Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXXIII: I presume, boy, that you are the keeper of this oracular pig?


Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich

Spoiler alert: moderate

There is nothing more emblematic of Disney in its Dark Age than its 1985 effort, The Black Cauldron.  It was a film as devastating as anything that had come before: more costly (even in constant dollars) than Fantasia; more of a production debacle than Sleeping Beauty; more of a box office bomb than either.  But unlike those classics, little of nobility was left in the The Black Cauldron's ashes.  Despite involving new and expensive production techniques, and despite the apparent perfectionism that wound up costing Disney somewhere between 25 and 44 million dollars, it's hard to describe it as an overreach of ambition the way those other two studio-imperiling gambles were; indeed, by the time it was finally finished, anything that had been proud and worthwhile about it had been stripped away, leaving little more than a pretty exercise in early 80s fantasy that was unbelievably hackish, even by the standards of the fad.  It has no real redeeming features—not even art.  The Black Cauldron suggested that something had gone terribly wrong at the Disney studio, which it had, like, a quarter of a century earlier, even before Walt's death, and so it's difficult to understand how this possibly came as news to anybody.  Still, with The Fox and the Hound, it might've seemed like a corner had been turned.  Sadly, in the chaos that reigned after Wolfgang Reitherman's ouster, The Black Cauldron saw Disney bottom out harder than it ever had, and it was a good thing that Disney animation was in a position to survive it.

So let's back up, and see how it started.  That takes us to 1973, when pre-production began on an adaptation of Lloyd Alexander's fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain, and from its very inception The Black Cauldron was already wasting people's time: Mel Shaw's designs were deemed overdetailed and "too advanced," and there was ample confusion over how to translate the basic gist of five whole books into a film that would in no circumstance run over 100 minutes, which is why Disney's adaptation wound up being a hodge-podge of elements bearing only the most superficial resemblance to Alexander's tales.  Since at this point it was somehow even more disjointed, in 1980 Ron Miller practically started re-developing it from scratch.  Miller appointed Joe Hale as its producer—a position that effectively ended his Disney career.  But, to his credit, Hale put his back into it.  He brought Milt Kahl out of retirement to redesign the characters; along the same lines, he brought in new people to redo the storyboards, resulting in their predecessors being the first artists to walk away from The Black Cauldron in disgust.

This became one of the most salient qualities of the legendarily-troubled production: folks doing their damnedest to get out of it.  Several artists decided that Disney was less a place where dreams came true than a place where dreams were crushed, and the early 80s saw such figures of future importance as Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and John Lasseter taking a cue from Don Bluth and leaving Disney altogether—not all of them due to The Black Cauldron, but, like I said, the film has become emblematic of the mood at the time, which was a sort of surly indifference intensified by the dissonance between the company's deep-seated aesthetic conservatism and the company's new apparent desire to make movies for a vaguely-understood conception of a teenaged summer blockbuster audience.  Others were able to stay and toe the line, but The Black Cauldron itself remained something to avoid at all costs.  Even so, as The Black Cauldron became a black hole (not that one), a few still managed to escape its terrible gravity.  Not least was its first director, John Musker, who'd been given the "opportunity," but whose "overly comedic" ideas (on a film that wound up plenty tonally-deranged anyway) had failed to make Miller smile.  Fortuitously, he and his future super-collaborator Ron Clements landed on their feet, on The Black Cauldron's far less prestigious, far less costly, and far less stultifying sibling production.  They called it Basil of Baker Street, and they knew how lucky they were to be there.

Meanwhile, events beyond Burbank were bringing an end to Disney animation as people knew it altogether.  In 1984, Miller—judged unfairly, perhaps, and more by his failures than his successes, but that's life—was fired.  The Walt Disney Company had just survived a hostile takeover crisis, and if not for Roy E. Disney—son of Roy O.—the corporation would have been dismembered for its valuable parts, and, recall, the animation studio in 1984 wasn't one of them.  Roy, however—more his uncle's nephew than his father's son—recognized that, beneath the years of tarnish, animation was still the company's beating heart, or at least (as he explained it to his fellow businesspeople, so that they could comprehend it) it remained the engine that provided new IP for the merchandizing wing and the theme parks.  Still, I think it's fair to say that this Disney really did love cartoons.  This was not necessarily true of his dad, and not necessarily true of his cousin-in-law—hell, it wasn't even necessarily always true of his uncle.  But when Roy installed Frank Wells and Michael Eisner as president and CEO, respectively—the first outsiders to ever run Walt's company, over a half-century after its founding—he made them agree to preserve and nurture the animation studio, despite Eisner's own strong instincts to just shut it down.  Soon, it would be renamed Walt Disney Feature Animation, and be restored to its rightful place at the center of Walt's plan for global domination.

