22 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: GREAT BELIN!

On July 24, 1985, Walt Disney Productions released its 25th animated feature film, The Black Cauldron. The film grossed somewhat more than $21 million in its domestic theatrical release, on a production budget that has still never been officially announced, though it assuredly was much more than $21 million: as much as $45-$50 million according to some sources. The film had been in animation for five years or longer, and in story development since 1971, when Disney acquired the rights to Lloyd Alexander's five-book series The Chronicles of Prydain; the massive failure of such a costly, long-term project significantly altered the future course of the company's creative endeavors.

See? You can make anything seem simple if you leave out enough details. The fact of the matter is, that for a film that has at best a cult following and virtually no reputation good or ill outside of hardcore animation and fantasy film buffs, The Black Cauldron was born from the most convoluted, unspeakably painful history of any one of Disney's 49 canonical features. The events that transpired between the release of The Fox and the Hound in 1981 and its successor has become not only the stuff of animation lore, but of Hollywood and even Wall Street legend; the story of how a flailing company that had gone completely off the rails was saved and restored to its artistic legacy by, of all people, one of the most infamously profit-driven executives in the history of American cinema.

This story is accorded such prominence in nearly every retelling of The Black Cauldron's history, that I very nearly decided to start by discussing the film itself and leaving the historical context for after - but that would be unfair all around, to me because I'd be needlessly crippling my ability to explain why certain things are the way they are, and to you because a full understanding of just what the hell was happening in those years is critical to appreciating exactly why The Black Cauldron looks the way it does.

Our story begins with Ron W. Miller, president of Walt Disney Productions since 1980, and made chief executive officer in 1983, replacing Card Walker in both of those positions. Walker, who served from 1980 until 1983 as chairman of the board, had largely contented himself to let the film division of the company tend to itself: his appointment to the presidency (in the wake of Roy O. Disney's death) had closely coincided with the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, and his tenure as leading executive had been very parks-oriented: getting the resort on its feet, and then planning for the major second theme park, EPCOT Center. Ah, but Miller, he did not play so hands-off. He was of the film division, let us not forget, producing live-action comedies as early as 1960 under the guiding hand of his father-in-law Walt Disney. It took more than a decade and a half before he made his presence known at the animation studios, when he took an executive producer credit on The Rescuers; although it seems fairly clear that he didn't do too much meddling in the actual production of that film or of The Fox and the Hound, it's equally clear that nobody at the studio liked him all that much.

Ah! poor Ron Miller, ye have been judged harshly by history, maybe even harsher than you deserve. Let us never forget the achievements that the company made under his leadership: the grand premier of EPCOT, which though a failed attempt to realise Walt's utopianist dream of a planned community still remains a triumph of theme park design and execution; the introduction of The Disney Channel; Tokyo Disneyland, which was not owned by the company, but kicked off a sizable licensing fee; and the introduction of Disney animated films on VHS. Perhaps most significantly, it was during his tenure as CEO that the Touchstone Films label was created, allowing Walt Disney Productions to finance more "adult" themed entertainment without damaging the perception of the company as a fluffy and nonthreatening producer of family entertainment.

To be perfectly honest, I have never seen any indication that Walt Disney Productions as a whole was in any particular financial danger at this time; Walt Disney World alone should have been enough to keep the shareholders fat and happy. It is undeniably true, however, that the company's - before and during Miller's time - mismanaging of the cinematic brand name had resulted in a stunningly quick devaluation of a once proud company from a producer of beloved animated fantasies to a modestly successful producer of kiddie pictures, and the great majority of those were live-action. To paraphrase a book I one read about this era, whose name sadly escapes me (there is a good chance it was Ron Grover's The Disney Touch), Disney's public perception at this time was as a beloved theme park operator that occasionally dabbled, unsuccessfully, in animated films.

