the film brought into an edit bay and editing the film himself. Disney CEO Michael Eisner 5 called Katzenberg in the editing room and convinced him to stop. Though he did what Eisner insisted, Katzenberg requested that the film be modified, 6 and delayed its scheduled Christmas 1984 release to July 1985 so that the film could be reworked. Although the film contains no songs, it has a score by Elmer Bernstein.

Changes from the Source Material: 7 Most of the plot and characters come from the first book, The Book of Three, the characters meet, but in slightly different circumstances. The Horned King is the main antagonist of the first book, but he is defeated by different characters and in a different manner. The Cauldron and the witches come from the second book, but the overall villian is Arwan the Death Lord and a traitor, King Morgant. The person who sacrifices themselves to destroy the cauldron is Ellidyr, a character who does not appear in the film, and who is not resurrected.

Lloyd Alexander said this of the film:

First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I’d also hope that they’d actually read the book. The book is quite different. It’s a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book.

Animation: The animation photo transfer process ( APT process for short) was first used for  The Black Cauldron.  Invented by David W. Spencer, 8 it enhanced the technology by which the rough animation would be processed onto celluloid. First, the rough animation would be photographed onto high-contrast litho film, and the resulting negative would be copied onto the plastic cel sheets that would transfer lines and the colors which eventually eliminated the hand-inking process. However, the computer would soon render the APT process obsolete.

The Black Cauldron  is notable for being Disney’s first animated feature film to incorporate computer-generated imagery in its animation for bubbles, a boat, a floating orb of light, and the cauldron itself.  Despite  The Black Cauldron  being released a year before  The Great Mouse Detective, both films were in production simultaneously and the computer graphics were done by the same team. For others effects, animator Don Paul used live action footage of dry ice mists to create the steam and smoke coming out of the cauldron.

Voice Cast:

Susan Sheridan as Princess Eilonwy. She was the voice of Trillian in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Impressionist John Byner as Gurgi and Doli. He started out doing voices for The Ant and the Aardvark. Nigel Hawthorne as Fflewddur Fflam. He’s known for the show Yes, Minister, and was nominated for an Oscar for The Madness of King George.

 The legenday John Hurt as The Horned King. He’s known for The Elephant Man and Alien, and to newer fans from the Harry Potter series and the War Doctor in Doctor Who. Phil Fondacaro as Creeper. He started his career in Under the Rainbow and appeared in The Return of the Jedi as an Ewok.9 Freddie Jones as Dallben appeared in a few movies by David Lynch: The Elephant Man, Wild at Heart, and Dune.

Arthur Malet as King Eidilleg is best known as Mr. Dawes, Jr. in Mary Poppins. He also appeared in In the Heat of the Night, Young Frankenstein, Halloween, Oh God, You Devil, Hook, and Toys. Billie Hayes as Orgoch, who is best known as Witcheepoo in H.R. Puffenstuff. She also played Mammy Yokum in the Broadway musical Li’l Abner. Legendary actor and director 10 John Huston was the narrator

Critical Reception: The film grossed $21.3 million domestically. It was so poorly received that it was not distributed as a home video release for more than a decade after its theatrical run. The film was also beaten at the box office by The Care Bears Movie.

Roger Ebert gave a positive review of the film, while  Los Angeles Times’  Charles Solomon praised its “splendid visuals”. London’s Time Out magazine deemed it “a major disappointment”, adding that “the charm, characterization and sheer good humor” found in previous Disney efforts “are sadly absent”.

Legacy: This film is not currently represented in the parks in any way. I don’t remember even seeing any memorabilia at Pop Century resort. In 1986, the eatery “Lancer’s Inn” at Walt Disney World, was renamed “Gurgi’s Munchies and Crunchies”. 11 (I could not find a picture)

In 1986, the attraction “Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour” opened up at Tokyo Disneyland, an attraction in which the Horned King makes an appearance. The attraction was open from 1986 to 2006.

A video game was designed by Al Lowe of Sierra On-Line and released in 1986.

My take: Well this was a rough one. I had to watch this one twice. It’s just not a compelling story. Taran really doesn’t do anything except lose a pig, get captured, gain the one thing the villian needs and then loses it to him. Eilowny is intended to be an Action Girl, but other than initially helping Taran escape, she also does nothing. Fflam is also fairly useless, I don’t know what his reason for being in the film is other than being in the book. Also, for animated skeleton with glowing red eyes, the Horned King doesn’t do much of anything either except take the cauldron after the heroes find it.

And then there’s Gurgi, the Jar Jar Binks of the Disney canon. 12 He’s annoying and hard to listen to. When he sacrifices himself, it’s not really compelling (it also seems the easy way out, but also making Taran’s determination lose some of its meaning). When they have the chance to resurrect him, I was thinking “Do you have to?” Also, it’s not much of a sacrifice if the sexually-harassing witches can just bring him back to life.

There are a couple nice bits of animation such as the cauldron-born sequence, but in a film with ocular pigs, fairies, magic swords, and a skeleton army, they forgot to make it fun.

Next Week: The Great Mouse Detective