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Why For did Disney's "The Black Cauldron" fail to connect with audiences back in 1985?

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Why For did Disney's "The Black Cauldron" fail to connect with audiences back in 1985?

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LAlexanderFan5 writes in to ask:

Disney is releasing a 25th anniversary edition of "The Black Cauldron" later this month. Do you have any insights as to why this animated version of Lloyd Alexander's "The Chronicles of Prydain" failed at the box office?

Films fail to connect with audiences for a variety of reasons, LAlexanderFan5. Sometimes it has to do with the way a particular motion picture is promoted (There are "Rocketeer" fans who - to this day - insist that that Joe Johnston movie didn't connect with audiences back in June of 1991 because Disney's publicity department opted to go with far too stylized a poster for this period action-adventure film). And in other cases, it's just because the Studio chose the wrong release date (Witness what happened with "Bolt" -- a really is this terrific little animated feature -- in November of 2008. But because this Walt Disney Animation Studios production was released to theaters on the exact same day as "Twilight," it wound up being seriously overshadowed. Which is why this Byron Howard & Chris Williams film didn't do nearly as well domestically as it should have).

But when it comes to "The Black Cauldron" ... To be honest, there are a number of reasons that this animated feature (which was supposed to have been the "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" for that generation of Disney animators) under-performed during its theatrical release.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

For starters, producing a successful feature length cartoon is a lot harder than it looks. Let's remember that -- when Walt Disney was trying to produce the "Snow White" for his generation of animators (which actually was "Snow White") -- it took him the better part of three years to finally settle on which story he should use for his Studio's animated feature film debut.

For a while (due to the projected production costs as well as the amount of time that it was going to take to crank out over an hour's worth of high quality, story-driven animation), Walt explored the idea of producing a hybrid. As in: A feature-length project that would have combined live-action with animation. Which is why - for a number of months -- he went back-and-forth between the ideas of producing a mostly live-action version of "Alice in Wonderland" (which was to have starred silent screen legend Mary Pickford) or a mostly live-action version of"Rip Van Winkle" (which would have starred humorist & social commentator Will Rogers.

But in the end, Disney opted to go with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" for reasons of economy: And when I say "economy," I'm not talking about what it would actually cost to produce this animated feature. But -- rather -- story economy. As in: This Grimm's fairy tale had a fairly simple, straightforward storyline with a limited number of characters. Which would (in theory, anyway)  make "Snow White" far easier to adapt to the screen than Lewis Carroll's episodic / character-heavy "Alice" tales and/or Washington Irving's rather thin short story.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But even after all that careful consideration,  Walt still made some fairly expensive missteps during the production of "Snow White." Which eventually resulted in having to cut two nearly completely animated sequences (i.e. the soup-eating & the bed-building scenes) because - though they were entertaining - these scenes didn't further that film's storyline.

Now contrast that with "The Chronicles of Prydain," Lloyd Alexander's 5-volume series of children's fantasy novels that Walt Disney Productions purchased the movie rights to back in 1971. To be blunt, this literary property was no "Snow White" (i.e. a model of story economy with a limited number of settings & characters). Alexander's sprawling tale featured over 30 main characters which drew their inspiration from Welsh mythology. Its decades-long storyline featured intrigue & numerous battle scenes, which ultimately made this series of books extremely difficult to adapt to the screen.

Difficult, but not impossible. Let's remember that - after George Lucas wrote his "Journal of the Whills" (in which he mapped out the entire saga of the Star Wars) - Lucas then went back-and-forth over this epic storyline, looking for the easiest entry point for an audience; a self-contained story that could serve as the best possible introduction to the Star Wars world and its characters. That story eventually resulted in "A New Hope."


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And "Black Cauldron" producer Joe Hale thought that he had done the same thing with "The Chronicles of Prydain". By combining story elements from the first two books of Alexander's saga (i.e. "The Book of Three" and "The Black Cauldron") he thought he had a self-contained story . In particular, he took a relatively minor character from this series of fantasy novels (i.e. the Horned King) and made him the proposed villain of this new animated feature.

