Gold Collection -- 25th Anniversary
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Disney's animation department is no stranger to darkness. From their foreboding presentation of a wart-laden, apple-poisoning queen in Snow White to the young boy who transforms into a donkey in Pinocchio, they've flashed at least modest amounts of morbidity in their otherwise family-friendly fairy tales since the '30s. But they've always been about striking a balance, countering the sinister bits with splashes of vibrant magic into something ... well, magical. That's where The Black Cauldron, directors Ted Berman and Richard Rich's adaptation of Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydian" books, tests the animation house's threshold in presenting dark material by using elements that range from resurrected skeletons to torture and suicide. Disney's costly, bizarre black sheep really could've achieved more than its cult stature, had it reached beyond simply being a gloomy blend of its other productions. Still, though far from being a forgotten classic as it struggles to find an audience, there's something undeniably compelling about The Black Cauldron.
Constructed by a team of roughly fifteen odd-and-end writers to cram Alexander's content into a 80-minute feature, Disney's film tells the story of assistant pig-keeper Taran (Grant Bardsley), a starry-eyed boy who'd rather dream about grand battles and swinging swords than care for cute little pig Hen Wen. Little does Taran know that Hen Wen's a special pig with the gift of prophetic vision, a skill that's important due to his ability to see the location of a mythical black cauldron -- an item meant to wake the dead in the wrong hands. When Taran's mentor, Dallben (Freddie Jones), sees the Horned King (John Hurt) gaining power of the cauldron after using the pig's power, he sends the boy and Hen Wen off to find a safe hiding place. Naturally, this goes awry when Hen Wen's captured by the Horned King's dark forces, calling on Taran to befriend some unlikely allies -- including a princess, Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), a minstrel, Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), and a greedy ragamuffin of a critter named Gurgi -- and become the warrior he's always wanted to be to get the pig back.
The Black Cauldron earned distinction as the most expensive animated work underneath the Disney banner at the time, costing roughly $25 million to produce, while also being one of their few films to bomb at the box office. It's easy to see why it suffered: Berman and Rich's film fits snugly in between two comfort zones, treading into territory that's too dark for youngsters and too juvenile for most adult audiences. Disney's look at Lloyd Alexander's books transforms them into a stripped, indistinguishable sword-'n-sorcery yarn that complicates little so it can hold fizzling attention spans, yet it also gravitates around sinister elements, like the resurrection of dead soldiers, so the ghastly Horned King can control the world in a reign of violence. By confining the limits of this source material into the upbeat Disney framework, they ultimately shackle the darker elements' potential to really sprawl out -- perhaps in fear that it'd end up like Ralph Bakshi's take on the Lord of the Rings.
Taran's quest into the lair of the Horned King becomes the crux to The Black Cauldron, yet the impressions it leaves veer from the successes of Disney's rich lineage -- mostly because of a lack of imagination within the characters. A similar tonal shakiness rife in Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone rears its head, especially among some wooden Merlin-Arthur banter between Taran and Dallben at the monotonous, empty-handed opening, while the overall atmosphere as the quest burrows deeper into the Horned King's lair resembles Sleeping Beauty's climactic moments on more than one occasion. In the same way, other elements look to overt pop-culture influences for their manner, such as the Horned King's eerie resemblance to Skeletor from Masters of the Universe and the Golem-like sulking about the apple-obsessed talking furball, Gurgi. Considering the House of Mouse's pedigree in building fresh work, you'd think they'd know when things feel recycled or a bit pale under the brush.
But even as The Black Cauldron slumps into structural unoriginality, its artistic flare gives it a dark, menacing vivacity that spruces up its influences. Disney incorporated a then-new animation technique, ATP process, in combination with the traditional xerox process to give the animation life, while also utilizing the first hints of computer-generated images for some of the film's more mystical sequences. What comes out of that are some odd-yet-mesmerizing sequences that burst with ravishing color, finding deft visual allure in cobwebbed, dank corridors and candlelit dining halls when the story meanders. In the echoic underbelly of the Horned King's lair, the eerie twang of the ondes martenot flutters in the film's scoring, an instrument that composer Elmer Bernstein showed fascination with in the '80s -- most prominent in Ghostbusters, which with the film's music shares many similarities.
Oddly, it's in what could be seen as The Black Cauldron's most repellent feature -- its darkness -- that the film finds a level of magnetism, enough to make Taran's quest to hunt down the cauldron a dynamic adventure worth taking. Even as Disney fumbles with juggling both the bleaker aspects and infusions of family-friendly tonality, the artistic style never wavers from that of brooding, gothic gloom and eerie lighting, building into a riveting stream of obscurity based on the shadowy aesthetics. As the film concentrates on pig-hunting dragons, gremlins wielding hot pokers, backstabbing witches and undead soldiers reanimating amid a soupy green essence, it's like watching a mesmerizing nightmare play out in one of the animator's minds -- still sporting the vibrant banter between good-doer companions, but engulfed by aggressively ill-omened surroundings. Soaking in The Black Cauldron's sinister curiosities are what justify the usage of stock characters and standard-fare, predictable fantasy storytelling, allowing Disney's artistic boundary-pushing to thrust it into the eyesight of those willing to embrace its eccentricities.