Animator Ron Clements, who had started his career at Disney with The Rescuers and been promoted to supervising animator with The Fox and the Hound, put it more succinctly:
We were in our early twenties, and others in our generation were not even aware that Disney was still making animated features. They certainly wouldn't consider going to such films.
It was in this environment that the studio settled on the subject for its numerically important 25th animated feature (I believe this was the first time that the "canon number" was prominently mentioned in the film's advertising), an adaptation of Lloyd Alexander's redacted, updated version of Welsh mythology for a modern young reader. For a reason that has never been made clear to me, the plot was cobbled together out of the first two books in the cycle, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron - I half-expect that it was solely the fear that The Book of Three was a shitty title for a movie, which is kind of true, that led to this otherwise unnecessary blending, for the plot of the first book is certainly rich enough to support an animated feature. The goal, which nobody said out loud at first, but became quickly apparent, was to make a movie that would appeal to the teenagers who generally had no use for cartoons, but had in the wake of Star Wars become everybody's favorite demographic, and thus Disney's The Black Cauldron was going to be a dark, moody sword-and-sorcery fantasy; though the peculiar rise of that subgenre in the 1980s, dating as far as I can tell to the success of John Boorman's 1981 Excalibur, probably couldn't have influenced Disney's choice of subject, given that the major rush of titles featuring mysticism and medieval adventure in a land out of time didn't really hit until later in 1982, by which point The Black Cauldron was well into production.

At any rate, the film was deliberately calculated to draw in the teen boys who would just as soon do anything else than see a Disney movie: it had violence, some of it altogether grotesque, it had absolutely no songs, it was clearly derived at no small remove from horror, which in the early 1980s had become a great deal more gruesome than in the late '40s, when The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was produced, the studio's last horror-inflected animation. But this wasn't to be just for the teens, no, it was to be a return to the great epic fantasy film for everybody who liked magic, the kind they used to do way back when, with a return to the much richer, detailed animation style of the 1950s. To that end, a brand new technology, the APT (for Animation Photo Transfer) process, was invented by technician David Spencer (who won a technical Oscar for his work) to replace the outdated and awkward xerography used since 1961. APT is broadly speaking, the same basic principal: drawings copied directly onto celluloid. But it is much more flexible, especially in terms of color manipulation, and allowed for a much broader range of lines and styles to be used. In addition to this exciting new technology, The Black Cauldron was also shot using the Cinerama process, not used for an animated feature since Sleeping Beauty in 1959, and never used for any feature in the years to follow. A clear bookending: the era of cheap-looking, scratchy animation was over, with two gorgeously detailed widescreen films on either end of it.

Well, The Black Cauldron sure as hell isn't cheap-looking, because it sure as hell wasn't cheap: and in 1984 the cost overruns had become so great that Disney, a target for corporate takeover for quite some while, was struck by a failed attempt by venture capitalist Saul Steinberg to buy the film division. This incident opened the door for a later, successful takeover in the same year: this one spearheaded by Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew, who had resigned from the company in 1977, citing a stagnant creative environment. He remained on the company's board of directors, though, and it was in this capacity that he kicked off a truly incredible string of events that led, after a few months, to the ouster of the hated Ron Miller, and his replacement as CEO by Michael Eisner, an executive who had turned Paramount Pictures into a box office powerhouse; Frank Wells, late of Warner Bros., stepped in as president. It's a fascinating tale that space absolutely forbids here, but it has been well-covered in multiple books. Eisner brought with him Paramount's chief operating officer Jeffrey Katzenberg, most famous in those days for having made Star Trek a living, breathing franchise once more, to clean house in the film division, starting with that costly, burdensome beast The Black Cauldron.

What Katzenberg found was a movie as disordered and directionless as anything in the studio's long history. Production was divided into units that had little contact with each other and the film's story was consequently in a most shocking state, and all in all it seemed like working on the project was more of a punishment than a reward, however prestigious it was supposed to be with its APT and widescreen and all. It is, famously, the movie that was so ill-managed that it drove a young animator named Tim Burton into live action; and some of the most important animators at the studio in those days, notably Glen Keane, Ron Clements, and John Musker, managed to get themselves taken off the project almost completely: Musker and Clements contributed "additional story material", which could mean as little as one or two gags, while Keane did a bit of character design work; after which all three men skipped off to develop the much less ambitious but much less agonizing The Great Mouse Detective.

Faced with what he knew in his soul to be an unmarketable film, Katzenberg did something that nobody had done before other than Walt; certainly, nobody who completely lacked any background in the craft of animation. He cut fully-finished scenes out of the movie, trying to hustle along the story and eliminate some of the darker edges that would have made the film a still tougher sale than it ended up being (even so, the film would make history as Disney's first PG-rated cartoon). That an outsider would come in and so something so antithetical to the spirit of animation dragged the morale inside the studio even further down than the lengthy, arduous, aimless production of the film had done already.

