A Disney Disaster: The Black Cauldron Part 1

If only…


Despite the fact that Disney’s reboots and remakes are basically printing them money, the growing opinion is that they’re unnecessary cash grabs. The novelty of seeing your favorite animated classics come to life once again in the form of a strange blend of live-action and computer imagery is wearing off. They often didn’t bring anything new to the table, and when they did it wasn’t all that great; they’re little more than a showcase for technology that has very little chance of failure (see my article on safe bets) while at the same time reinforces the idea that there is something inherently wrong with traditional animation.

One of the solutions I’ve seen to this pervasive problem is that Disney should instead focus on remaking films that weren’t so great. The Disney company has had it’s fair share of duds, and improving on them would be a great way to redeem them. Sure, it might be a risk (gasp!), but do we really need to re-watch the same stories over and over again when they aren’t that old or out-of-date?

The number one recommendation that comes up in these discussion is Disney’s monumental flop, The Black Cauldron. I have a real love-hate relationship with this movie, and so I’m starting my very first series on Medium right now to let you know all about how this movie wound up being so bad, why it was necessary for it to fail, and exactly how much it deviated from its source material.

What Is The Black Cauldron?

The Black Cauldron is the second book in a LOTR-esque series called The Chronicles of Prydain, written by Lloyd Alexander. The entire series of books includes: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. A collection of short stories was also published as The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. Often considered to be on par with The Lord of the Rings (they even overlap some due to borrowing from the same mythological sources), Lloyd Alexander and his books are highly acclaimed.

So, what went wrong?

Why Disney Adapted It

In the 1980s, Disney animation was in a slump. The death of Walt, who was so innovative, had slowed the company down. They’re animated films just weren’t doing as well as they had in the past, management problems reigned supreme, and Disney was having trouble finding a trend they could latch onto.

Of course, they quickly realized that the trend of the decade was dark fantasy. While special effects were no where near what they are today, there was a vast improvement in them and bringing to life darker, grittier stories was the norm. We saw classics such as The Dark Crystal, Dragonslayer, The Last Unicorn, The Neverending Story, The Secret of NIHM, and even The Lord of the Rings came to the screen for the first time in animated form. Disney tried to jump on the bandwagon with the nightmare fuel-soaked Return to Oz, but they needed something more.

The Chronicles of Prydain fit the bill perfectly. It dealt with death and heavier themes than the tales Disney adapted in the past. It match the high fantasy tone that Disney was looking for, and would also appeal to an older audience while still staying family friendly enough to cast a wide net.

According to Disney’s mindset at the time, it could do no wrong! It felt so safe, in fact, that Disney poured incredible amounts of time and money into it. It took more than 10 years to make, showcased computer animation in a Disney animated film for the first time, and cost around $44 million!

It was also meant to boast holographic 3D imagery, with Disney planning to fit certain theaters with special technology that would allow the Cauldron Born to pop out of the screen and walk among the audience. That would have been amazing to see!

But There Were Huge Obstacles….

The first huge problem with adapting it was the fact that it’s a story that’s five books long. There’s a lot of lore and world building in these books. Arcs that carry over from one book to the next, many major battles, and a main villain who is largely unseen until the last book of the story.

Disney had a policy at the time of no sequels. Every movie they made had to be an original tale. Don’t you wish they’d implement that rule again? It’s not a bad rule, but it left no room for exceptions, and if any property needed an exception, it was Prydain.

None of its stories are really stand-alone, but Disney animation still had to pick which book they wanted to adapt. I have no idea why they chose Cauldron, but I can guess.

The Book of Three introduces too much lore. Yes, it has the infamous Horned King in it, but it also spends a lot of time setting up the world and situation.

Here’s a bullet list summary of key points of lore established in the first book. Yes, it greatly influences the plot.

  • The country of Prydain is under threat from the land of Annuvin, ruled over by Arawn Death-Lord. Once a consort of Achren, the former Queen of Prydain, he’s now immortal and very, very powerful.
  • The Sons of Don, from the Summer Country, are the only army standing between him and the total conquest of Prydain.
  • Arawn has enslaved the gwythaints (flying creatures seen briefly in the film) to be his eyes outside of Annuvin, obtained the black cauldron from the witches and used it to create an army of the dead, and created the Huntsmen of Annuvin.
  • One of the princes of Don, Gwydion, has left to consult the oracular pig Hen Wen at Caer Dalben.
  • The Horned King, meanwhile, seeks to lead his army to Caer Dathyl to lay siege to the castle of the House of Don.

That’s just a taste of what is set up in the first book and how it drives the narrative. In other words, it’s too expansive and unresolved by the end of the story to adapt into a single animated feature, but is still essential for setting up and introducing all of our characters.

The Black Cauldron, by contrast, is a more straight-forward quest. The goal of the book is simple: get the cauldron and stop it, thereby severing a limb of Arawn’s vast resources. The only problem is that you can’t simply jump right into it.

