Disney’s 1985 movie The Black Cauldron left me sitting on my couch stunned. I was stunned at how poor of an adaptation the movie was of Alexander’s Prydain books. I mean, Disney is not known for accurate adaptations of things (Pocahontas, anyone?), but usually the movies stand on their own merit, as long as you separate them from the source material in your mind.
I remember watching the movie some time in the early 2000s (it was still on VHS), and I was not terribly impressed. I did not particularly enjoy the movie when I had not read the books. So even apart from the books, the movie does not have much to stand on, at least in my opinion. After reading the books, I like it even less.
However, let me begin with the things that Disney does well. This is one of the most beautifully animated Disney films to date, in my opinion. The animation is crisp, the backdrops are detailed, and the atmosphere is fully realized. I love their physical representations of Taran and Eilonwy, and the voice actors give a great performance. The soundtrack is also well done, with a powerful leitmotif for the forces of evil. In other words, it gets right all the sorts of things you expect a Disney movie to get right.
I recognize what a risk this movie was for Disney. It is a definite deviation from their standard animated film at the time, with no catchy musical numbers and a much darker theme. I also understand why they wanted to combine books one and two into a single movie, since The Book of Three is not quite as riveting as The Black Cauldron. I think, however, if they had simply done an adaptation of one book at a time, they would have met much more success than they did. I realize that in 1985, series of movies were not a phenomenon like they are today, so it is understandable why they did not. It was a bold move of Disney to make this movie, and for that, I applaud them.
I would be applauding them a lot more if they had done a better job with the plot and adaptation of the book. It would be too easy to tear apart the movie based on its differences from the books, so I will first evaluate the movie on its own merits—or lack thereof. Beware—there are spoilers ahead!
Many Scenes Tend to Drag
One of the things I noticed is that many of the scenes tended to drag, as if staving off the darkness of the main plot with over-the-top lightheartedness. Taran’s first daydream makes sense, as it establishes his character, and it is also kind of adorable. The second one, however, seems to drag on despite its short length. As the audience, we already understand Taran is a daydreamer. While his second daydream is a catalyst, because Hen Wen runs off, they could have skipped to the introduction of Gurgi and had that be the distraction during which Hen Wen runs away.
Another part that seems to drag is Taran’s discovery of the magic sword. He spends far too much time dancing around with it and laughing, in my opinion, which breaks much of the dramatic tension of the scene. Had he just spared a moment’s laughter and then proceeded onward, it would not be so bad.
Then there is the interminable scene in which one of the witches becomes obsessed with Fflewder Fflam and tries to save him from the other witches, who want to turn him into a toad and eat him. It’s a bit awkward for a Disney movie, as this particular witch is rather…bosomy. At one point, she pulls Fflewder so close to her that he is between her breasts, and when Fflewder is turned into a frog he gets stuck in her cleavage. They spend entirely too much time showing the frog desperately trying to escape from her cleavage. It seems to take forever—perhaps a desperate bid for lightheartedness which simply becomes stupid. There are many other examples, but these are the ones which stand out to me the most.
The Main Sacrifice is Pointless
One of the things about the Black Cauldron is that it cannot be destroyed, but its evil powers can be stopped. It can only be stopped by a live being climbing inside—but it will result in the being’s death. Initially, Taran is going to sacrifice himself, but then Gurgi beats him to it. First of all, Gurgi says he has no friends, making it seem like he is doing it out of woeful self-pity rather than heroic valor. It is true that he does it in response to accusations of his cowardice as well, but the line about not having friends saps that away from the scene. After Gurgi jumps into the Cauldron and the Horned King’s castle is destroyed, the Cauldron bubbles to the surface of the moat. The witches arrive and want to take back the Cauldron. However, Taran says they cannot have the Cauldron unless they bring Gurgi back. They do so, and all is happy.
However, this makes Gurgi’s sacrifice pointless. By undoing his death, do they undo his actions? Is the Cauldron’s evil viable once again? Will it return to terrorize Prydain again at some point? The point of sacrifice is that it is final—which is why it is so meaningful.
Princess Eilonwy Has No Agency
Now it is time to delve into a little bit of a comparison-contrast analysis of the movie versus the books. In the movie, when Eilonwy first meets Taran, she is disappointed because Taran is not a warrior. She says, “I was so hoping for somebody who could rescue me.” I was floored by this. In the books, it is Eilonwy who rescues Taran, but in the movie, she’s constantly crying, “Oh, Taran, help me!” She turns into a damsel in distress, and all of her decisions are made for her. Even without comparing the books to the movie, this makes Eilonwy flat and boring. But in light of how powerful her character is in the books—even if she annoys me—her weakness in the movie seems even more egregious. I hereby retract anything negative I might have said about the book version of Eilonwy, because she is so awesome compared to the version in the movie. Her major contribution is that she sews up Fflewder’s torn pants. Whereas in the book, she saves Taran, does magic and fights against Cauldron Born, retrieves the magic sword which saves the day, and offers her precious bauble in exchange for the Black Cauldron. In the movie, she does none of those things. Instead, she is rescued by Taran, and it is Taran who takes the sword. She doesn’t even offer her bauble, which mysteriously disappears for the final third of the movie. Also, the movie Eilonwy is scared to go on the quest and it’s only at Taran’s pleading that she comes with him. In the books, Taran is scared for Eilonwy’s safety and pleads with her not to go—and she goes anyway, based on her own impetus. Book Eilonwy is downright cool, I’ve come to realize. Movie Eilonwy has less agency than Aurora from Sleeping Beauty.
Ok, maybe not quite that bad. But less than Cinderella, certainly.
The Black Cauldron Cannot Be Destroyed in the Movie
In the books, when Ellidyr jumps into the Cauldron and it shatters, it is a powerful scene which sent shivers down my spine. It is a moment of triumph and redemption for Ellidyr, even if he dies in the process. His sacrifice is meaningful and permanent. Yet in the movie, for some reason, the Black Cauldron cannot be destroyed. This makes no sense as a story telling decision, in my opinion. How powerful would it have been for the Cauldron to shatter in the movie? What a great visual that would be. I do not understand why they made the decision for it to be indestructible. Perhaps it was for the fact that the Horned King was destroyed by the Cauldron, but they still could have had that happen and then had the Cauldron break.
I could go on and on about the negatives…
…But Disney Still Got a Few Things Right
One of the deviations from the book is the way Hen Wen’s oracular powers work. In the book, she arranges rune sticks; in the movie, she places her nose in water and the water shows the future. This makes perfect sense, because a movie is a visual medium, so making the powers visual enhances the story. There are a few lines which are straight from the books. While it annoyed me that the Gwythaints are changed from crow-like birds to dragons, I have to admit it’s a lot more visually stunning. And as I said, the animation is absolutely gorgeous.
Would I recommend this movie? That’s a tough question. It is not a good movie. However, I still recommend that you watch it. It is an interesting part of cultural history, and an example of how crowd-appeasing takes strong stories and makes them weak. It is also a work of art in terms of the animation. If you don’t want to spend money on it, go to your local library, which is what I did. It’s important to support your local libraries anyway. While you are at it, check out The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron books and read them. It is an interesting exercise to see the differences between the books and the movies. Be aware that young children might be frightened by the movie—it is quite dark.
In other news, I have seen several articles saying Disney has re-acquired the rights to Prydain and may be making a series of live action movies! I hope they do, and I hope they stick to the books a little more closely.
Have you seen Disney’s The Black Cauldron? What are your thoughts on the movie? Are you one of the people who loved it, hated it, or just found it mediocre?
Image is a photo I took of the DVD copy I checked out from my library. Library information is redacted for privacy purposes.