Back in 1973 Disney obtained the rights to Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydian. A series spread over five novels aimed at children that are based around ancient Welsh mythology. This feature-length animation is loosely based around the first two books in the series.
In case you haven’t guessed yet, the concept for these stories is high fantasy. Magic, dragons, witches, goblins, the undead etc…Its essentially like a children’s version of The Lord of the Rings from what I could tell, although I have never read the books so I could be wrong. But in all honesty that was the first impression I got when I sat down to watch this movie. The visuals very much reminded me of the classic Ralph Bakshi version the of the classic Tolkien story, but with classic Disney designs.
The plot surrounds the young boy Taran (Grant Bardsley) who tends pigs on a farm belonging to Dallben the Enchanter (Freddie Jones), a kind of wise old mystic, I think. I’m not really sure of the relation between Taran and Dallben, the boy just seems to work for Dallben and Dallben looks after him. Anyway Dallben learns that the evil Horned King (John Hurt) is after the Black Cauldron and fears he may come for his pet pig Hen Wen. Why? Because this pig has the power to predict or see the future somehow. I’m still not entirely sure why this would help the Horned King to be honest; how does seeing the future help find an object? Surely you need a map or something. Also no clue how this pig got these powers or how Dallben got the pig, oh well.
So Dallben sends Taran away to go into hiding with Hen Wen. Unfortunately and predictably Taran manages to lose Hen Wen (well Hen Wen stupidly runs off in the middle of the dark woods) and both are eventually captured by the Horned Kings men. One thing leads to another and Hen Wen manages to escape but Taran does not. Back in the deep dungeons Taran bumps into some other prisoners and together they manage to escape. Their plan now? To find Hen Wen, locate the Black Cauldron and destroy it. That wasn’t what Dallben wanted of course, but since when do young protagonists ever listen to their wise elders?
Yes so straight away the main problem with this film is the plot and its characters. As I already said we don’t really get much background on Taran, Hen Wen, or Dallben. We are simply thrust into their lives and straight into the crux of the plot. The Horned King is another main character that really isn’t explained much. He wants the power of the Black Cauldron so he can raise his dead army (what happened to them?) and take over the land. I mean I could ask why but I suppose this is a fairytale so…But also, who or what exactly is the Horned King? He is clearly undead and powerful, what’s his deal??
Later on as Taran tries to escape from the Horned Kings dungeon he meets up with Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan). Now this is where things get really vague. Eilonwy is also escaping from the dungeons but we have no idea what she did to get there. Add to that we have no idea who she is, where she comes from, and why’s she’s called Princess. Is she from another realm with another King and Queen? She also has a small hovering/flying ball of light that accompanies her, like a pet or something. No clue what this little thing is or where it comes from, Elionwy merely says [i]its magic'[/i]. And then we come to Ffewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) a middle-aged bard with a magical harp which snaps a string every time he lies (but why????). Again this chap is picked up in the dungeons and simply becomes the comedic relief for the most part…and nothing else. No exaggeration, he literally does nothing.
But in all honesty, all the characters do nothing. Taran is your typical young Disney hero who aspires to become something better, a great warrior or hero, usual stuff. Thing is he never achieves this, in fact he doesn’t really achieve anything. In the dungeons he finds an ancient magical sword that helps him fight off enemies but its the sword doing the work…literally! Taran does absolutely nothing except show some kindness and maturity…before going back to tending pigs. Princess Elionwy seems to be merely there for female/Disney Princess representation. To be the heroes bit of fluff, but that never actually happens sooo…why is she there? Ffewddur Fflam is a bumbling fool for the kids.
Let’s not forget about Gurgi, a small furry creature that Taran meets in the woods and is essentially there to boost plush toy sales. This little guy is really annoying, looks like he’s got a handlebar moustache, and he sounds very much like Gollum (ahem!). Again this guy does nothing really until he inexplicably sacrifices himself towards the end. But this lacked any emotion because he’s an annoying character and (again) had no real need to be in the story. He had no real need to even join Taran on his quest, especially as Taran clearly disliked him. He originally pinched an apple from Taran, Taran scolded him, and Gurgi just kinda followed him ever since.
