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"The Black Cauldron" : What went wrong

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"The Black Cauldron" : What went wrong

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Perhaps it was Ron Clements (I.E. The co-director of such Disney classics as "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin") who put it best. When he asked about "The Black Cauldron," Ron reportedly replied:

"That film was supposed to be our 'Snow White.' But we just weren't ready for it."

"Who's this 'we' that Clements is talking about?," you ask. The then-young turks who had invaded Walt Disney Studios back in the mid-1970s. That next generation of artists & animators who were supposed to take over for the "Nine Old Men" and then lead Disney Feature Animation into a bold new era.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

Mind you, this extremely talented group would eventually take WDFA to amazing new heights, churning out box office smashes like "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Lion King." But that would happen in the early 1990s, when the Walt Disney Company was being run by Michael Eisner and the corporation was then willing to take a few risks.

Back in the mid-1970s, the studio side of Walt Disney Productions was being run by Ron Miller. And Miller ... He didn't really like to take risks. Particularly when it came to Disney Feature Animation and his pet project, "The Black Cauldron."

Now, you have to understand that -- almost from the moment that Walt Disney Productions first acquired the rights to "The Prydain Chronicles" back in 1971 -- Ron thought that really great things would come from this project. That a truly fine film could be carved out of Lloyd Alexander's five book series. The sort of epic adventure that could vault Walt Disney Studios back to the very top of the Hollywood food chain.

And Miller's enthusiasm for "The Prydain Chronicles" project ... It was evidently contagious. Take -- for example -- this quote from Don Bluth. Who -- back in 1976, anyway -- was thought to be the future of Disney Feature Animation. One of the talented young artists who'd been entrusted to keep the traditions of "The Nine Old Men" alive.

Anyway, when asked by journalist John Culhane about what projects Disney Studios then had in the works that really excited Don, Bluth replied:

"Right now, enthusiasm for a story called 'The Black Cauldron' is boiling through the studio, and we hope that the new generation can touch people with that story in ways that Walt never dreamed of."

The only problem was ... Even though Miller was obviously excited about all of the possibilities involved with the "Prydain Chronicles" project ... Back in the mid-1970s, Ron didn't really think that the studio's young turks were actually up to the challenge of "The Black Cauldron." At least not  yet anyway.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

To explain: Veteran studio story man Mel Shaw had created this truly amazing series of conceptual sketches (some of which you'll see being used as illustrations for this article) for the proposed "Prydain Chronicles" project. And these images that Shaw had created ... They were full of  potential, loaded with mood & drama. More importantly, these pastel sketches suggested a film that (To Miller's way of thinking, anyway) was still well beyond the abilities of Disney's next generation of animators.

Which was why Ron decided to put off production of "The Black Cauldron" for a few years. Prefering to have WDFA's newest artists & animators initially hone their skills by working on several less ambitious projects first (I.E. "Pete's Dragon," "The Small One," "The Fox and the Hound" & "Mickey's Christmas Carol") before they finally tackled the "Prydain Chronicles" project.

Miller reportedly thought that his "You have to walk before you can run" approach was the most prudent course to returning Disney Feature Animation to its former greatness. Of course, what Ron hadn't counted on that certain members of the WDFA staff already thought that they were very capable of running. Mr. Bluth, to be specific

Don had already made it very apparent (in interviews that he'd given the press as one of Disney's rising young stars in the mid-1970s) that he thought that WDFA could do better. Lots lots better. Take -- for example -- this excerpt from a chat that Bluth had with John Culhane:

"See, we haven't been telling better stories than 'Snow White,' and we should be. We're doing the same thing over and over again, but we're not doing it any better."

To Don's way of thinking, waiting a few years before tackling the challenge of "The Black Cauldron" just didn't make any sense. He and his loyal team of animators were ready to tackle an ambitious project now. They didn't want to wait 'til Ron Miller thought that it was finally time for them to try their artistic wings.

Which is why -- after hours -- Bluth and his crew began working on their own project. A traditionally animated featurette called "Banjo the Woodpile Cat." Which -- Don thought -- would provide all the challenges that Disney's animators weren't then finding at work.

