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Ambitious animation, lazy storytelling
on 20 December 2010
With an out of control $44m budget it never even came close to recouping, The Black Cauldron was perhaps Disney's most ambitious attempt to kickstart some life back into their animated features as audiences were turning their back on them. A dark(ish) sword and sorcery adventure that would be their first 2.35:1 widescreen animated feature in three decades and their first animated feature to earn a PG rating (and that only after cuts), despite some lavish and detailed animation the end result is let down by a weak stop-me-if-you've-heard-this-one-before story that feels watered down by too much caution and fear of alienating their existing audience. It's set in a not-at-all Tolkeinesque past where an evil Horned King is looking for an object of great power (a cauldron containing the soul of an earlier evil king) that will enable him to turn the corpses he collects into an army of the dead with which he can conquer all Middle-Earth - sorry, Prydain - with only a young pig boy, a scullery maid pretending to be a princess, a cowardly bard, a pig who can see the future and a cuddly scavenger standing in his way. Unfortunately their quest to find the cauldron before him so they can destroy it isn't particularly challenging: in fact, it's downright easy. Nor is it that difficult to wrest from the witches who guard it thanks to their love of a good bargain. Even the grand finale feels rather on the small side, limited to the Horned King's castle where his Cauldron-Born army are defeated before they can be much of a threat en route to a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style climax.
As a result the film's pleasures are largely visual, with the scope animation often particularly impressive and innovative for the day, enhanced by some beautifully designed background layouts which were particularly impressive seen on the big screen in 70mm (it was the last film to be shot in the 70mm SuperTechnirama system and to utilise Disney's Multiplane Camera and the first Disney film to use computer technology) but seem slightly less so on the small one. Elmer Bernstein also contributes one of his best scores, giving the film an epic scale that isn't really matched by the story. The characters veer too much to the bland but unobjectionable - the hero seems a close relative of the young Arthur in The Sword in the Stone - which is a criticism that at times can be levelled at the film itself. You can see the effort and artistry in almost every frame, but the story never really justifies it. It's an okay fantasy adventure, but it always feels like it could and should have been much more.
Disney's 25th anniversary DVD certainly gives the impression that the studio was less than enthused by the result: originally planned as a two-disc edition, the end result is a single-disc release that boasts a superior transfer to their earlier issue but only features an alternate nine-minute sequence with the Fairfolk, art galleries and Donald Duck cartoon Trick or Treat as extras while the trailer from the previous issue has not been carried over.