THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Black Cauldron’

The one that almost killed Disney animation.

As the 1980s began, Walt Disney Pictures (yes, we’ve seen a name change) entered the decade under new leadership. For the first time since the death of Roy O. Disney, the studio was controlled by a member of the Disney family, with Walt Disney’s son-in-law Ron Miller taking the reins as President. After working closely with his father-in-law prior to his death in 1966, Miller had spent the last two decades producing numerous Disney films including Freaky Friday, Escape to Witch Mountain, Pete’s Dragon, and The Fox and the Hound.

Throughout Miller’s time as president, he pushed the studio towards innovation by greenlighting groundbreaking projects like computer-animation sci-fi fantasy Tron and Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated shorts Vincent and Frankenweenie. Miller also established Touchstone Pictures, which allowed the studio to produce films targeted towards adult audiences, and the Disney Channel, which gave the company access to television like never before. Sadly, Miller is mostly remembered for greenlighting one of the biggest disasters in Disney animation history.

The idea of adapting Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, a five-volume fantasy series inspired by Welsh mythology, began back in 1971 when the studio first optioned the series for possible future use. After officially obtaining the film rights in 1973, the studio immediately began pre-production work, spearheaded by two members of Walt’s Nine Old Men, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.

The pair genuinely viewed the property as the potential Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of the next generation, with the studio even using veteran artist Mel Shaw’s concept artwork for the newly-titled The Black Cauldron project in a recruitment flyer to attract new young talent to join the studio. Originally earmarked for a release in 1980, the project spent several years in development to condense the expansive storylines and characters of Alexander’s saga.

But Shaw’s concept art was ultimately a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it excited everyone at the studio to the point animators were openly bragging to journalists about the upcoming film. On the other, it made then-producer Miller extremely anxious the project was beyond the current capabilities of the junior animators. As such, in late 1978, the studio postponed the release of The Black Cauldron to Christmas 1984 to give the production and its animators more time to get it right.

When The Black Cauldron officially began production in 1980, Miller enlisted longtime Disney layout artist Joe Hale to serve as co-producer, given the now-President saw his responsibilities increase exponentially. Miller also hired experienced British screenwriter Rosemary Anne Sisson to work her magic on the screenplay. With the assistance of co-directors, Richard Rich and Ted Berman, Hale immediately began making drastic changes to the film. He abandoned the character designs of junior animator Tim Burton, citing Burton’s vision as far too dark for Vale’s desired aesthetic. By all accounts, Burton was so dejected, he never worked in traditional animation again, moving to stop-motion work instead.

Hale also clashed with John Musker and Ron Clements, who were soon removed from the project and reassigned to the other Disney project currently in development, The Great Mouse Detective. In an attempt to capture the Disney magic of the past, Hale turned to retired Disney animator and member of Walt’s Nine Old Men, Milt Kahl to help assist with the character designs of the film’s human characters. Working with the film’s story team, Hale significantly revised much of the script to focus solely on the first two books of Alexander’s series, leading to Sisson departing the project, citing “creative differences.”

But the greatest change Hale made came in his approach to the film’s villain, the Horned King, which had initially been designed by storyboard artist Vance Gery as a big-bellied, red-bearded Viking. Abandoning Gerry’s concept designs, Hale transformed the Horned King into a skeletal creature with glowing red eyes, green, rotting flesh and two gnarled horns, with his role expanding to become the film’s main antagonist.

After Miller viewed the initial pre-production work, his confidence in The Black Cauldron grew to the point he believed the film could be a major event release for the studio. As such, it was determined the film would be the first Disney animated title filmed in 70mm widescreen since Sleeping Beauty. The layout department were issued new widescreen charts to use, which were inexplicably designed in the wrong width versus height ratio. The error wasn’t discovered for weeks, forcing the team to adjust all the work they had completed at an enormous cost to the film’s burgeoning budget.

The animation team employed the use of David W. Spencer’s animation photo transfer process (APT) for the very first time on The Black Cauldron, which replaced the Xerox photocopying system Disney has used since the late 1950s. In short, APT allowed the rough animation to be photographed onto high-contrast film, with the resulting negative copied onto plastic cel sheets that transferred the exact lines and colours of the animation, eliminating the need for hand-inking. This allowed the character designs of The Black Cauldron to feature a mix of thin black outlines and softer coloured lines for the first time in decades. Spencer would be awarded a special technical achievement Academy Award in 1986 for his groundbreaking invention.

With the mid-80s bringing the birth of computer animation technology, a process which would soon revolutionise the entire animation industry, The Black Cauldron would stand as the first Disney animated feature film to incorporate computer-generated imagery. After discovering the production crew of The Great Mouse Detective were experimenting with the new technology, Hale insisted his team find a way to incorporate computer animation into their work. While only used sparingly, namely for the animation of bubbles and the titular cauldron itself, Hale’s team were able to fulfil his wish.

In a bid to create a gimmick never before seen inside a movie theatre, Miller commissioned the animation and technology team to create a holographic moment during the “Cauldron-born” sequence, which would project the undead spirits in three dimensions inside the cinema. After a successful test screening, Miller was convinced this would make the film a must-see event. There was just one small problem; no cinema in the world could project such a sequence. To see Miller’s vision come to life would require Disney outlaying a staggering amount of money to install new projection systems in cinemas across the globe. With the budget already careening out of control, the idea was soon abandoned.