"And why did Hale do that?," you ask. Well, every good story needs a villain. And given what Disney concept artist Mel Shaw had done with the character of the Horned King in that series of inspirational pastels that he'd created while "The Black Cauldron" was still in early, early story development ... Hale felt that this character really had the makings of another Maleficent (i.e. a truly memorable Disney villain).

But - again - it was 16 years from the time when Disney first acquired the film rights to "The Chronicles of Prydain" to when "The Black Cauldron" was finally released to theaters. And that span of time was a particularly volatile period in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios. What with much of the Old Guard (i.e. Disney's "Nine Old Men" and that generation of animators) dying off and/or opting to retire and the new crew (i.e. Don Bluth's group at the Studio plus those first few waves of CalArts animation class graduates) struggling to find their own way.  George Lucas & Steven Spielberg had usurped Disney's position at Hollywood's top provider of family-friendly entertainment which meant that the studio needed to create the sorts of animated features that they felt would interest the audiences of the late 1970s / early 1980s.


Copyright MGM. All rights reserved

That's why it's always important to remember that motion pictures aren't produced in a vacuum. That when you're watching a movie, in order to get a clear understanding of why this particular production turned out the way that it did, you sometimes have to look back on that particular period in time in Hollywood. See what forces were at play in the marketplace while this film was actually being produced.

And as for "The Black Cauldron" ... Well, it's crucial to remember that this was the first Disney animated feature to come out after "The Secret of NIMH." Which - back when that Don Bluth movie was released to theaters in July of 1982 - had been highly praised for combining the craftsmanship & attention to detail that had been found in "Snow White," "Pinocchio" and "Bambi" with the storytelling savvy of a Spielberg or a Lucas.

And given that Bluth had been bad-mouthing the Mouse ever since he, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy and 11 others had walked off the Disney Lot in September of 1979 to form Aurora Animation ... Well, Mouse House execs felt that they had to do something in response. They needed to reestablish Disney's dominance in the feature animation field.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which is why Walt Disney Productions decided to follow "The Fox and the Hound" with "The Black Cauldron." Which would not only be shot in Super Technirama 70mm and feature 6-track Dolby sound, but (for a while, anyway) was supposed to have featured the first in-theater holographic effect used in an animated film. When one of those Cauldron-born was to have risen up out of that Cauldron and then loom out over the audience.

Speaking of the Cauldron-Born ... It's this somewhat controversial aspect of "The Black Cauldron" that resulted in this July 1985 release being the first-ever Disney animated feature to receive a PG rating. But the artists & animators who worked on this film felt that they were perfectly justified in including such grisly characters in a Walt Disney Production because Spielberg & Lucas had incorporated these same sorts of horrific elements into 1982's "Poltergeist" and 1984's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Which is kind of ironic. Given that - as soon as Jeffrey Katzenberg was put in charge of Feature Animation (right after Ron Miller was removed from power in the Fall of 1984 and Michael Eisner & Frank Wells were made the new heads of The Walt Disney Company) - one of the very first things that he did was begin whittling away at the scarier portions of "The Black Cauldron."


One of the images of the Cauldron-Born that was cut from "The Black Cauldron" prior
to its initial theatrical release in July of 1985. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

And that (according to conventional wisdom, anyway) is why "The Black Cauldron" failed to connect with audiences back in 1985. Because reviews for this new animated cartoon continually stressed how dark & scary this Walt Disney Productions release was, parents deliberately gave this picture a wide berth. "The Black Cauldron" came in fourth at the box office over its opening weekend, only selling $4.1 million worth of tickets. And as its domestic run came to a close, this ambitious animated feature had earned a meager $21.2 million. Which didn't even come close to covering "Cauldron" 's $25 million production costs.

With the hope that a shift in marketing strategies might then improve this feature length cartoon's chances of  success overseas, Disney's publicity department actually renamed "The Black Cauldron" for several key markets in Europe and Asia. Calling this animated feature "Taran and the Magic Cauldron" instead.

