Set in the mythical land of Prydain during the Early Middle Ages, the film centers on the evil Horned King who hopes to secure an ancient magical cauldron that will aid him in his desire to conquer the world. He is opposed by a young pig keeper named Taran, the young princess Eilonwy, the bard Fflewddur Fflam, and a wild creature named Gurgi who seek to destroy the cauldron, to prevent the Horned King from ruling the world.
The film is directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, who had directed Disney's previous animated film The Fox and the Hound in 1981, the first Disney animated film to be recorded in Dolby Stereo. It features the voices of Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Nigel Hawthorne, John Byner, and John Hurt. It was the first Disney animated film to receive a PG rating as well as the first Disney animated film to feature computer-generated imagery. The film was released theatrically by Buena Vista Distribution on July 24, 1985. Disney released the film for the first time on home video in 1998.
In the land of Prydain, Taran is an "assistant pig-keeper" on the small farm of Caer Dallben, home of Dallben the Enchanter. Dallben learns that the Horned King is searching for a mystical relic known as the Black Cauldron, which is capable of creating an invincible army of undead warriors, the "Cauldron-Born". Dallben fears the Horned King may try to steal his pig Hen Wen, which has oracular powers, and use her to locate the cauldron. Dallben directs Taran to take Hen Wen to safety; unfortunately, Taran's foolish daydreaming causes Hen Wen to be captured by the Horned King's forces.
Taran follows them to the Horned King's stronghold. Along the way, he encounters the small, pestering companion Gurgi, who joins Taran on his search. Frustrated by Gurgi's antics, Taran leaves the former to sneak into the castle and rescues Hen Wen, but although Hen Wen escapes from the castle, Taran is arrested and thrown into the dungeon. A fellow captive named Princess Eilonwy frees Taran as she is trying to make her own escape. In the catacombs beneath the castle, Taran and Eilonwy discover the ancient burial chamber of a king, where Taran arms himself with the king's sword. It contains magic that allows him effectively to fight the Horned King's minions and so to fulfill his dream of heroism. Along with a third prisoner, the comical, middle-aged bard Fflewddur Fflam, they escape from the castle and are soon reunited with Gurgi. Upon discovering that Taran has escaped, the Horned King orders his dwarf companion Creeper to send the Gwythaints to follow Taran and bring him back alive.
Following Hen Wen's trail, the four stumble into the underground kingdom of the Fair Folk who reveal that Hen Wen is under their protection. When the cheerful, elderly King Eiddileg reveals that he knows where the cauldron is, Taran resolves to go destroy it himself. Eilonwy, Fflewddur, and Gurgi agree to join him and Eiddileg's obnoxious right-hand man Doli is assigned to lead them to the Marshes of Morva while the Fair Folk agree to escort Hen Wen safely back to Caer Dallben. At the marshes they learn that the cauldron is held by three witches—the grasping Orddu, who acts as leader; the greedy Orgoch; and the more benevolent Orwen, who falls in love with Fflewddur at first sight, which causes a frightened Doli to abandon the group. Orddu agrees to trade the cauldron for Taran's sword, and he reluctantly agrees, although he knows that to yield it will cost his chance for heroism. Before vanishing, the witches reveal that the cauldron is indestructible, and that its power can only be broken by someone who climbs in under his own free will, which will kill him. Although Taran feels foolish for aspiring to destroy the cauldron alone, his companions show their belief in him; and it seems that Eilonwy and Taran will kiss. Suddenly, the celebration is interrupted by the Horned King's soldiers who have finally reached the marshes themselves. They seize the cauldron and arrest everyone but Gurgi, and take their prisoners back to the castle. The Horned King uses the cauldron to raise the dead and his Cauldron-born army begins to pour out into the world.
