Walt Disney has churned out a host of beloved animated favorites. Unfortunately, many of Disney’s so-called “Dark Age” productions are criminally overlooked. 1985’s “The Black Cauldron,” adapted from Lloyd Alexander’s 1965 novel of the same name isn’t particularly well-known in the Disney canon, but it’s certainly one of the finest releases. “The Black Cauldron” is chock full of Disney Dark Age goodies, such as witches, creepy animation, and an overall chilling feel.
Our story opens in Prydain, where assistant pig keeper Taran (Grant Bardsley) watches over a pig, Hen Wen. However, this is no ordinary pig. Owned by Dallben the Enchanter (Freddie Jones), Hen Wen naturally has fortune telling powers, and Dallben discovers that the wicked Horned King (John Hurt) wishes to use the Hen Wen’s powers to find the Black Cauldron. Like Hen Wen, this Black Cauldron is not a standard kitchen implement, but a magnificent force mighty enough to craft a legion of the undead, dubbed the “Cauldron Born.”
Dallben sends Taran off with Hen Wen to keep the pig safe, and Taran’s boyish negligence results in the pig’s capture. He therefore infiltrates the Horned King’s castle. During his journey Taran joins forces with a furry creature named Gurgi (John Byner), and two prisoners he rescues: the young Princess Elinowy (Susan Sheridan), and Fflewddur (Nigel Hawthorne), a minstrel. Together the four ragtag companions set out to claim the Black Cauldron before the Horned King, and thereby thwart his evil plan.
“The Black Cauldron” is truly unique among Disney flicks. Most obvious is the lack of songs. There’s a lovely score, but no singing, unlike the traditional Disney formula. Additionally, it’s noticeably darker in content than the traditional animated movie, and contains some potentially frightening images for young audiences. The Horned King’s leering, skeletal face, the decaying Cauldron Born, and swooping dragons all lend a creepy atmosphere.
This sense is aided by remarkable animation. The backdrop springs to life with startling vividness, and each set piece displays like a painting. Perspective additionally lends a deeper, realistic feel. Luminescent green smoke wafts from the cauldron, which seems surprisingly real. Possibly the best examples, however, are the dragon chase scenes. There are angles used which appear as if shot with an actual camera, and really convey movement.
The voice acting is quite wonderful. Taran, Fflweddur, and Princess Elinowy have excellent chemistry, shown through their banter and interactions. Gurgi’s gruff but friendly Yoda-like speech is quite cool. John Hurt’s rasping Horned King is the real gem, however. There’s a fascinating making-of video showing how Hurt managed the sinister vocals. Sadly, it has yet to appear on a home video release (hint hint Disney). The bumbling witches Orddu (Eda Reiss Merin), Orgoch (Billie Hayes), and Orwen (Adele Malis-Morey) are hilarious, and their distinct personalities almost appear as precursors to the Sanderson Sisters in “Hocus Pocus.” “The Black Cauldron” is simply a great, one of a kind Disney animated flick. With witches, hordes of undead, a skeletal antagonist, and of course a cauldron it’s essentially a lavish compilation of Halloween paraphernalia backed by a compelling narrative.