And so it was, that on July 24, 1985, Walt Disney Productions released its 25th animated feature film, The Black Cauldron; it grossed somewhat more than $21 million in its domestic theatrical release, on a production budget that has still never been officially announced, though it assuredly was much more than $21 million. The most onerous production in the company's history had resulted in its most spectacular flop. It is to the credit of Eisner and Katzenberg - yes, I am crediting two of the most awful men in modern Hollywood history, for they assuredly deserve it - that they did not abandon the animation studio completely at this time, seeking instead to rehabilitate and revitalize it. But that is a story for next time.

The issue before us now is, what to make of this messy, over-ambitious, too-dark-to-sell fantasy? Beyond a shadow of a doubt, The Black Cauldron does not deserve its entirely obscure place in history, buried by a company that would have done just about anything to erase its memory altogether. Nor does it justify the intense adoration of a small cult fandom that sprung up around it, as a cult tends to gravitate towards any Disney film that does something particularly unusual for Disney. It is a beautiful film that suffers from some inconsistent character animation, and an epic fantasy whose story circles the drain for all of its 80 minutes, less the credits, especially compared to Lloyd Alexander's justly-beloved source material.

In whirlwind form, the story concerns a young pig-keeper named Taran (Grant Bardsley), who learns one fine morning that the pig he keeps, Hen Wen, is actually the most powerful oracle in the land of Prydain (or Britain, to you Welsh mythology lovers), studied and protected by the mystic Dallben (Freddie Jones). It is of paramount importance that Hen Wen be kept safe from the mysterious and evil Horned King (John Hurt), who wants to use her powers to find the long-lost Black Cauldron, an evil object with the power to bring corpses to life as revenant soldiers. Even knowing this, Taran would rather fantasise about becoming a great warrior than watching over the most important animal in Prydain, and so Hen Wen goes missing: Taran tracks her to the Horned King's gloomy castle and is promptly imprisoned, where he finds the addled young princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and hapless bard Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne). The three of them escape, and continue to follow Hen Wen to a magical underground fairy kingdom, and from thence to a grim mire where a very loose version of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone - let us call them the Slut, the Middle-Aged Bitch, and the Crone - guard the Black Cauldron itself. Along the way, Taran picks up a little furry mammal named Gurgi (John Byner), who sounds not unlike Jar Jar Binks with a chain-smoking habit.

Fans of Alexander's books (I was one, though I haven't read any of them in a great many years) have already started weeping silently, for this plot makes a miserably confused hash of the two best books in his cycle, cheapening Taran's well-designed arc in the process. But I do not try to make a habit of judging stories based on their fidelity to source material; Disney's The Black Cauldron is still quite a mess without reference to Alexander, and indeed I don't half-wonder if the plot would make anywhere near as much sense without having the books as a guide to some of the scattered esoterica. Certainly Katzenberg made no effort to hide his outrage at how quickly the narrative becomes a confused series of vignettes after the mid-point.

It suffers most of all from a near-complete lack of credible, interesting characters: Taran is reduced to a stock "yearning young man who learns about the world around him, and wields a sword, Eilonwy is reduced to a mere plot-driving device with no perceivable personality (though in the books, especially the first, she wasn't exactly a model of psychological observation), Gurgi is one of most godawful comic supporting characters in all of Disney. Only Fflewddur is even a little appealing, and that mostly because of Hawthorne's delightfully British sputtering and wounded dignity.

The Horned King, meanwhile, is a wreck as villains go: oh, he sure is a well-designed bit of nastiness, with a skull-like face and deep black eyes with a trace of red, but it's next to impossible to get a bead on what kind of bad guy he is: it sure does seem sometimes that he's some kind of arcane demi-god with command over the material and immaterial, but sometimes he just seems like the leader of a band of Nordic barbarians, who dresses up a bit more zestily than most. He even refers to himself, pointedly, as a mortal man at one point. The nature of his threat is thus compromised, and he's not even an agent, except in the last scene: all of his evil deeds are carried out by his lackeys, including Creeper (Phil Fondacaro), a little green thing who is to comic villainy as Gurgi is to comic heroism.

