Saturday, August 4, 2018

"The Black Cauldron" Revisited

“Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain, there was once a king so cruel and so evil, that even the gods feared him.” The opening narration inaugurates the curse shrouding the fabled black cauldron, an object of such immense danger that its very mention instills dread in the hearts of commoners. Although centuries came and went while it lay dormant, obscured by the spells of defensive witches, a new enthusiasm has gripped the totalitarian forces of the Horned King, who pursues it with persistent determination. In his possession, the cauldron would unleash the frightening power of necromancy, allowing its possessor to raise an unstoppable army of dead soldiers, essentially making him immortal. And all of creation would succumb to this destructive curse, including those whose personalities necessitate the enthusiasm of the audience: a teenage adventurer who dreams of heroism, a clumsy bard, a distraught princess, a furry and inquisitive beast, a snarky sprite and an oracular pig, who also provides the key to discovering the whereabouts of the coveted relic.

These details – some fresh and intriguing, others instantly familiar – are at the soul of what the Disney animators poured into the ambitious frames of “The Black Cauldron,” the movie that would come to represent the most significant divide of values between two generations of eager cartoonists. Established above and beyond fashionable technique, which usually involved lighthearted excursions full of song and dance, the project was the embodiment of all their struggle and frustration in the years following the death of their visionary, who left behind a thumbprint seemingly impossible to match.  Yet it was an idea that presented a watershed opportunity, seemingly in dissent against the youthful appeal that had consistently saturated the genre. If the studio’s first animators saw a resonant moral value in dealing with the dangers of the wicked and evil as a contrast to the happy possibilities, those behind the studio’s adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s famous young adult series were intoxicated by the allure of a more caustic rebellion. Nowadays, long after the film’s troubled production and box office failure threatened to make the Disney name a distant memory, you scarcely hear a mention of these challenges other than just a puzzling footnote.

In some circles, however, the movie persists as a fascinating commodity – a rare treasure or a probing case study of self-sabotage, depending on whom you ask. I first came to the chambers of the cauldron with many others in the summer months of 1998, when my respect for the Disney line ebbed high and without reluctance. If the film indeed possessed the warning signs of a mistaken standard, I certainly did not recognize so. It became one of the more exciting movie experiences of my young life, full of images I had never seen, characterizations that stood outside convention (at least for mainstream cartoons), and a story progression that moved to the cues of some strange new energy. It played as an oasis in a desert of dependable formula. Now twenty years have come and gone since I first encountered the land of Prydain, and once again I have descended into the Horned King’s lair to find my enthusiasm still unwavering. Certainly no one who sees it now can say it is without flaws, but so rarely does an animated feature mask its limits with such a resounding sense of wonder. Each viewing feels like the renewal of a deep concentrated ambition.

You can sense this profound zeal in nearly every frame that occupies the screen, whether it involves the cheerful innocence of its primary characters, the distractions of token comic relief or the fatalist agendas of the villains. The focus of the story is Taran, a teenage pig-keeper whose life on a quiet farm is occasionally roused by daydreams of fighting in war. The early musings of his guardian, Dallben, suggest a world beyond the trees full of chaos and horror, but the boy’s heedless optimism sees only opportunities for glory. There is a scene at the mouth of a river that emphasizes the dilemma in his fascination: while staring into the water, he imagines a celebratory coronation while being decorated in combat gear, just before losing track of the animal he is supposed to be guarding. Those aspirations, of course, are precursors to discovering the vast terror occupying greater Prydain, where even the old and experienced dread the idea of facing the maw that exists just beyond the sunny hillsides.

The device for this journey is a pig, named Hen-Wen, that can create visions through the conduit of water. The images that emerge on the reflective surface do not echo an alternate reality or a prediction, but rather a certainty. It is certain, for instance, that an image of a dark rider on a skeletal horse represents the notorious Horned King, and that a circle of flying beasts indicates a great search. But of what, the observer asks? The fabled black cauldron, referenced in the preliminary voice-over, is a great weapon that has long been thought lost but now faces discovery as the depth of its potential is made clear. Then an image of Hen-Wen scurrying away frightfully follows, indicating that she is his key to uncovering its location. A strange and gloomy adventure ensues, leads Taran into the dungeons of the king’s decaying castle, into the company of friends and wisecracking fairies, and in eventual pursuit of the very vessel that threatens the lives of all living things – hopefully in attempt to destroy it before it comes to the claws of its yearning new master.

Little of any plot description is likely to rouse the intrigue of a casual observer, but the film comes most alive by simply inhabiting its realm. Based on material that takes much of its influence from Welsh Mythology, Prydain occupies the screen less like a place and more as a personality, effectively juxtaposing between the whimsy and decay like a travelogue through volatile country. A lot of sensations are experienced by those on this journey – hope, naivety, intrigue, astonishment, humor, horror, sadness and even grief – and almost always their momentum seems propelled by a mad sprint of flash and color and shadow. Consider the almost strange dichotomy of the early scenes on Dallben’s farm, for instance, and a strategic cut-away to the Horned King’s dungeon, where he mulls his destiny while standing over the skeletons of fallen soldiers. The animators, driven by the enthusiasm of producer Joe Hale, pitched their most austere extremes when others might have suggested a more neutral modulation. Not a moment exists simply to fill a void created by the story.