Gurgi manages to free the captives and Taran decides to cast himself into the cauldron, but Gurgi stops him and jumps into the cauldron himself. The undead army collapses. When the Horned King spots Taran at large, he infers the turn of events and saying that Taran has interfered for the last time, throws the youth toward the cauldron; however, the cauldron's magic is out of control. It consumes the Horned King in a tunnel of fire and blood, trapping him in the cauldron as well as destroying the castle, using up all its powers forever. The three witches come to recover the now-inert Black Cauldron. However, Taran has finally realized Gurgi's true friendship, and he persuades them to revive the wild thing in exchange for the cauldron, forcing him to give up his magical sword permanently. Fflewddur challenges the reluctant witches to demonstrate their powers by the revival, and upon hearing Fflewddur's remarks, the witches honor the request, restoring Gurgi back to life. The four friends then journey back to Caer Dallben where Dallben and Doli watch them in a vision created by Hen Wen, and Dallben finally praises Taran for his heroism despite the fact that he prefers to be a Pig-Boy.Grant Bardsley as Taran
Susan Sheridan as Princess Eilonwy
John Byner as Gurgi and Doli
Nigel Hawthorne as Fflewddur Fflam
John Hurt as The Horned King
Phil Fondacaro as Creeper / Henchman
Freddie Jones as Dallben
Arthur Malet as King Eidilleg
Eda Reiss Merin as Orddu
Adele Malis-Morey as Orwen
Billie Hayes as Orgoch
John Huston as Narrator
Walt Disney Productions optioned Lloyd Alexander's five-volume series in 1971, and pre-production work began in 1973 when the film rights to Alexander's books were finally obtained. According to Ollie Johnston, it was he and Frank Thomas that convinced the studio to produce the movie, and that if it had been done properly, it might be "as good as Snow White". Because of the numerous storylines and with over thirty characters in the original series, several story artists and animators worked on the development of the film throughout the 1970s, where it was originally slated for release in 1980. Veteran artist Mel Shaw created inspirational conceptual pastel sketches in which then-Disney CEO Ron W. Miller considered to be too advanced for the animators. Therefore, in August 1978, the studio pushed its release date back to Christmas 1984 due to the animators' inability of animating realistic human characters; its original release date would later be assumed by The Fox and the Hound. During its development limbo, one of those writers was veteran storyboard artist Vance Gerry who was chosen to create beat storyboards that would outline the plot, action, and locations. Having set up the three principal characters, Gerry adapted the Horned King into a big-bellied Viking who had a red beard, fiery temper, and wore a steel helmet with two large horns. Desiring an experienced British screenwriter to write the screenplay, the studio signed Rosemary Anne Sisson onto the project.
The first director attached to the project was animator John Musker after he was proposed the job by production head Tom Wilhite. As director, Musker was assigned to expand several sequences in the first act, but were eventually deemed too comedic. When production on The Fox and the Hound had wrapped, several feature animation directors Art Stevens, Richard Rich, Ted Berman, and Dave Michener became involved in The Black Cauldron. When Miller decided too many people were involved, he decided Stevens was not appropriate to supervise the project so he contacted Joe Hale, who was a longtime layout artist at Disney Studios, to serve as producer. With Hale as producer, actual production on The Black Cauldron officially began in 1980. He tossed out visual character artwork submitted by Tim Burton and along with The Fox and the Hound directors Richard Rich and Ted Berman, they desired a Sleeping Beauty-style approach and brought Milt Kahl out of retirement to create character designs for Taran, Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflamm, and the other principal characters. He and the story team (including two story artists David Jonas and Al Wilson that Hale brought to the project) revised the film, capsulizing the story of the first two books and making some considerable changes which led to the departure of Sisson who had creative differences with Hale and the directors. Animators John Musker and Ron Clements, also cited creative differences, were removed from the project and began development on The Great Mouse Detective. Displeased with Vance Gerry's concept for the Horned King, the Horned King became a thin creature donning a hood and carried a spectral presence with shadowed face and glowing red eyes where Hale decided to expand his role, making him the composite villain of the several characters from the books. Taran and Eilonwy eventually acquired elements of the past designs and costumes of earlier Disney characters especially the latter who was drawn to resemble Princess Aurora.
Shortly before the film's originally planned 1984 theatrical release, a test screening for the rough cut of The Black Cauldron was held at the studio's private theater in Burbank, California. After the film, particularly the climactic "cauldron born" sequence, proved to be too intense and frightening for the majority of the children in the audience (most of whom fled the theater in terror before it was even finished), the newly appointed Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered certain scenes from The Black Cauldron be cut, as a result of the length and the fear that their graphic nature would alienate children and family audiences. Since animated films were generally edited in storyboard form using Leica reels (later known as animatics: storyboards shot sequentially and set to temporary audio tracks), producer Joe Hale objected to Katzenberg's demands. Katzenberg responded by having the film brought into an edit bay and editing the film himself.