But anyway speaking of merchandise sales, I would say the Fair Folk Kingdom would fall into that category. A large underground world of little glowing pixie or dwarf-like people with little fairy wings. Probably the worst characters in the film. They looked crappy and just felt like padding and pointless.
The only good character is the Horned King simply because he looks so damn awesome (think Skeletor), sounds cool, and lives in a cool creepy castle with an undead army. He also has a throwaway goblin sidekick which is again comedic relief for the kids. Yeah sure the King isn’t exactly an in-depth character, like I said we get no information on him or any of his aides, but he’s just dark and sweet looking. The best part of the entire movie is easily the ending when he brings all of his undead army back to life and they start to attack his living men. One cut sequence has a guy being dissolved or melted by these undead warriors (for some reason), incredibly gory for Disney. But again I have no real clue why the King’s undead army would kill his living army and what exactly these undead warriors are gonna do, melt everything?
The only other characters to mention are the three witches Orddu, Orgoch, and Orwen. Taran and co have to try and talk these witches into revealing the location of the Black Cauldron. Long story short, these witches are basically Mad Madame Mim clones. One is tall and skinny, one is short and fat, and one is medium build. They are all bat-shit crazy and not to be trusted. Expect lots of flying objects and trickery from these characters. Oh and one very awkward sequence where they turn Fflam into a frog and he gets stuck in between the big boobs of witch Orwen. No I’m not joking, big cartoon boob visuals galore.
So yeah the plot is just really poorly constructed in this movie. It apparently incorporates the first two books in the series and it kinda shows. Everything moves so fast and it feels rushed. One minute Taran is happy and with Dallben, next minute he’s kicked out and off into hiding. Before you know it he’s lost his pig and at the foot of the Horned Kings castle! This is obviously set in a large fantasy world but it comes across as very small in this picture. One scene shows Taran looking at the Horned Kings castle from a great distance, next scene he’s at the door!
The three witches spend ages trying to talk Taran out of his magic sword, in exchange for the Black Cauldron. But then at the end when the cauldron has been drained of all its powers the witches want it back again and offer the magic sword! So…why did they want the sword so bad in the first place? And why would they want the cauldron now it’s useless? Also, as the tale goes, the only way to stop the cauldron is for a living creature to get inside it. So when Gurgi jumps into it, why does that not stop it? And lastly, its really odd how the entire plot revolved around Hen Wen the pig for so long, then all of sudden it didn’t. Everyone is trying to find Hen Wen before the Horned King, everything depends on the pig; and then the plot just diverts and leaves the fate of Hen Wen up in the air right until the very end.
On the positive side: The visuals in the movie are incredible. The animation is classic Disney with easily recognisable designs (although a bit too recognisable). From the rolling green countryside and Hobbit-esque woods. The towering shadow covered castle with its deep dark maze-like interior littered with dungeons, catacombs, skeletons, and cobwebs. To the gorgeous vistas, high detail, glowing magical effects, and a pair of awesome pet dragons. This movie looks flippin’ amazing on every frame. Sumptuous colours, silky smooth animation, and some truly excellent artwork all the way through from top to bottom.
There’s just a few problems (but they’re big). The plot is terribly formulaic and dull with literally no background history for anything. The opening narration speaks of the origins of the Black Cauldron and how an evil King was, basically, boiled alive in it which led to his soul being trapped within the cauldron. Well…was that supposed to be the Horned King? I don’t think it was, I think this was another character from the book. And that’s another problem, I feel like you need to know the book to understand this better because the movie is pretty loose. The final problem is the awful, bland (some badly voiced), one-dimensional characters that just don’t do anything. Almost all of them have no need to even be there and present no arcs at all.
Totally torn on this. This was my first time seeing this movie so I was unbiased and actually really hoping for a cracker going by the posters and images. Alas even though it is a visual treat and I adore this fantasy realm/world, it’s a huge misstep by Disney and such a waste. A handsome spectacle of fairytale folklore and myth to be sure, but unfortunately lacking in any real depth.