A Second Look: The Black Cauldron
In 1985, Ted Berman and Richard Rich released The Black Cauldron, based on the first two books of The Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. Starring Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, Nigel Hawthorne, John Byner, John Hurt, Phil Fondacaro, Freddie Jones, Arthur Malet, Eda Reiss, Adele Malis-Morey, Billie Hayes, and John Huston, the film grossed $21.3 million at the box office. A box office bomb that wound up having a cult following in home video releases, the film was nominated for no awards but did get a video game release in 1986 by Sierra On-Line.
Taran, a young assistant pig keeper, desperately wants to be a great warrior, but is charged with hiding Hen Wen, a pic that’s actually an oracle, from the Horned King. He wants the pig as it can uncover the location of The Black Cauldron, which he desires to use for its ability to bring to life an army of invincible, undead warriors to conquer the world.
Though quite ambitious, The Black Cauldron isn’t all that great of a film. One thing wrong with it is that the story goes off in many different directions in its quest of getting the characters to locate the titular Black Cauldron and stop the Horned King. Hen Wen gets captured by the Horned King’s forces, causing Taran to go after her and get captured when sneaking into the castle, which is how he meets Eilonwy and Fflewddur Fflam and gets a magical sword. They escape and stumble into an underground kingdom who lead them to three witches that they bargain with for the cauldron. They all get captured again and now have to stop the Horned King’s army of undead Cauldron Born. All of this happens within the span of less than an hour and a half and has the result of making the film bloated and rushed. Some of it could have and should have been cut out to give the story a better flow.
Still though, there’s no getting around how all the characters are awful. Taran is the biggest offender with his constant whining about wanting to be a great warrior without anything to back his desires up. He’s a complete failure in every possible way, starting with how he loses Hen Wen immediately after he’s entrusted with keeping her. He barely changes at all throughout the film as well. The only reason he escapes when captured by the Horned King the first time is because he has Eilonwy and the magic sword’s help and he’s the reason the Horned King’s forced get their hands on the cauldron, which would never have happened if he hadn’t tried too hard to get it from the witches who had it secure in the first place. What’s more is that he trades the only thing that could potentially destroy it in the process, thereby negating what he initially set out to do in the first place. Granted, he does acknowledge his failure as a warrior at the end, but the realization feels like it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t have nearly the impact it would if he had slowly had the realization over the course of the film.
The other characters are pretty bad as well, such as Eilonwy who is a magical princess when there’s no relevant reason for her to be a princess. Further, she barely has any magic to speak of and it’s only found in a magical bauble that doesn’t really do anything. Fflewddur Fflam is also a terrible character as he doesn’t really do anything other than convince Taran and Eilonwy that they need to work together and taunt the witches at the end. Fascinatingly, even though he’s incredibly annoying, Gurgi seems to be the only protagonist that really does anything useful in his heroic sacrifice to stop the horned king.
Speaking of the Horned King, he’s pretty much the very definition of a wasted villain. His initial appearance is probably the best part of the film, showing him as a terrifying and power hungry tyrant with a god complex that wants to raise an army of undead so he can rule the world. Further, he has no problems with killing his loyal men to make more undead warriors or sacrifice his most loyal servant to the Cauldron. However, his potential is unnecessarily squandered when it comes time for him to actually do anything. Not only does he immediately lose when he personally gets involved, even though he’s billed as this incredibly powerful sorcerer.
It’s a mess of a film that had so much potential. Disney did announce a reacquisition to the rights earlier this year, so there’s hope for another chance to get it right.