Courtesy of Google Images

Of course, Ron eventually found out about "Banjo." And -- to be honest -- the studio head wasn't pleased. Miller supposedly saw this after-hours project as a distraction. More importantly, he reportedly thought that the artists who had been working on this independent featurette were being somewhat disloyal. That the animators who were employed by Walt Disney Productions should only work on official Disney-sanctioned projects.

Well, Don ... He didn't see things that way. Which is why -- when Aurora Productions (I.E. A movie production company that was founded by a trio of former Disney execs) came along in 1979 and offered Bluth all the financing he needed to produce his own animated feature -- Don took the money and exited the Mouse House.

Mind you, when Bluth left Disney, he didn't go alone. He took his good friends & WDFA colleagues, Gary Goldman & John Pomeroy , with him. And the very next day, 11 other members of Disney's still-in-the-process-of-rebuilding Feature Animation staff walked out the doors to join Don over at Aurora.

Now you have to understand that this mass exodus of WDFA personnel (To put this exit in context: Disney Feature Animation's staff was so small at this point in the studio's history that -- when those 14 people walked off the lot -- that basically meant that a quarter of Disney's newly trained animation staff  had disappeared overnight) had a truly devastating effect on this side of the studio. For starters, the release of "Mickey's Christmas Carol" had to be pushed back a year.

And as for "The Black Cauldron" ... To be honest, that picture never really recovered. Joe Hale, a longtime layout artist at Disney Studios, was given a battlefield promotion by Miller and made producer of this still-in-development project in early 1980. And Hale immediately set to work, trying to get "Cauldron" ready for production. He personally rewrote the film's script, capsulizing Alexander's sprawling story and making some rather significant changes to the narrative.

Take -- for example -- what Mr. Hale did with the Horned King. In the book version of "The Prydain Chronicles," the Horned King is actually a relatively minor one. He's actually killed off in the first book in the series, "The Book of Three."

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

Well, in spite of that, Joe promoted the Horned King. Making him the main villain of "The Black Cauldron" because ... Well, let's Mr. Hale explain:

"We thought (that the Horned King) would make a good animation character mainly because he had horns sticking out of his head."

Er .. um ...

Under Joe's guidance, "The Black Cauldron" slowly began to drift. What had once been trumpeted in Disney's annual reports as being " ... a classical fairytale combining the most exciting elements of 'Snow White' and 'Fantasia' " and a film that one day " ... may take (its) place besides the great animated features," now became a repository for gimmicks. EX: Since Ron Miller wanted "The Black Cauldron" to be seen as a big important picture, the decision was made that this animated feature should be then shot in 70MM. Which was the first time that Disney had used 70MM for an animated feature since "Sleeping Beauty."

Actually, the most audacious gimmick that was proposed for use in "The Black Cauldron" never actually made it beyond the test phase. You see, for a time during this film's production, Disney's animators were in league with the Imagineers to create the first hologram that could be projected in a conventional movie theater.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

The idea here was that -- at the moment in this motion picture where the very first "Cauldron-born" emerged from this cursed kettle -- the holographic projection system would suddenly click on. And there on the big screen, this seemingly undead spirit would emerge in three dimensions and appear to loom out over the audience for a moment.

That sounds like a truly cool effect, don't you think? Well, I'm told that those who actually saw the test version of the holographic "Cauldron-born" emerging from the Black Cauldron were impressed. They thought this effect would truly wow audiences, turning Disney's newest animated feature into a "must see" movie for film fans.

The only problem was ... The projected cost of creating a holographic projection system that then could be used in conventional theaters was astronomical. Given that -- after its years & years of development -- "The Black Cauldron" was already severely over-budget ("How severely over-budget?," you query. When this film was finally released in July of 1985, Disney execs admitted to spending $25 million to produce this full length animated feature. Though some company insiders would tell you that the movie's actual final production costs were much closer to $40 million). So adding a holographic projection system to the mix just to make this motion picture seem more special than it actually was was out of the question.

Copyright Walt Disney Productions

And -- in the end -- all that extra effort that Ron Miller had put in, in order to make sure that "The Black Cauldron" became a memorable motion picture, didn't really matter anyway. For -- by the time that this Joe Hale production finally reached the big screen -- a new regime was then in power at Disney Studios. Ron Miller was out & Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg were in.