Walt Disney Home Entertainment have brought The Black Cauldron out of their vault for a 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD, though it's not to the same fanfare as its other classics. It arrives in a single-disc case with no chapter listing and no disc artwork (simply a silver-topped disc), while also opting against including the House of Mouse's signature cardboard slipcover. Since the chapter stops appear to be the same between discs, those who own the old Gold Collection DVD might want to hold onto their chapter listing insert.
Video and Audio:
Fans of The Black Cauldron have made due with Disney's non-anamorphic, blurry Gold Collection DVD since its release in 2000, being forced to zoom in on the speckled 2.35:1 letterbox image for any kind of legitimate at-home presentation on widescreen displays. (Notice that the images from the Gold Collection DVD have been cropped and enlarged to appear as if they're widescreen for comparison sake, when in fact they're 4x3 letterbox -- as seen here) In what's a sincere surprise, they've gone back under the hood and restored the film that's widely been considered the studio's dark misfire since its theatrical release. What they've come up with embodies the quintessential "night and day" difference in between the two DVDs, as this new transfer offers the film in a vivid, polished 16x9-enhanced image that emphasizes the crisp palette and contours of the animation to vastly superior extents. The palette in the film -- as with many of Disney's animated efforts -- never surrenders at the chance to present vivid blasts of unique colors, rendered within a broad array of both quick action sequences and slow pans across the highly-detailed backdrops.
Disney's new restoration of The Black Cauldron, which has been purged of most of the dust and speckles that plagued the image beforehand, reveals a broad difference in color usage between the elements used that allows rust browns and muted reds to peek out in places where they weren't seen before. Along with that, the depth of specific shades of blue, purple, and tan also give the image a natural, robust level of depth, while allowing billows of clouds and clumps of azure wax in candles. Textured detail in iron and stone within the Horned King's chambers reveal a crispness in the animation hidden in the previous visualization, while the glow in smoldering coal, blasts of magical energy, and the creepy acid-green mist becomes much more palpable. It's not without a few digital stumbles, however, as some noisy blocking in solid colors can be seen and some sharpness edge halos creep up, while a very slight sliver from the original print material has been cropped from 2.31:1 to take the image closer to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. However, the immense level of advancement in the image is staggering, and will surely delight fans of the film -- though it does beg the question, "What would this restoration look like in high-definition?"
Unlike the video, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the Gold Collection DVD really wasn't all that bad to begin with, sporting fine separation and aural crispness that did, admittedly, show the signs of the film's age. This new Dolby Digital 5.1 track offers a few tweaks and improvements, but not to the same degree as the video. Ambient sound effects and Elmer Bernstein's scoring still exhibit fine levels of stage awareness as they travel to the channels of the sound design, yet they see an improvement in clarity and balance here that's pleasing, if a bit slight. The vocals still show their age a bit more than expected, rasping at a middle-range level, but the assortment of whimsical, sparkling sound effects -- crackling lightning, the coarse crushing of stone, and the echoing footsteps of Taran and the gang stumbling through the Horned King's corridors -- all pour through with an added oomph in their step that's very satisfying. Subtitle and sound options are available in optional English, French, and Spanish languages.
Unfortunately, this 25th Anniversary presentation of The Black Cauldron neglects to take advantage of either the film's sordid history or cult appreciation, veering away from any new enlightening supplements or interviews with those involved. Instead, the only new substantial special feature is a Deleted Scene: The Fairfolk (9:50) that features a collage of storyboards and rough animation to show added elements in the group's spiraling descent into a whirlpool. Along with that, the Still Frames Gallery and Quest for The Black Cauldron Destination Game have been carried over from the Gold Collection DVD, while a new game, The Witches, has been added on. Also, for completion's sake, Disney have also remembered to carry over the "Trick or Treat" Short (8:15, 4x3).
Give The Black Cauldron a chance. Yes, it suffers from finding the right balance between youth-friendly and adult-oriented tones, and can come across as both too dark and too light for the gradient of audiences. But the joys of the picture come in relishing the adventure embedded in a dark art design, which brings together Disney's signature strokes with some intriguing bleak elements. This 25th Anniversary Edition DVD might not offer much in supplements, but the boost in quality from the freshly-restored print, the carried-over special features, and the modest price tag ($20 list) earn this presentation of Disney's black sheep a High Recommendation -- though the stamp of approval would've probably been fainter had the price been a bit higher.