And if you'll look closely at that poster art for "Taran and the Magic Cauldron" below, you'll note that -- in order to play down the more horrific elements found in this new Walt Disney Productions release -- the Horned King is nowhere to be seen now.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But even that name change failed to win over audiences. Which is why why the Mouse House's new management team tossed "The Black Cauldron" towards the very back of  the Studio's film vaults and then never ever gave this production another theatrical release. Hell, it would take The Walt Disney Company another 13 years before they'd finally allow this film to be released on VHS.

But the upside of this story is ... In much the same way that Walt Disney learned from all of the mistakes that he made while making 1961's "Babes in Toyland"  then applied all of those lessons to "Mary Poppins," "The Black Cauldron" was kind of a necessary mis-step in the history of Walt Disney Feature Animation. You see, the lessons learned on that project were eventually applied on 1986's "The Great Mouse Detective."  Which then resulted in a creative rebirth at WDAS and all of the great films (i.e. "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King" et al) that followed.

So when I check out "The Black Cauldron" on September 14th (Which is when Walt Disney Home Entertainment will be releasing the 25th anniversary edition of this animated feature to stores), I won't just be marveling at this new digital transfer and/or enjoying that deleted Fairfolk scene which is included as part of this DVD. I'll also be thinking about the movie that the Mouse tried to make here. That "Snow White" for the next generation of Disney animators that didn't quite turn out as planned.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, what's kind of intriguing about the cover art for the 25th anniversary DVD of "The Black Cauldron" is -- just like with that poster for "Taran and the Magic Cauldron" -- the Horned King is nowhere to be seen. Which tells me that -- even in this age where a mainstream cable channel like AMC can produce a gory TV series like "The Walking Dead" -- The Walt Disney Company is still pretty squeamish when it comes to the more horrific elements found in this 1985 animated feature.

And speaking of that particular generation of Disney animators ... If you'd like to hear about what it was like to work on "The Black Cauldron" from someone who was actually on the inside at the Mouse House at that time, then I'd suggest that you head on over to Mike Peraza's Ink and Paint Club. This talented Disney artist currently has a great three part series (i.e. "The Cauldron of Chaos") up on his blog which is well worth a read. So go check it out.

Anyway ... That'll do it for this week at JHM. Remember, if you have any Disney-related questions that you'd like to see answered in a future Why For column, please send them along to [email protected].

Have a great weekend, okay?

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  • Thanks for the informative article Jim.  However, I think another part of why this movie failed at the box office, and why it didn't see home video release until the late 1990s, is that the film is a stinker.  It's a jumbled mish-mash of great ideas that don't come together, plus the hero is dull and the villain not very imposing.

  • Your article is a bit convoluted. I'm not sure what the reasons for failure actually are.  Is it the dark storyline, or the many characters?  You ruled out the quality of the animation, but from looking at the poster art, it doesn't impress me. The dark storyline might not tell the complete picture. The story was probably badly constructed, but you didn't say that. The characters were probably poorly developed.

    I seen Bolt recently. I think the marketing and timing wasn't the problem. The story itself was rather dull. The intro was pretty good; however, the middle part was long and dragging. The ending should have been spectacular to match the beginning, but it sort of fell flat. It was a forgettable movie.

  • Jim, you meander all over the place in this article.  It gave me a headache.   To paraphrase... Why did Black Cauldron fail?  Well, Walt wanted to make Snow White, but Bolt failed because of Twilight, and then there was Alice, Will Rogers was going to star in something, but, you know there were 5 books about Taran (this is where I started skimming more)... something about George Lucas masterminding the 18 Star Wars movies in his head... Sure, I'll have a great weekend.

  • Wow Jim. Why is your grammar and sentence structuring so horrible?

  • Thanks for the insight. And in my opinion, that Rocketeer poster was a work of art.

  • Why did it fail?

    1.  The characters aren't compelling in the Black Cauldron.  From the first ten minutes of Snow White you should love Snow White, with the Black Cauldron this isn't the case.  If you don't fall in love with, or are not instantly entertained with the characters in the first ten minutes then you have a problem.  Look at all the other animation big hits, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and the Little Mermaid.  You have instantly liked characters which are complex.  The characters in the Black Cauldron are very generic and the movie doesn't live in the moment.