That is admirable rather than distracting, given the obvious drawbacks of the screenplay. The film’s greatest point of entry is not Taran – who is ordinary by most young adolescent standards – but Gurgi, a furry beast whom he meets in the forest and becomes a nosy companion throughout the search. His is a presence made bizarrely fascinating by the gravelly voice overlaying his audacious curiosity. “Give poor starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings!” he remarks in one moment, enjoying an apple that he has just stolen from Taran. The routine dialogue riffs between them are perfunctory, but his eccentric presence frequently overtakes them. What exactly is he? Some sort of unnatural morph between a wolf and a dog on two legs? Or something produced by magics that exist in the margins? The great wonder of his origins never goes answered, but it need not be – this is a creation exhibiting the total creative control of the animators, who have indicated their vision without bowing to the rules of an ordinary logic.

Some were initially disheartened by that. A supporting player, especially one serving as a device for comic relief, was rarely supposed to upstage the conventional mechanics of a quest, where the leads usually required some substantial buy-in. If Gurgi’s ability to overtake that possibility was problematic, then the inclusion of Princess Eilonwy was even more troublesome; rarely a scene exists where she is observed occupying an actual identity, and her presence feels more like a mandate to fill in a checklist of essential sidekicks (so, too, does the blundering bard Fleuder-Flam function as a walking punchline). And yet we do come to admire she and Taran, especially towards the end; while their lack of foresight has done little to develop their presence, they are likable enough sorts, and hey, why hold anything against them when they are just now emerging from the prison of a straightforward existence?

All their antics and misadventures and quandaries are spearheaded by the maniacal trek of the Horned King, one of the more mysterious villains of the Disney cannon. His overpowering presence is underlined by an equally-foreboding voice performance by John Hurt, who typically had two techniques: he could become the sharp and inquisitive intellectual, or the deep and brooding madman just by changing the ferocity of his inflection. Some of his work in “The Black Cauldron” is among the most fearsome of any primary Disney villain, although if he rarely comes up in active conversation, it’s usually because he violates the trajectory of cartoon antagonism, where most tend to balance danger and incidental humor. The Horned King, by all standards, lacks any opportunity to the butt of a joke. And even his henchman, the goblin-like creature known as Creeper, only warrants a smirk because of unfortunate luck rather than isolated wisecracks.

While the film’s momentum moves through rapid spikes of danger and whimsy, the soundtrack keeps a consistent pace. Scored by the great Elmer Bernstein, the music may be its most understated asset – ir creates a series of resonant hooks that are perfectly matched to the material, sometimes elevating them above the mere acknowledgment of an event. Notice, for example, how his orchestra creates a hopeful mood around the journey of the others when they embark on their own quest, where it eventually leads them to the chambers of the Fairfolk and then the marshes of Morva, where they discover a trio of witches who may know of the cauldron’s whereabouts. In the absence of songs, Bernstein made a conscious endeavor to use an orchestra as a driving influence for the motivations of these characters. Where their agendas barely be spoken, the mood of the instruments elevates their urgency. This is true despite the minor acknowledgment of how original scores function in animated films, particularly those that do not involve cutesy musical numbers or fanfare showstoppers; where they are relegated to the service of background noise, here is a man who allows the material to be colonized by the notes he records.

Perhaps little of this was obvious during its production, when the movie faced its greatest initial hurdles. Many know the story by heart: a decade in the making, held up by conflicting factions within the studio, “The Black Cauldron” was all but ready to reach a viewing public when Jeffrey Katzenberg arrived as the new CEO, effectively changing its final destiny. Problematic final throes have been etched into legend, particularly involving the absence of 12 minutes in the final theatrical release; reportedly, Katzenberg was so disheartened by what he saw in an initial viewing that he demanded significant cuts, particularly in some of the gloomier scenes (including a notorious sequence involving the resurrection of an undead army). Hale fought against further edits, distraught by what it would mean for the material. Katzenberg’s response was not to comply or negotiate, but to take the final reels into the editing room and make the cuts himself, against his producer’s wishes. Depending on who you believe, those changes either molded the final product to something salvageable or deteriorated the momentum of a film that was assured of its dark nature.

Most lean towards the latter observation, especially in hindsight. Released in the busy summer of 1985, the movie brought in a modest $21 million dollars, roughly half of its reported budget. By many estimations, that was devastating for a studio in need of a hit. But the continued narrative that its failure comes down to a rocky production cycle undermines greater root causes: namely, that feature length cartoons are a commodity dominated by the attendance of children rather than teenagers, who have rarely showed up in droves at the mention of such material. Later films in a similar vein, including Fox’s “Titan A.E.” and Disney’s own “Treasure Planet,” endured similar fates. To insist that Katzenberg effectively saved “The Black Cauldron” from something worse is, therefore, a lazy assumption. Unfortunately, a neurosis to never admit fault means those missing minutes are likely never to be restored in any further release of the film – or at least not as long as the department is presided over by figures who lack a neutral perception of the Disney heritage, celebrated or otherwise.

Is there something in those missing 12 minutes that changes anything? It’s hard to say. For all we know, Katzenberg may have been correct in his assessment. Or perhaps Hale was right to protest further edits. But in the era of revivals and salvaged discoveries they deserve to be seen, if for no other reason than to add perspective to a discussion that remains at odds with exactly where the movie’s merits lie. What could they possibly reveal about a film that already endures the curse of obscurity? Could they, in any way, deteriorate an endeavor that even its greatest fans already acknowledge as having deep-rooted narrative dilemmas? No version of this material will ever be an absolute. But what is certain, in any form, is that we return to it more frequently with the weathering of age, as if something about the experiment mirrors a distant ambition we too once saw as optimal for personal endurance. The enthusiastic artists behind “The Black Cauldron” may not have seen their endeavors pave the greatest roads for their careers, but in one finite moment they ran wild and liberated, without the anchor of tradition enslaving their volatile creative energies. To consider their film now is to taste a morsel of that energy and discover its flavor still potent, still nourishing, and still original.

Written by DAVID KEYES

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