Disney’s poor solution was to simply join the two stories into one narrative. A lot of essential characters would have to be cut, as well as most of the major battles, and with it almost all of the characters’ story arcs, but it was doable.

The company basically took an ax to the beloved books, hacking away until they had something they thought was workable, even if it was a terrible adaptation. I suppose their logic was that a bad adaptation doesn’t necessarily equal a bad film. After all, one could argue that many of Disney’s films are rather poor adaptations of existing stories, but they’re still fantastic films that we love to watch over and over again.

The only problem was that the stories they’d adapted before were fairy tales and other books that were fairly self-contained. Prydain would prove to be much trickier.

They Also Had Severe Management Problems

Concept art for The Black Cauldron

Jeffery Katzenberg took over the animation department in the midst of Cauldron’s decade-long production and was shocked by the state of the animation department. It was scattered throughout a series of warehouses, and each division had very little contact with each other. The story-boarders never really saw the actual animators, the composers were as far removed as they could be, and there was no cohesive effort to see the story brought to life.

It didn’t help that the project had chased an aspiring young animator, Don Bluth, away from the company. He had been very passionate about adapting Prydain to the big screen and left us with a treasure trove of fantastic concept art that more accurately depicts the characters, settings, and tone of the books than the finished project.

Unfortunately, he considered too inexperienced. In spite of his efforts to prove his metal as an animator, the heads of animation still felt uncomfortable handing him the reigns to a movie that had so much riding on its success. As a result, he left and proceeded to make a bunch of hits like The Secret of NIHM, The Land Before Time, An American Tale, and more.

It also drove Tim Burton away from traditional animation entirely, apparently deciding that the tedious art of stop-motion animation is far less tedious and annoying than hand-drawn animation. His contributions to Cauldron were minimal, however, and he was uncredited.

It Also Didn’t Help that Katzenberg Hated It!

Deleted Footage

Most people who are at least somewhat familiar with this movie know that there’s missing footage from it. That Jeffery Katzenberg famously was so disgusted by how dark the final film was that he barged into the editing room and began to physical cut the strips of film himself, to the horror of everyone at the animation department. Apparently, some footage of gwythaints got lost, and most infamously, a couple cuts from the climactic Cauldron Born sequence are gone. A couple henchmen being painfully and graphically dissolved by the deathless warriors was cut, as well as a man having his throat slashed.

Katzenberg believed that, while Disney was going for a slightly older audience than with their previous films, it was still way too dark. Unfortunately, the animation department of the time believed that a film couldn’t be cut after it had already been animated. Any cuts, they argued, would have had to come during the storyboard phase, because, unlike live-action films, there aren’t different takes or sound cues you can use in post production to make up for cut footage.

Even with his edits, Katzenberg realized he had a dud on his hands, which lead us to….

Why Disney Needed this Movie to Fail!

This movie under-performed spectacularly! It was a huge blow to the animation department, which was now on the verge of shutting down completely. Katzenberg knew that if the department was to survive, they had to come out with something really good, and it had to happen as soon as possible!

The problems that were slowing the animation department down were obvious. The first was that movies were allowed to linger in production limbo for decades. Cauldron spent a decade in production, but it certainly wasn’t the first Disney film to get stuck in suspended animation! Many of Disney’s previous classics spent a lot of time sitting on shelves while different people worked on them over a period of time. Peter Pan, for example, was shelves and then reworked a few different times as well.

Katzenberg also believed that the amount of time spent on doing the animation itself was contributing to this problem. Pinocchio isn’t my favorite Disney film, but just look at how detailed and amazing Geppetto’s workshop is! There’s a kind of passion that goes into created such fantastic scenery that, unfortunately, also slows the production down.

The solution, according to Katzenberg, was that animated movies would have to follow an actual schedule from now on, and the animation department couldn’t splurge its budget on creating what amounts to scenery porn.

Lack of communication and interaction between departments was the other problem that needed to be remedied. There was very little communication between people during Cauldron, and it was determined that every film after it was going to be a collaborative effort in which everyone was going to be part of the story’s development.

What did we get once Katzenberg put his plan into action? Just a little gem called The Little Mermaid! The success of that film would define how Disney animation would function for the duration of its Renaissance period. The music was fantastic, the animation, while cheaper, was still good looking enough to work; and the film was finished in a timely manner, at least as far as hand-drawn animation is concerned.

It was thanks to the spectacular failure of The Black Cauldron that we got The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and all the other films of the 90s. Unfortunately for those of us who love the Prydain books, Disney needed their poor adaptation to fail so that they could actually pinpoint the problems plaguing their company.

Now, I believe that even if these changes had been in place Cauldron would have failed simply because it wasn’t until Eisner decided greed trumps everything and green-lit a ton of unneeded sequels that a true adaptation of the series could have been made. Trying to combine two books into one just proved to be a bad move — a sign that there was very little heart put into the movie to begin with.

The next article is going to focus on how bad of an adaption this film actually was. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it!

Guy Andersin spends his time writing, learning languages playing video games, creating games for PC and iPhone, binge watching movies and TV shows, and camping.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store