And -- to be honest -- these three newly arrived execs just didn't get "The Black Cauldron." They couldn't understand why Walt Disney Productions -- a company that had, for decades now, produced the finest in family entertainment -- would go out of its way to create an animated feature that had to be rated PG.

Speaking of which ... When Jeffrey Katzenberg finally got to see a nearly finished version of the film and saw the sequence where one of the "Cauldron-Born" brutally slaughtered one of the Horned King's cronies (I.E. A human who got too close to the Black Cauldron) ... Well, Katzenberg quickly got out his scissors and started cutting the picture. As the brand-new head of Disney Studios tried to change the deliberately dark "Black Cauldron" into a much more family-friendly film.

Now let me stress here that a lot of very talented people worked incredibly hard on this Walt Disney Productions release. Were you to look at "The Black Cauldron" 's credits today, you'd see that a veritable "Who's Who" of modern animation masters worked on this motion picture.

Don't believe me? Then let's take a look at a few members of this film's production team:

Production Manager -- Don Hahn

Animators -- Andreas Deja, Hendel Butoy, Dale Baer, Ron Husband, Shawn Keller, Mike Gabriel,
Barry Temple, Ruben Aquino, Ruben Procopio, George Scribner, Mark Henn & David Pacheo

Effects Animators -- Barry Cook & Mark Dindal

Additional Animation -- Kathy Zielinski & Maurice Hunt

Additional Story Contributions -- Steve Hullet, John Musker & Ron Clements

Assistant Animators -- Jane Baer & David Pruiksma

Inbetween Artists -- Kelly Asbury & Robert Minkoff

Effects Inbetween Artist -- Gary Trousdale

Anyway ... In spite of the heroic effort that all these talented people put in, this film was released to theaters in North America and only earned $21 million. Which didn't even come close to covering "The Black Cauldron" 's production costs. And given the bad taste that this animated feature had left in the mouths of Disney's new management team, I guess it's easy to understand why this Joe Hale production then got locked away in the Disney vault for over 13 years.

Unlike most Disney animated features, "The Black Cauldron" was never re-released to theaters. It was only begrudgedly released on VHS in August of 1998 after thousands of animation fans repeatedly wrote to the Walt Disney Company and asked that this movie finally be made available for purchase in the home video format.

Yes, in spite of this film's prolonged production and the somewhat flawed final product, "The Black Cauldron" still does have its fans. Were you to hammer on this link or this link or this link ... You'd see what I mean.

But me ... I can't help but wonder if things would have turned out differently -- not only for "The Black Cauldron," but for the entire Walt Disney Company -- if Ron Miller ... Well, rather than holding WDFA's set of then-young turks back in the mid-1970s, if Ron Miller had just turned these guys loose on the Lloyd Alexander books. Telling them "Look, I know that this 'Prydian Chronicles' project will be really be a challenge for you guys. But let's give this a shot anyway. Let's try and make the best possible motion picture that we can."

If Ron Miller had just done that, maybe Don Bluth wouldn't have left Walt Disney Productions in September of 1979, taking a quarter of WDFA's staff with him ... And if that seismic event hadn't occurred, we'd probably be talking about a very different version of "The Black Cauldron" right now. Or -- for that matter -- a very different history of Disney's Feature Animation department.

Anyway ... That's my somewhat protracted take on what went wrong with the production of Disney's "The Black Cauldron." Do you folks have any thoughts about this somewhat flawed animated feature? An FYI for all you "Black Cauldron" fans out there!

The finished roughs for Taran, Eilonwy and Fflewddur Fflam that were used to illustrate today's article are currently up for bid over on eBay. So if you'd like something extra special to add to your "Black Cauldron" collection, I suggest that you go check these drawings out ASAP.


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  • I know it's been a long time since you posted this, but I have some things to say.

    I think that the movie didn't do well because they tried to put two books into one movie.  Whenever people try to do that, it just doesn't work out.  For me it was no big deal making the Horn King the main villain, (it does sound cooler than Arawn, although I do like his title ' the death lord.')  The problem was they left out Gwydoin, my favorite character, and left out a lot of other characters as well.

    Before I end and sound like I hated the movie because of the changes, I must say I love the movie, it's the only reason I read the books.  As a side note it's funny when people ask me what my favorite Disney Princess is, I say Eilonwy, and no one knows who I'm talking about. :)

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