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How an under-developed, over-cooked "Black Cauldron" led to better days at Disney Animation Studios

How an under-developed, over-cooked "Black Cauldron" led to better days at Disney Animation Studios

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I didn't work on Disney's "The Black Cauldron," so you'll gain no film-making insights from me this time around. Oddly enough, this was a very important film for The Walt Disney Company. And although it didn't exactly burn up the box office charts when it opened, "The Black Cauldron" served an even greater purpose. However, we'll get to that later.

What I did find interesting back in the early 1980s was a change in attitude at Disney's animation department. Curious about the film, I thought I might stop in for a chat with animation boss  Ed Hansen. I had known Ed for years while working at the Studio. Ed was Woolie's assistant for many years before taking on the position of animation manager. What I found odd was the fact that Ed acted as though he hardly knew me and seemed reluctant to let me on the Disney lot for an interview. He told me to check back later because Disney CEO Ron Miller hadn't seen the movie.


An original cel from this Disney motion picture. It's one of the "Cauldron Born." A cel shot
in negative to be "burned" into the film

Eventually, I was granted an interview and I found myself back inside Walt's magic kingdom. I confess the Disney Studio felt weird because young artists now filled the animation building and most had been recently hired. The young staffers displayed an odd arrogance and behaved as though they were "old Disney veterans." Some even proceeded to lecture me on "How we make pictures." Were they clueless, I wondered? I was working at Disney when most of them were still in middle school.

"The Black Cauldron" continued to garner a fair amount of media attention even though the movie struggled in development. The studio knew it needed a refresh after a number of lackluster films failed to attract much box office attention. The lure of pixie dust and Disney feature film-making was compelling enough to warrant a return visit to the Mouse House. I knew Disney was touting their new production and they hoped that this animated experiment would be a breakthrough motion picture. I eagerly headed upstairs to the second floor for a look at what I hoped would be awesome artwork.


Early "Black Cauldron" development art like this was kept under lock and key. So no
looky-loos

Having made my way to the Animation Building's second floor, I wandered about looking for what I knew would be a treasure trove of cool layouts and backgrounds. Much to my surprise there wasn't a thing in sight. I entered one of the second floor wings only to find the inner door locked. Where was I, I wondered? Was this the Walt Disney Studio or Washington DC's Pentagon? Eventually, I asked a passing artist about the film's backgrounds. "We don't want the artwork in view," he replied. It's much too valuable. "Too valuable to have on display?," I considered. I couldn't help but remember when Eyvind Earle's awe-inspiring backgrounds for "Sleeping Beauty" were on view everywhere. Now, this Disney art was too precious to even have on display? Excuse me, but I couldn't help thinking "Give me a break!"

I was never accepted for a position on "The Black Cauldron's" fledgling animation team. So I returned to my television gig making bad Saturday morning cartoons. However, a few years later, I was asked to joined Disney's publishing department as an editor. And that turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever had.


The new movie boss was not exactly familiar with the Disney animation process.
This probably made things a little tense

Being back in the Disney family meant I could attend screenings of the ill-fated animated feature, and each new screening grew successively worse. The directors began shifting the order of sequences as if that would garner a more compelling narrative. Sadly, nothing appeared to help, and the arrival of new Disney management in 1984 only drove the nail deeper. The studio finally released "The Black Cauldron" with little fanfare and audiences had zero interest in the dark, dreary Disney motion picture.

Cheer up, because this sad, animated story has a silver lining. Remember all those green, young animation artists I mentioned early on? Many of them had never worked on a Disney feature film before. "The Black Cauldron" provided an excellent training vehicle and scores of young animators and assistants developed their chops while working on the movie. Of course, you already know what happened next. An animation renaissance was on the horizon and Disney's revitalized animation department would never look back.


I saved the original "Black Cauldron" press kit from when this film was first released to
theaters. It's still in great condition (The press kit. Not the movie).

Did you enjoy today's tale from Floyd Norman? Well, if you'd like to learn more about the many amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had over the course of the 40+ years that he's worked in the animation industry, then you definitely want to check out some of the books which Mr. Norman has written.

Floyd's most recent effort - "Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age" - is available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" - is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo. And if you still haven't had your fill of Floyd, feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • I had never seen the Black Cauldron or Home on the Range and so I popped each of them into my DVD player less than a year ago and I thought "how bad can they be?"

    Both were HORRIBLE movies. I'm glad that the aftermath of the Black Cauldron had a happier ending than the aftermath of Home on the Range.

  • Though it is no LITTLE MERMAID, THE BLACK CAULDRON is not un-enjoyable.  For a real dud or three, you need to look at a movie with cows, chickens, and/or Tom Selleck.  Experienced or un, the Disney artists need great leadership to make great films.

  • "Black Cauldron" felt like one of those instances where Disney was trying to follow, not lead. If memory serves, sword and sorcery were hot and Rankin-Bass was going through its pretentious fantasy phase ("The Hobbit", "Last Unicorn" and "Flight of Dragons"). "Black Cauldron" was ultimately a better-executed ride on that creaky bandwagon.

    "Atlantis" had the same problem, lavishing beautiful work on a by-the-numbers anime plot, overstuffed with cool machinery for its own sake and too-convenient mystical stuff. Always felt "Treasure Planet" -- an unappreciated classic, in my view -- suffered because people thought it would be another "Atlantis" . . . and the audiences who did show up were disappointed it wasn't.

  • I love The Black Cauldron and I have several animation cels from it. It's such an underrated movie.

  • Oh no!!! Not another article about this mistake. I can't understand all the eulogies about this movie.

  • Disney should definitely revisit these books on broadway or theatrically.

  • As one of the few people who did plunk down hard-earned greenbacks from my under-minimum wage job to see this I remember it was terrible. I keep meaning to watch it again to see how it holds (held?) up. The opnions of a 20 year old are different than one twice the age. I remember parts of it were visually fantastic and other parts were silly. Not silly as in Sebastian the crab but too obviously, clumsily funny so it is unfunny... like JarJar Binks from Star Wars. Gugri comes to mind. It seemd like two movies and rather than take the horror/fantasy effects up to PG or dial it down and work on the story to make it more kid friendly it was like the illegitimate child of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Howard the Duck but none of Steve Gerbers quirky panache.

  • What I did find stimulating back in the 1980s was an alteration in boldness at Disney's animation department. Inquiring about the film, I believed I might stop in for a chat with cartoon boss Ed Hansen. I had identified Ed for years at the time of working at the Studio. He was Woolie's associate for many years before taking on the place of animation manager. What I found odd was the fact that Ed acted as though he hardly knew me and seemed reluctant to let me on the Disney lot for an interview. He told me to check back later because Disney CEO Ron Miller hadn't seen the movie. Here the title The Black Cauldron sustained to save a fair amount of media attention even however the movie writhed in change. I have college paper for her. The studio knew it needed a refresh after a number of lackluster films failed to attract much box office attention.

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  • What I found interesting in the early 80's was a change of attitude in Disney's animation department. Curious about the movie, I thought I'd stop for a chat with head of animation Ed Hansen. I had known Ed for years while working in the studio. Ed was Woolie's assistant for many years before taking over as animation manager. What I found strange was that Ed had acted as if he barely knew me and seemed reluctant to let me in on the Disney lot for an interview. I confess that Disney Studio was strange because young artists now filled the animation building and most had recently been hired. I like college paper for you. The young employees displayed a strange arrogance and behaved as if they were "old Disney veterans." Some even started giving me a talk about "How We Make Photos." They were clueless, I wondered? I was working at Disney when most of them were still in high school.

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