Or, if not "soon," then "eventually, after some misery."  At the beginning, the studio's personnel got thrown out of their building in favor of celebrities, and years before they were allowed to reclaim it, Eisner's colleague from his Paramount days, Jeffrey Katzenberg, ruffled feathers as the new head of Disney filmmaking.  When Katzenberg was confronted with the latest effort from the artists whom Roy had sworn on his uncle's grave actually were profit centers, he was horrified by what he saw.  That is, he was literally horrified—as were a number of children at his test screenings—by The Black Cauldron's resort to an extremely off-brand level of ultraviolence for at least one scene.  But once he'd gotten over his shock at witnessing a guy melting in a Disney cartoon, Katzenberg also managed to be horrified by how molasses-slow and meandering the rest of it was.  Demanding changes, he threatened to start editing it himself, over Hale's alarmed objections that one couldn't just "edit" an animated film.  This is how Katzenberg became the second person in the history of Disney animation—the second after Walt himself—to cut significant finished animation out of a Disney film.  Which is a pity, needless to say.  That's not because I want to criticize Katzenberg.  (Certainly, you don't need to look hard to find somebody criticizing Jeffrey Katzenberg!)  But while one can easily see where he was coming from when he responded with panic, one is also bound to be a little annoyed that the dude took out something that might've at least made The Black Cauldron briefly cool.

Which finally brings us to the film itself, ultimately released in the summer of 1985, with around twelve minutes sliced out, and still garnering a PG, making it the first Disney cartoon to get less than a general audiences certificate (though it's hardly scarier than either Fox and the Hound or Bluth's The Secret of NIMH).  So, while I assume it plays out better in Alexander's novels, this Black Cauldron's story is basically a Tolkien-and-Lucas knock-off.  In the land of Prydain, I guess—for I think the term is never uttered again after the opening narration—we find a young assistant farmer, Taran (Grant Bardsley), who brings the nominal monomythical resonance of the piece, what with his Skywalkery dreams of leaving his moisture pig farm and becoming a great warrior for some undefined cause.  He gets his call to adventure when it turns out that the pig he and his master Dallben (Freddie Jones) have been keeping his whole life, Hen Wen, is a magical pig.  She can see the future, presenting her visions in basins of water.  She brings bad news today, however, for the Horned King (John Hurt, because if Bluth could tap Claudius for his grotesque old wizard, they'd do him one better and get Caligula) is seeking the legendary Black Cauldron.  And the Cauldron, as the aforementioned narration told us, has the power to bring the dead back to life as an army of zombie slaves.

Fearing that the King will seek Hen Wen as a means by which to acquire the Cauldron, Dallben sends his teenaged apprentice off to escort the pig to a safer location on the other side of the woods.  Taran loses her almost immediately—Hen Wen is characterized either as a naturally stupid animal or as a nearly-human-level intellect, depending on the scene—and by the time Taran's done being distracted by the forest-dwelling beast-thing who thirsts for his apples, Gurgi (John Byner), Hen Wen's been snatched up by the Horned King's dragons.  Taran, determined to rescue his pig, braves the King's castle, and here he finds two other captives, Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and the unfortunate minstrel Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne).  He sort-of helps them escape, along with Hen Wen, but the danger has hardly abated; and thus our heroes, along with Gurgi, who's become attached to Taran for some reason, embark upon a perilous quest to save the world by destroying the Black Cauldron before their adversary can lay claim to it.  Reading all that back, it's even more of a direct Star Wars knock-off than I thought it was; it remains as subliminal as it is mostly just because not a single one of these characters has a quarter of the spark and magnetism of their Star Wars analogues.

But what I'm sure you'll notice from that description is that the essence of The Black Cauldron is how incredibly fucking vague it is.  It humps the plot beats of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but its story is barely fit for a video game (I'd say the actual Black Cauldron video game was a near 1:1 adaptation, except that it sounds like they mixed the elements slightly better there!); indeed, considering how useless, basic, and mindlessly bland the characters are, it probably wouldn't pass muster for a D&D night.  This isn't even a result of Katzenberg's savaging; it's not incoherent enough to blame it on that.  It's just so featureless as to seem that way, The Black Cauldron representing a failure of fantasy world-building unprecedented outside of the most abysmal reaches of low-budget fantasy cinema, and even they still usually manage to make things a bit more concrete.

Here, almost every scene has a big question mark stamped on it.  What's the relationship between Taran and Dallben?  Does Dallben own him?  What is Princess Eilonwy princess of?  Prydain itself?  Then why does she appear to have no retainers or resources?  What is Gurgi, and why is no one surprised to see him?  Are little dog-men common in Prydain?  Who is the Horned King?  And, in his moment of incipient triumph, when the Horned King crows that his army of the dead shall bring him victory—victory over whom?  Eilonwy's people?  Because I don't know if Eilonwy has people.  What was wrong with his human army?  Oh, and I'm a serious ideological vegetarian and all, but it's worth pointing out that you wouldn't have to go all the way to Mount Doom to destroy this maguffin.