Shortly after, all hell broke loose within the ranks of the Disney corporation. After years of failed takeover attempts from rival studios and corporations, many influential shareholders grew increasingly frustrated with Miller’s leadership. In early 1984, just a few months away from the planned Christmas release of The Black Cauldron, Miller was ousted by a coup, led by fellow Disney family member Roy E. Disney, the son of Walt’s brother Roy. With Miller gone, Michael Eisner was installed as the new CEO, Chairman of the Board, and head of the animation department, Frank Wells as the new President and COO, and Jeffrey Katzenberg as the new head of Walt Disney Pictures.

A new age of management had arrived, and the trio was determined to lead the Disney studio back to its former glory. At the time, the studio was ranked dead last at the box office among the major studios. Caring very little for animation, Katzenberg immediately focused his attention on Touchstone Pictures, with the studio soon releasing several hugely successful adult-orientated comedies which put the studio back on top. But there was still the problem of what to do with The Black Cauldron, whose release date was growing closer by the day.

In mid-1984, the studio executives gathered to view a now-infamous rough cut test screening of The Black Cauldron at the studio’s private theaterette in Burbank, California, with the young animators waiting nervously to see their reaction. Much to their dismay, the response was nothing short of disastrous. Several young children fled the cinema in terror during the climactic “Cauldron-born” finale. Eisner was not enthused. Disney said very little. And Katzenberg was so appalled at what he had seen, he demanded certain frightening scenes be cut. When Hale balked at the idea, Katzenberg marched into the edit bay and began personally editing the film himself.

After a distressed Hale informed Eisner of what Katzenberg was doing to his film, Eisner ordered Katzenberg to stop, though he agreed the film could not be released in its current form, particularly the climax sequence, which Eisner deemed far too intense and frightening for younger audiences. As such, the release of The Black Cauldron was delayed to July 1985 so the film could be reworked, with twelve minutes of footage being cut and existing scenes being rewritten and reanimated. Regardless, the film still received a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, marking the first time in history a Disney animated film would not be rated G.

The Black Cauldron was finally released on July 26, 1985, over five years after production initially began. While many critics praised its animation, most criticised the film’s dull narrative and jarringly dark tone, which seemed completely at odds with its intended target audience. The response from the general public was nothing short of a disaster. The film took a middling $21.3 million at the U.S. box office and was quickly labelled a major flop. Just four weeks later, Disney pulled the film from cinemas and threw it deep in their vault where it would remain until a VHS release in 1998.

While the studio initially reported the film’s budget to be somewhere around $25 million, it actually cost closer to $44 million, making it the most expensive animated film ever made at that time and one of Disney’s most costly mistakes. While many feared this may be the final nail in the coffin of Disney animation (and it sure as hell could have been), Katzenberg took the loss as a sign the animation department had lost sight of the core values and designs of Disney’s earlier films.

Resisting the urge to completely shut down the animation department and encouraged by the support of Roy, Katzenberg instead set about remodelling the way the animation studio functioned, pushing his team to develop stories more in line with the Disney classics of the past. This would lead to the eventual rebirth of Disney animation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So, in a curious twist of fate, Disney’s biggest disaster became the catalyst for one of its greatest success stories.

As impressively ambitious as The Black Cauldron was (and still is), it’s not hard to see why it ultimately failed. With its darker themes and terrifying sequences, it simply didn’t fit the Disney brand. Had the film been released by Touchstone Pictures, as we would see with the equally-twisted The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993, perhaps it would have stood a better chance of success. By placing it alongside other Disney treasures filled with fairy tales and love stories made The Black Cauldron look positively ghastly by comparison.

On a visual level, there is nothing else like The Black Cauldron in Disney’s entire canon. It’s a masterwork of animation that was truly ahead of its time. As genuinely unsettling as it may be, the “Cauldron-born” sequence remains one of their most dazzling and terrifying creations to date. Without heading into spoiler territory, the ultimate fate of the Horned King is an indelible image that can still haunt your nightmares. And he stands as one of Disney’s most disturbing and horrifying villains ever created.

However, the film falls flat on its face with its dull characters and flat storyline that leaves very little impression. As brilliantly designed as the Horned King may be, he ultimately isn’t given all that much to do, with the villain mostly just sitting on his throne and ordering others to enact his bidding. Our hero Taran is petulant and irritable, while our heroine Princess Eilonwy is so disastrously forgettable, she currently stands as the only Disney princess character who hasn’t been officially inducted into their Disney Princess line-up. And when your plot centres on a magical pig who can see the future (yes, a magical pig who can see the future), you know you’re in trouble.

Look, you have to hand it to Miller, Hale, and their team of young animators who genuinely tried to create something deftly unique from a studio stuck in its ways. And, for the most part, they deliver on that promise. But, as Miller initially feared, their ambition was bigger than their talent. For all its visual splendours, The Black Cauldron seemingly forgets it needs an engaging plot and endearing characters to become the groundbreaking success it ultimately should have been.

Is The Black Cauldron a Disney Classic? In the annals of Disney history, The Black Cauldron certainly stands out for its brash animation and decidedly darker tones. It could have been a Disney Classic, but it’s mostly an unfortunate mess.

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