Version I saw: Amazon Instant Video stream
Photography/visual style: 5/10
The Black Cauldron has a reputation as the film about which Disney are faintly embarrassed, and would rather people didn't know about. The film has never had the publicity of others in the Disney stable, taking a long time to reach home video and DVD release. It would seem to have been a ruinously expensive box office flop, and investigations into the background reveal board-level personality clashes and fractious internal politics. I don't know about you, but that sounds intriguing to me.
The film has problems, certainly. It is generally agreed to be considerably darker in tone than almost any other Disney film, and rather darker then studio execs were comfortable with. What first struck me, though, was not the tonal darkness but physical darkness. Throughout the early part, it was irritatingly difficult to even see what was happening on screen, even with brightness and contrast turned up to maximum. Thereafter, too, there is an odd discrepancy between the sumptuous, subtly shaded, almost canvas painting style backgrounds, and the simplistic design of the foreground characters, all thick lines and blocks of colour.
There is a comparison to be drawn between The Black Cauldron and The Sword in the Stone. Apart from the medieavalish period setting, there is a distinct similarity in character design, and indeed the art style of the film in general. Thematically, though, it has far less in common with Disney in general than it does with Brian Froud's faerie illustrations and Lord of the Rings. In terms of the latter, some of the similarities are a bit too close to comfort. We have a Sauron-clone with Nazgul-clones, other incompetent lackeys (less unique, but still something in common) and a Gollum-clone. Admittedly, it could be that these were inserted by Disney based on Tolkien's popularity, and even if they are in Lloyd Alexander's source text, The Chronicles of Prydain, he would not be the first or the last to copy the seminal master of fantasy fiction.
The writing has other problems. I found it short on the honed wit that brightens Disney pieces both before and since. Some bemoan the American committee style of writing, claiming that it leads to a certain soullessness, but at least a room full of brains can be counted on to deliver the zingers. Also, the main character Taran has very little about him to incline me to root for him. He is not strong, which is fairly standard, but neither is he clever, or brave, or even witty. His only real virtue seems to be luck, and even this abandons him at times in the narrative. This is especially a problem given how long he spends alone before companions are introduced.
At least when other characters appear, they include a strong female character. Or do they? Certainly, Princess Eilonwy has personality, and a more engaging screen presence than Taran, but for the most part she seems content to tag along behind, and be a bit sassy. Still, that's a step up from Sleeping Beauty.
So why 6 out of 10 and not lower? Two factors: Elmer Bernstein's excellent, strident orchestral score - exactly what one would expect from a cinematic legend of his pedigree - and the ending. I will try not to spoil it, but I found the deviation from the "hero saves the day" convention very refreshing. The virtues displayed in obtaining victory are not the sort to be usually found in this kind of film. That papered over a lot of cracks for me.
In some ways, I was a little disappointed that it was not more repellent, or otherwise inappropriate, which would have been an entertainment in itself. I suppose that will have to wait until I can seek out and watch 'Song of the South'...
For my full review, see my independent film blog on Blogspot, Cinema Inferno: http://cinemainferno-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/the-black-cauldron-1985.html