Director: Ted Berman, Richard Rich
Cast: Grant Bardsley, John Hurt, Susan Sheridan, John Byner, Nigel Hawthorne
Plot: A young farmer (Bardsley) dreams of being a warrior, a dream that comes harshly true when the Horned King (Hurt) goes for the dangerous, mythical Black Cauldron.
The best way to tell how good a Disney film is can usually be by looking through the marketing of any of the Disneyland Parks or scouring their toy chains, and then figuring out which one is being pushed the most. For example, it is hard to stray too far in Disneyland Paris without bumping into a Sleeping Beauty or Frozen reference. It means that the alarm bells go off when Disney seem to actively try to hide one of their past projects. You will be hard pressed to even hear a whisper of the Black Cauldron, this experimental Disney feature from the 80s. That is the first warning sign that this is one Disney best forgotten.
If it had to receive one compliment, it would be that someone was trying to do something different. The last handful of Disney movies appeared to focus on adorable family adventures with cute animals. It was beginning to become a very stale formula. However, another cute animal escapade would have been much preferred to this massive swing and a miss from Disney. It takes place in a dark fantasy land, where dragons rule the skies, witches lurk in the shadows and the dominion is ruled over by John Hurt’s frankly terrifying ruler. The Horned King is one of the most frightening creations ever put forward by Disney, but not in the fun, tongue-in-cheek way that Cruella DeVil or Maleficent was. He is created from the stuff of nightmares, the fun Disney vibe instantly turning to ice in the air, whenever Hurt’s character steps on-screen. His plot is horrendously evil too, as he searches for the titular Black Cauldron to raise an army of the dead. The story is thinly plotted, basically a bunch of Macguffins stapled together, but while the narrative is predominantly nonsense, it makes for spooky viewing for the younger kids that Disney movies are supposedly aimed for. At least the Rescuers and 101 Dalmatians levelled out their bleak tone with some fun supporting characters. The running joke of the bad guys here is how terrified they are of their ruler. As one goblin henchmen gets throttled to near-death whenever he lets the good guys escape, the directors attempt to play this off for fun. Unsurprisingly, it does not work. In fact, whenever The Black Cauldron tries to alleviate the grim tone with some comedy, it just doesn’t quite land, as if it belongs in a totally different film. A lute player tags along with the heroes, firing off quips that don’t make you laugh. Someone is desperately trying to make this a more light-hearted adventure, but the damage is already done. The end result is a film too scary for the kids and too dull for the adults. Welcome to the Dark Ages of Disney films.
Final Verdict: An experimental entry from Disney that the company have been trying to brush under the carpet ever since.