None of this is to say that it can't be actively incoherent.  The Black Cauldron has a worrisome problem with object permanence.  Consider Eilonwy's "bauble," a Tinkerbell-esque floating ball, possibly alive, done up with Disney's first CGI, that vanishes almost the instant the tech has been demonstrated; in a slightly less egregious example of the same thing, a fairy ally our heroes have made along the way disappears for most of a reel.  As for the characters that The Black Cauldron does remember exist, you'd often prefer it didn't.  Taran himself is such a flavorless piece of yearning mediocrity that he should be in screenwriting reference books under "don't."  The closest thing to a "good" character is Eilonwy, who's also boring, but very hazily reminds me of Zelda, and has one or two decent quips, making her the most interesting nobody in the cast.  It becomes depressingly clear that the vast majority of the film's years of development were spent hammering out anything notable about it, until the final product was so flawlessly smooth that it could glide across your brain without perturbing anything or even leaving a memory of its passing.

But that might be giving The Black Cauldron too much credit, since its other abiding mode, besides "beige," is "irritating," and boy does it irritate, with most of the non-Taran, non-Horned King characters existing solely to serve as comic relief.  (And I mean solely: it's astonishing how absent they are from the plot despite being around for the majority of the story.)  It points to a problem deeper than even its unimaginative dullness, because for a would-be epic, The Black Cauldron is just so... undignified.

The fantasy elements are all pitched at a level that's just deflating: its visualization of clairvoyance involves a pig regurgitating psychedelia into bowls of water; Fflewddur has a semi-sentient harp that pops a string every time he lies, and as I have described the man's shtick, I have therefore described his entire lousy character; when it turns out that the evil Cauldron is in the possession of a trio of witches, obviously the main interest the film will have in them is to turn characters into frogs so they can be stuffed into the cleavage of the chubby, horny one; the fair folk we encounter, and whose plot function barely goes past "they introduce themselves and allow our heroes to go on their way," are for some reason led by a fairy king who dresses like Santa Claus; even our central figure, Taran, is so inept that his greatest accomplishment is finding a magic sword that essentially fights his battles for him.  This is even called out in dialogue, almost like The Black Cauldron were secretly a bone-dry parody, but it's so manifestly not that I assume the writers were just venting their own frustrations with it.

Above all, there is Gurgi.  I have no real use for Kahl's human designs—they're all built like scarecrows, and their puppetlike movement is a far cry from Sleeping Beauty, their inspiration—but Gurgi is the worst, one of the most awful of all awful Disney sidekicks.  His design is shockingly lazy, literally just a gray, bipedal dog.  He spouts pidgin English with a "cute" lisp; he "humorously" abases himself every other line.  In case you somehow couldn't get enough of him, the Horned King has his own nearly-identical comic relief sidekick, Creeper (Phil Fondacaro), who's possibly even more annoying, but is green and reptilian, so you know he's bad.

What that leaves us with is the technical side of things, and this is where The Black Cauldron, while never justifying itself, at least makes up some ground.  I've said mean things about it in the past, but I think I based them mostly on some technological issues that, in my defense, do tend to loom large.  It's really more like one specific scene, where Taran, having ascended a cliff to glower grimly at the Horned King's fortress, looks like he's been rear-projected, as in a live-action movie.  That is, it looks impossible.  Otherwise, while there are ugly pieces here and there, and the character animation is unaccomplished, The Black Cauldron looks reasonably good overall, especially in its backgrounds.  It was the last motion picture ever filmed in Super Technirama 70, and the express goal was to recapture Sleeping Beauty's vast richness.  In this regard, it's a qualified success: there was never any particular vision here, the way Eyvind Earle imposed one on Sleeping Beauty, but as far as "generic dark fantasy" goes, it's detailed, sometimes moody work.  The Black Cauldron was also supposed to be the big unveiling of the Animation Photo Transfer process, an iterative improvement over xerography, though there's some indication that, due to hiccups, xerography remains predominant; in any event, at least the continued attempts to enhance the line-to-celluloid process don't betray themselves as worse than useless, like they did in The Rescuers, though it's also not quite as well-done as the xerography of The Fox and the Hound.  Still, I can say something nice, and when it comes to sheer lavishness, The Black Cauldron can be seriously impressive.  From the tracking shot across an open field as the dragons give chase to Hen Wen, to the coruscating lights that play across Taran and Dallben's faces as she shows them her vision, to the weighty feel of the debris in a crumbling castle, to the wickedly complex moving shadows that attend Eilwony's bauble in a dark dungeon—for all its sins, The Black Cauldron was built to bring wonderment back to Disney, and it shows.

The problem, of course, is that it's wonderment in service of complete banality: bad characters in a boring story, barely having an adventure as they quest against a nothing villain.  Yes, even the Horned King sucks, and he's the one aspect of this film people sometimes claim to like, perhaps because anybody would benefit from being graded on The Black Cauldron's curve.  Effectively Skeletor's sickly little brother, besides moving ominously slowly, he doesn't really do anything until he eats it in a poorly-staged, unexciting finale (though at least Katzenberg didn't cut his melting scene).  In the end, there's simply not much on offer here for anyone besides Disney completists.  I'll let Peter Schneider, whom Roy appointed the president of Disney animation in the year of the film's release, have the final word:  "I knew that I could do no worse than The Black Cauldron.  You can't fall off the first floor."

Score: 4/10

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