    2.  The script for the Black Cauldron is horrid.  It is.  The lines sound forced and staged, not spontaneous.  The opening spiel is poorly written and confuses even adult audiences as it sort of talks around the story plot without being entertaining.

    3.  The animation isn't great, as in Snow White great, despite what is being said about it being laborious.  A creative process can be laborious and yet still yield garbage.  Technically good in certain respects, but many scenes just don't have a point, are slow and don't mesh well.  Snow White is a great example of how detail and timing work well, and Black Cauldron in a way talks down to audiences in many scenes by saying, "Oooh, this is scary and here is the Horned King isn't this cool".  It is a case of the missing the forest for the trees.

    4.  The plot just didn't translate well onto the screen.  All of the potential elements are there, but "saving the world" has never been the main plot of a Disney animated feature, and expansive and high reaching such a goal is for perhaps a second rate action flick, Disney/Pixar films involves far less grandiose plots.  Snow White's goal: to survive, escape the attention of an evil witch, true love.  People can related.  Finding Nemo: a father trying to find his lost son-happens more in the real world than saving the world from a demonic army.  Yes, Lord of the Rings plots do work well, but usually on a broader canvas than just a single animated feature.

    5.  The gothic scary genre is not enough to sell a film, Disney relied upon this and it alone didn't work.  Take the Secret of NIMH, similar feel to the film, but the story is much more real even though it is just as "grown up"-a mother trying to save her home and children from destruction.  You care about secret of NIMH because the spooky rats and such is just window dressing hiding a really cool plot, in Black Cauldron the plot is secondary to the genre.

    In Hollywood there is a little game played when a film doesn't do as well as it could because another blockbuster came out or the posters had a red trim when it should have been black.  Please.  If a film has a good story and is put together well, something Walt Disney was a master at even more than plot, it will develop "legs" and develop a following.  Some great films get swamped by the competition and then get noticed like a little film called "Home Alone" which made just a small fraction of its total box office the first weekend it was released, then word of mouth spread that the film was great.  Not so with Black Cauldron, people weren't telling their neighbors: "You've got to see this film, its imaginative and will blow you away".

  • Wait until you see Tangled, it has the masterful animation and highly stylized genre details that Black Cauldron strove for, and most people will fall in love with the characters and the story within ten minutes.  While Tangled couldn't have been technically achieved in the early days of the Black Cauldron, its plot has been polished whereas the plot of the Black Cauldron was sort left hanging in the wind.

  • I love this movie and I have several animation cels from it.

  • I think the scary element may have kept some of the audience away but, seeing as how a number of Disney classics have scary scenes as well... I think He-Man may have been a factor. I'm sure plenty of _parents_ saw the ads on tv, in theaters and the original Pinocchio VHS and thought it was pretty much the same thing their kids watched for free on tv. Of course all of us here know the difference between Skeletor and the Horned King but can you honestly say your parents would?

  • Your story was featured in DisMarks! Here is the link to vote it up and promote it: dismarks.com/.../Why_For_did_Disneys_The_Black_Cauldron_fail_to_connect_with_audiences_back_in_1985

  • Great piece Jim.

    But let's be frank, it wasn't the release date, it wasn't the scary king thing. The movie was just terrible. The only reason I would rent it again would be to try and understand how so much work could go into something that failed so badly.

  • Great article, Jim! I still haven't seen this movie. I need to check out this special release. Also, thanks for linking to Peraza'a excellent blog! I enjoyed hearing him talk about some of my favorite Disney cartoon shows.

  • Hey Jim, any chance of a piece regarding Disney's lack of Blu-Ray offerings for older films that aren't "Platinum"?  A Blu-Ray would get me to pick this up, DVD...not so much.  If they don't care about a film's quality for their new/current releases (G-Force, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, etc), why such avoidance for older flicks?

  • I saw The Black Cauldron at Radio City in '85, and the preceding Chip 'n Dale cartoon went over far better! The main feature simply didn't make much sense....just a long jumble of noisy confrontations.

  • I will not be getting this re-release. If there was a Blu Ray release that would have been completely different. This would have looked pretty awesome in HD.

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