Informed at what Katzenberg was doing by Hale, Disney CEO Michael Eisner called Katzenberg in the editing room and convinced him to stop. Though he did what Eisner insisted, Katzenberg requested that the film be modified, and delayed its scheduled Christmas 1984 release to July 1985 so that the film could be reworked.
The film was ultimately cut off by twelve minutes, including whole sequences involving the world of the Fairfolk. Some existing scenes were rewritten and reanimated for continuity. Many of the cut scenes involved the undead "Cauldron Born", who are used as the Horned King's army in the final act of the film. While most of the scenes were seamlessly removed from the film, one particular cut involving a Cauldron Born killing a person by slicing his neck and another one killing another person by slicing his torso created a rather recognizable lapse because the removal of the scene creates a jump in the film's soundtrack. Other deleted scenes are mostly shots of graphic violence such as Taran fighting his way out of The Horned King's palace with the magic sword Dyrnwyn; and another featuring one of the King's henchmen being dissolved by mist from the Cauldron itself.
Invented by David W. Spencer from the studio's still camera department, the animation photo transfer process (shorten as the APT process) was first used for The Black Cauldron which would enhance the technology by which the rough animation would be processed onto celluloid. First, the rough animation would be photographed onto high-contrast litho film, and the resulting negative would be copied onto the plastic cel sheets that would transfer lines and the colors which eventually eliminated the hand-inking process. But as the APT-transferred line art would fade off of the cels over time, most or all of the film was done using the xerographic process which had been in place at Disney since the late 1950s. Spencer would win a technical Academy Award for this process, but the computer would soon render the APT process obsolete.
The Black Cauldron is notable for being Disney's first animated feature film to incorporate computer-generated imagery in its animation for bubbles, a boat, a floating orb of light, and the cauldron itself. Despite The Black Cauldron being released a year before The Great Mouse Detective, both films were in production simultaneously for some time and the computer graphics for the latter were done first. When producer Joe Hale heard about what was being done, the possibilities made him excited and he made the crew from The Great Mouse Detective project create some computer animation for his own movie. For others effects, animator Don Paul used live action footage of dry ice mists to create the steam and smoke coming out of the cauldron.
The Black Cauldron: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is the soundtrack album to the film. It was composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein and originally released in 1985.
Unlike most other Disney animated films, the film did not contain any songs. At the same time, Bernstein had just come off the success of his Academy Award-nominated score for the 1983 film Trading Places as well as the score for the 1984 film Ghostbusters. Like in the latter of the two, The Black Cauldron saw the use of the ghostly ondes Martenot to build upon the dark mood of Prydain.
Because of the film's last minute revisions, much of Bernstein's score was cut and unused. In its minority, the score was re-recorded for the album original release by Varèse Sarabande in 1985, with the composer conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra. The album soon fell out of print and many of the film's tracks did not resurface until a bootleg copy entitled "Taran" was supplied to soundtrack specialty outlets in 1986.
The film tracks received their premiere release in 2012 as part of Intrada Records partnership with Walt Disney Records to issue several Disney films soundtracks.
The score received positive reviews from music critics, and today is regarded as one of the best works by Bernstein and for a Disney animated film, despite its obscurity. Jason Ankeny from AllMusic gave to the soundtrack a positive review, stating that "Bernstein's bleak arrangements and ominous melodies vividly underline the fantasy world portrayed onscreen, and taken purely on its own terms, the score is an undeniable success". The film score review website Filmtracks wrote: "The score for The Black Cauldron was for Bernstein what Mulan was for Jerry Goldsmith in the next decade: a fascinating journey into a fresh realm that required its music to play a more significant role in the film".
For its initial release, the film became the first Disney animated film to receive a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. It was also presented in Super Technirama 70—the first since Sleeping Beauty—and Dolby Stereo 70mm six-track surround sound.
The Black Cauldron was released in North America on July 24, 1985. The film was also screened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. While officially budgeted by Disney executives at $25 million, the film's production manager, Don Hahn, said in his documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, that it cost $44 million to produce the film. The $44-million budget made it the most expensive animated film ever made at the time. The film grossed $21.3 million domestically. It resulted in a loss for Walt Disney Studios and put the future of the animation department in jeopardy. It was so poorly received that it was not distributed as a home video release for more than a decade after its theatrical run. Adding insult to injury, the film was also beaten at the box office by The Care Bears Movie ($22.9 million domestically), which was released several months earlier by Disney's much-smaller rival animation studio Nelvana. The film was however more successful outside North America notably in France where it had 3,074,481 admissions and was the fifth most attended film of the year.
