(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: The Black Cauldron
Where You Can Stream It: Disney+
The Pitch: In a far-flung fantasy world, a young assistant pig keeper discovers that his pig has the power to see the future. Meanwhile, the evil Horned King is searching for the mythical Black Cauldron, which will help him raise an army of undead warriors and take over the world. As the two storylines converge, the young pig keeper’s mettle is tested, friendships are formed, and lessons are learned.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: The phrase “the night is darkest just before dawn” could apply to The Black Cauldron, which endangered the entire future of animation at Disney a few years before the Disney Renaissance brought the company to new creative and financial heights. Reportedly costing $44 million and only earning $21 million domestically, The Black Cauldron is a fascinating failure and a piece of Disney history that’s more interesting than its reputation gives it credit for.
Loosely based on the first two books in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, this movie adaptation apparently veers wildly from the book and chooses to do its own thing. The path it chooses to travel is extraordinarily well-worn: if you’ve ever read a fantasy story, practically every plot beat can be seen coming from a mile away. But the movie is notable for just how unsettling it is – especially since it’s ostensibly for children. There is no way in hell that Disney would ever make a movie like this now.
In the film’s dark introduction, the narrator (John Hurt) explains that centuries ago, a cruel and evil king was arrested and melted alive inside a black cauldron, which became a prison for his demonic spirit. That’s literally the first thing you hear! In the first minute! The Horned King, who is depicted as a living skeleton dressed in robes, is a genuinely terrifying piece of character design who would look right at home on the cover of a heavy metal album. I imagine it would all be a bit much for a younger audience, but it’s fascinating to watch as an adult.
At one point in the story, the heroes encounter three witches; they turn one character into a frog, and in an extended sequence, the frog gets trapped between one of the witch’s breasts, nearly suffocating as it tries to hop out. Soon after turning the frog back into a bard, one enamored witch asks the singer if she can “pluck his harp.” It’s the type of unsubtle sexual innuendo that Disney would probably think twice about including in live-action, let alone an animated feature aimed at kids.
If you decide to give this movie a chance, I suggest making a drinking game out of it – if you’re of legal drinking age, that is. Take a drink every time A) the princess character giggles, B) Gurgi says “munchings and crunchings”, and C) you encounter a plot point or a character corollary that you recognize from The Lord of the Rings. (Gurgi is Gollum, etc.) Just make sure you’re well-stocked on alcohol before you begin. And hey, that alcohol will probably help you make it through some of the film’s sloppier patches, too.
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