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.
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."
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.
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" priorto 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.
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.
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@example.com.
Have a great weekend, okay?
I think that the new team at Disney in '85 saw both this and RETURN TO OZ (released earlier that summer) as remenants of the old Miller regime and didn't have much faith in either film.
Sorry, Jim, but this film never "WOW" me and I am pretty easy when it comes to Disney films. None of the character appealed to me. It was just a boring cartoon.
Jim, although I find the article interesting, there is a recurring error in your writing that is VERY distracting.
As one of the above writers posted, your grammar and sentence structure is atrocious. If you are going to refer to a person or object you need to use correct punctuation, which is a comma.
PLEASE don't START a sentence or statement with 'which is'. This makes no sense and causes your posts to be difficult to follow.
Yeah...the film just wasn't good. It's the worst animated Disney film that I've seen. What bothered me the most were the characters and dialogue. Flat, forced and uninteresting.
As for your writing, I say write however you feel like! But there are some sentences that need slight tweaks...I'm used to ignoring these things while reading but I know people are going to hold you more accountable because you're so popular ;)
The movie never managed to catch the spirit of the characters, except maybe Gurgi. They were a bit flat.
The animation was not as cohesive as one would have liked, as if there were insufficient collusion between the various animation teams.
Imagine what it would have been like if they had used Achren instead of the Horned King? Less scary, but just as cool. Disney does have a history of fantastic female villains after all.
It's such a shame they didn't get the story right... the books are such classics.
Well i think that due to the fact that it a darker movie, and Disney is so-pose to be happy happy joy joy musical nonsense. And this just wasn't that i mean i didn't like this movie as a kid, now thou i think its actually OK if not good. But to a 6 year old little girl there's no singing no ballrooms, i mean it just wasn't the usual Disney classic.