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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Black Cauldron – 25th Anniversary Edition (Review)


Hidden by darkness.  Guarded by witches.  Discovered by a boy.  Stolen by a King.  Whoever owns it controls the world. Or destroys it… That was the original tag line to Disney’s 25th animated release of one of my all-time favorite Disney movies.  This was such a different kind of Disney film that a lot of people thought that it was too dark, especially after following The Fox and the Hound, but that darkness and the fantasy aspect to it is what made me want to see the movie so badly.

The movie is based on Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books, and while the books were darker, Disney did capture the spirit of the series and didn’t flinch from giving the audience the scariest villain ever in a Disney release – The Horned King.  He is a creature so evil that he himself appears to be undead and his goal is to unleash an undead army to overrun the land of Prydain and become immortal. You know, your typical Disney movie. Obviously, a lot of families were shocked that Disney made this movie and it hurt the box office earnings of the most expensive movie Disney had ever made up to that point (25
million or 40 million if you include advertising and prints), which was a real shame as it was really good as well as original and it was the first Disney feature to use computer graphics or to receive a PG rating which was unheard of for a Disney film.  Due to the reception this movie received, Disney backed away from animated PG material and non singing movies for a long time.  I loved this movie then and I love it now.  In fact, I was so crazy about the movie that The Black Cauldron was my first computer game and I went on to read the entire series of enjoyable books that the movie was based on.

Film  (4 out of 5 stars)

The Black Cauldron is one of the few straight out animated adventure movies that Disney has made with the only other one (if my memory is correct), being Atlantis: The Lost Empire which came out a long 16 years later.  What makes those two movies so rare in the Disney canon is that there are no songs peppered throughout the movie as is the Disney custom and no talking animals either.  This was movie made in response to a changing market as the other animated movies such as The Secret of Nimh started going down darker paths which Disney wanted to follow.  As a matter of fact, The Black Cauldron even had  young director-to-be Tim Burton as a conceptual artist which explains a lot of the film’s visual style.


Along with these new challenges, The Black Cauldron was made during a tumultuous time within the Disney company with Jeffrey Katzenberg replacing Ron Miller as the Studio Chairman at Disney.  The difference of visions led to Katzenberg demanding 3 minutes of cuts and changes to make the movie more family friendly and to bring it closer to the source material.  Katzenberg felt that it was lacking “the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander’s work.  The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted.” As a matter of fact, this dark story needed to be re-cut twice to avoid the MPAA’s rating of PG-13 and R.


This ambitious movie, that had been 12 years in the making was the  most expensive movie Disney had ever made up to that point and it’s biggest risk other than perhaps Walt Disney’s first big gamble – Snow White and the Seven DwarfsThe Black Cauldron was a throwback to the early dark and edgy Disney movies where bad things happened to good people.  This movie, like the early ones before it, was a dark morality tale that contained some lessons, some universal truths, and even consequences based on their actions for good and evil characters alike.


The Black Cauldron is a without a doubt, Disney’s darkest animated feature of all time and it’s villain is the  most evil and scary as well.  The Horned King (voiced by John Hurt), is evil personified.  He appears to be an undead lich who wants to be a God among mortals.  He has been searching for the Black Cauldron to create an undead army to take over the world.  The Cauldron is said to have an incredibly evil King’s spirit trapped within it and it can re-animate any skeleton that is thrown in it, thus making an undead army of impervious Cauldron-born.


Since he hasn’t been able to find the Cauldron on his own,  he decides to seek out the mystical pig that can see the future – Hen-Wen.  Hen-Wen’s protector’s include Dallben (Freddie Jones) and Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper (Grant Bardsley).  Thanks to Hen-Wen’s visions, they are aware that the Horned King is looking for Hen-Wen and Taran is dispatched to take Hen-Wen to safety to a secret location.  Along the way, Taran comes across an assortment of characters, Gurgi (John Byner) a mischievous sycophantic creature  proves to be endearing and maddening to Taran in his efforts to befriend him.  Then there’s Princess Elilonwy (Susan Sheridan) who isn’t a damsel in distress and is  more than capable of rescuing herself.  To round out our intrepid band of heroes is Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), a traveling bard who had the misfortune to to try to ply his trade near the Horned King’s fortress and was subsequently imprisoned in the dungeon.


This is a fantastic movie full of intrigue, humor, magic, bravery, and sacrifice.  Although I wouldn’t recommend letting young children watch it until their parents feel that they are ready for it, there are some wonderful lessons and examples for children in the movie.  Even the seemingly lowest of characters can stand up and make a difference and others learn that courage is something that comes from within and not from swords or other magical items.

Video  (4 out of 5 stars)

This 25th Anniversary Edition comes with a brand new re-mastered wide-screen (2.35:1) print that blows away the previous Gold Collection release.  The Black Cauldron was Disney’s last film (the first being Sleeping Beauty), to be shot in the Super Technirama 70 70mm wide-screen system.  The picture quality is the best I’ve seen for this movie with deep rich blacks, stunning color, and no softness to be seen.  I did notice some scratches and a little bit of noise but overall, Disney has done an excellent job restoring this movie.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

The movie has an excellent 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound track that really works well.  Dialogue was clear  and Elmer Bernstein’s score never faded in the background nor did it overwhelm the movie.  The satellite speakers weren’t used as much as I would have like but overall I was very pleased especially towards the end of the movie when the magic and cauldron come into play.  Special mention must also go to the great job that John Hurt and the audio wizards at Disney did with the vocal presence of the Horned King.  It’s great and chilling work!

Special Features  (3 out of 5 stars)

Compared the the previous Gold Edition release, this special edition does indeed have some new extras that make it better. There is a fairly long new deleted scene concerning the FairFolk and a new game to play with the kids.  I was hoping to see more of the cut scenes that were deemed to dark and scary but unfortunately they aren’t on here.  Here is the list of extras on the disc:
New bonus features:
  • Deleted scene: The FairFolk: Join Taran, Fflewddur Fflam, Gurgi, and Princess Eilonwy as they travel into the depths of the earth, and meet the Fairfolk. This scene offers a very different introduction to the FairFolk and how the knowledge of where the Cauldron is delivered.
  • The Witches’ Challenge Game: In order to defeat the dark powers of the Horned King, you must get the magical sword. The sword is held by the Witches of Morva. Solve their riddles and the sword is yours!
Plus classic DVD features:

  • Trick Or Treat: Classic Halloween Donald Duck cartoon from 1952.  One of my favorites Donald   Duck cartoons!
  • Still frame gallery – Gallery of behind-the-scenes artwork and photos
  • Theatrical trailer: Original theatrical trailer
  • Quest For The Black Cauldron: Race to reach the Black Cauldron before the evil Horned King does in this trivia game.
  •  

    Final Thoughts  (4 out of 5 stars)

    The Black Cauldron is one of my all-time favorite Disney movies although it didn’t exactly follow the books Lloyd Alexander wrote which I also really enjoyed.  As Alexander said, “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 highly recommend this movie and the series of books it was based on.  If you do want to read the series, start with The Book of Three (as The Black Cauldron is actually the second book in the series).  Parents should view this movie before showing it to really young children as some scenes may be too scary for them.  It is rated PG so be forewarned!

    Pre-order your copy today!!

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