The film was the last Disney animated film to be completed at the original Animation Building of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. The animation department was moved to the Air Way facility in nearby Glendale in December 1984, and, following corporate restructuring, eventually returned to the Burbank studio in the mid-1990s at a new facility.
Roger Ebert gave a positive review of the film, while Los Angeles Times' Charles Solomon praised its "splendid visuals". London's Time Out magazine deemed it "a major disappointment", adding that "the charm, characterization and sheer good humor" found in previous Disney efforts "are sadly absent". Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was dismayed by the product and the animators felt that it lacked "the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander's work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted."
Lloyd Alexander, the author of the books on which the film was based, had a more complex reaction to the film:
First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I'd also hope that they'd actually read the book. The book is quite different. It's a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book.
Following many requests from fans, The Black Cauldron was released on VHS in the United Kingdom in 1997, and in the United States on August 4, 1998, as part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection, in a pan-and-scan transfer, thirteen years after its theatrical release. The film received DVD release with a 2.20:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer followed in 2000, as part of the Walt Disney Gold Classic Collection line, featuring an art gallery, a new game "The Quest for the Black Cauldron", and the 1952 Donald Duck short Trick or Treat.
In 2008, Disney announced a Special Edition DVD release of the film to be released in 2009, but failed. It was re-advertised as a 25th Anniversary Edition and released on September 14, 2010, in the US and UK. It contained a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the new "Witch's Challenge" game, deleted scenes, and all of the features from the 2000 DVD release.
Costumed versions of the characters from the film have made occasional appearances at the Disney theme parks and resorts.
In 1986, the eatery "Lancer's Inn" at Walt Disney World, was renamed "Gurgi's Munchies and Crunchies". Eventually, in 1993 they closed the place down then later remodeled it into "Lumiere's Kitchen", "The Village Fry Shoppe" and "The Friar's Nook" (its current name).
In 1986, the attraction "Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour" opened up at Tokyo Disneyland, an attraction in which the Horned King makes an appearance. The attraction was open from 1986 to 2006.
A video game of the same name was designed by Al Lowe of Sierra On-Line and released in 1986. It was made shortly after the first King's Quest game, so it resembled that adventure in many ways. Along with The Dark Crystal it remains one of only a few adventure games by Sierra to be based on films.
The player character is a young assistant pig-keeper named Taran, who undertakes a quest to stop the evil Horned King, who seeks for Hen Wen, the magical pig of the wizard Dallben, for her visionary abilities. With these abilities, the Horned King would be able to discover the Black Cauldron and rule the land. Taran's first mission is to lead her to the Fair Folk while the Horned King's dragons are looking for them. If the pig should be captured (the game allows either possibility), Taran can go to the Horned King's castle and rescue her. As soon as he is inside, Taran will meet Eilonwy with her magic bauble and may rescue Fflewddur Fflam, as well as discover a Magic Sword. The Cauldron is in the possession of three witches of Morva who will trade it for the Sword. Unfortunately a dragon grasps the cauldron and Taran goes back to encounter the evil man himself. The game actually featured plot branches and multiple endings depending on many variables, such as whether Hen Wen the pig was saved, how the cauldron was destroyed, and what reward was chosen afterwards. This use of multiple endings predated the more famous use in Lucasfilm's game Maniac Mansion by a year.
In order to make the game more accessible to children, Sierra used an innovative idea that would not reappear in the genre for the next 10 years: the text parser was removed in favor of the function keys that performed various actions:
F3 would choose an inventory item,
F4 would use it,
F6 would perform "Use" near the character's location, and
F8 would "look". The simplification of the two actions "Look" and "Use" was not reused in Sierra's later games. However, it somewhat resembles the control system of other later simpler point-and-click adventure games, such as the King's Quest VII or The Dig whose interfaces only consisted of "Look" and "Use". Being based on a Disney film, the graphics present some relative "flexibility", compared to the monolithic and straight sceneries of previous and later games.