Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Disney film they don't want you to see! (and they're kind of right)

Tim here.

The red-headed bastard foster child among the Disney animated features, The Black Cauldron used to be the great outlier of their canon until the unprecedented run of terrible, terrible adventure movies the studio began producing around the turn of the '00s. Even now, there's an wrongness about the film, something decidedly un-Disney that ensures that even among those who remember it at all, it stands out as being particularly indefensible.

Relax, I'm not going to try and defend it. There's going against the tide, and there's being a colossal idiot, and The Black Cauldron's reputation as a mirthless slog with a plot that makes no sense at all, either in reference to Lloyd Alexander's marvelous series of books or to itself, is well-earned. That said, the film has quite a lot going on under the surface that a superficial dismissal of "dark and confusing" misses entirely.

For starters, there's the fact that it's one of, at most, two Disney films with a legitimate high fantasy plotline (arguably, Sleeping Beauty is the other). Although the company practically has a trademark on the very word "fantasy," its stories of princesses and witches and magic are invariably fairytales, never the epic-scale quests that have been with humanity as long as there has been narrative - not even the modern version of that genre, which grew in popularity right alongside the Disney studio; J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out in the same year. Hindsight, and the fact that The Black Cauldron nearly destroyed the company, prove this to be a wise course for the studio to take, but doesn't it seem weird, somehow, that there's only one heroic quest film in all of Disney's prodigious output, but there are two films about talking animals turned out of their comfortable homes in the first decade of the 20th Century?

Additionally, it's one of the most - maybe the most - visually idiosyncratic film in Disney's history. Not just because it's one of only three films they released on 70mm, but because it looks so very unlike the Disney house style of the '80s or any other period in the studio's history. The film was produced at a moment of crisis, when the veterans of multiple decades with Walt himself were being replaced by a generation of ambitious young talents who didn't altogether like being held under the Disney yoke; famously, Don Bluth left the studio with several other animators and Tim Burton left animation almost entirely, both as a result of their dissatisfaction with this very project. As a result, The Black Cauldron is a visual patchwork quilt, with nightmarish villains and especially bland heroes, and some of the most beautiful backgrounds Disney ever produced married to some of the stiffest character animation. Watching such disparate styles and wild fluctuations in quality all lying next to each other in the frame is one of the most dissonant experiences to be found in all of mainstream animation.

When Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner took over the company near the end of The Black Cauldron's 12-year creation, they chopped it to pieces in the hopes of creating something easily marketable, and still ended up releasing the first PG-rated animation Disney had produced. The film was too far gone to be "saved," if that is indeed the word, for like all cinematic train wrecks, The Black Cauldron is worth watching not because it is good, but because of the very interesting things it does on its way to being good. It is compelling in a way that Treasure Planet or Chicken Little aren't, simply because of how unique it is. It's not itching for rediscovery, nor is it fun in the way of the better-known Disney films, but it's certainly unlike anything else you've ever seen.


Glenn said...

I haven't seen The Black Cauldron, but you know what Disney film always seemed a bit "iffy" to me (as well as really bad) - The Sword in the Stone.

That just didn't even feel like Disney at all.

Ryan said...

I did see the black cauldron, and it was disturbing. I remember being at Disney World shortly after, and a restaurant was named after one of the characters, and I was scared to eat there. Bleuth and Burton together - now that starts to make sense.

the spy in the sandwich said...

i love the black cauldron. i cannot forget gurgi ever. cute fellow.


I drove so many miles to see this when it came out and disappeared quickly. I am absolutely a fan of the books and I am stunned to this day that the Disney team actually killed some of the most Disney-compatible stuff about it.

strange movie.

i still hope that some day someone will be allowed to make movies of the whole series of books. They're so good.