All told, it's too grim and too chaotic and anchored by no sort of sympathetic protagonists at all - though not a pre-requisite for a good movie, there's never been a good Disney narrative without one - and it's not even a bit surprising that audiences didn't respond to it in 1985; they wouldn't respond to it today either, although I expect it would fare a bit better now that we as a culture understand better that animation isn't strictly for kids. But despite being a huge wreck of narrative in every respect, I do actually like The Black Cauldron; I might even say I like it quite a lot. For it is absolutely gorgeous. I know of a great many animations buffs who defend and adore the xerography style of the '60s and '70s, and certainly it has an unpolished roughness that is hard not to respond to, especially in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. At the same time, I rather like the shallow pleasures of lush, eye-popping painterly animation, and in this respect I must sing the praises of the APT process to high heaven: these characters have a richness to them totally absent from the sketchy protagonists of the last several films.. The Black Cauldron may have cost five times the amount of any other Disney film in the preceding two decades, but by God that money ended up on screen.

Especially in the backgrounds; once again, I must confess that I am above all else a background whore, and just like in Sleeping Beauty, the use of Cinerama resulted in unusually detailed background paintings, although nobody here was as good an artist as Eyvind Earle. The Horned King's castle is one of the most imposing fantasy locations in 1980s cinema (a good decade for dark fantasy); the swamp and the hut of the Ladies is, to my mind, even better.

On the flip side, not all of the animation is perfectly smooth: there are many places in which a character moves stiffly, like they have rods tied to their arms and legs that prevent even a slight bend at the knee or elbow; and these lapses are all the more noticeable since they are frequently seen next to some particularly gorgeous lighting effect or bit of water animation. And there are a few places where the marriage of the character cels with the background is absolutely atrocious, notably in the approach to the Horned King's castle, which looks like a bad example of rear projection out of Alfred Hitchcock's worst nightmares. We can blame a lot of things for this: new, untried technology, too much ambition in the backgrounds, but I am inclined to say that it has more to do with the lack of oversight, the absence in this film (the only time, I believe) of dedicated supervising animators, and a general lack of happiness anywhere in the studio. Plus, a great many new artists were thrown at this project without warning, and though they didn't all burn out (and at least three, Andreas Deja, Ruben Aquino, and Mark Henn, would go on to become celebrities, as far as animators can be celebrities), they were all certainly in a bit over their heads.

But even so, I do not want to judge the visuals of The Black Cauldron too harshly. It was operating at a level of ambition not seen in 26 years before its release, and if there were some stumbles along the way, it is better to reach for the stars and fail than to huddle around increasingly bad pencil sketch movies about talking dogs. The film even boasted a fancy-ass new technology, the first animated feature to incorporate computer generated imagery (I believe that the bulk, if not all, of this footage is to be found in the Cauldron scene at the end), and it incorporated CGI and cels better than many of its better-known and better-loved descendants.

This was no way for the company to keep alive, though, even if it had turned a profit: the overall mirthlessness is as far removed from "Disney" as it could be, and it's not hard to agree with Roy E. Disney or Don Bluth that this project found the company fleeing from its roots without justification. Happily, the combined efforts of Eisner and Katzenberg and Disney got the company back on its rails, and even if things ended up getting worse before they got truly great, the end of the interregnum was in sight. Even The Black Cauldron itself is frankly too much of an achievement, for what it is, to really stand among the same mediocrities that wanted nothing more than to entertain bored eight-year-olds.

10 comments:

Amrita said...

maybe i'll go watch :)

Meg said...

I'm glad that I'm not the only person in the world who enjoys The Black Cauldron. But then, one might blame nostalgia and the fact that, as a small child, I was a hopeless sucker for any type of fantasy. Especially of the sword and sorcery variety.

javi75 said...

Even The Black Cauldron itself is frankly too much of an achievement, for what it is, to really stand among the same mediocrities that wanted nothing more than to entertain bored eight-year-olds.

I can't really come to terms with that, but to each his own. The movie may be pretty to look at, but I was so bored out of my skull that I guess I couldn't notice. Maybe I would think different today (it's been several years since I watched all these Disney movies except for the 3 released on blu-ray), but I doubt it.

I still haven't read your next review, but this and Basil are probably the two Disney movies I can't sit through til the end anymore, it's a torture.

Since this is universally considered one of the worst, maybe it's a good moment to make a list of least favourite Disney-s. In my case it's just from an entertainment perspective, though the artwork may be great. The list would be completed by the package films, Alice, Peter Pan, Aladdin, The lion king and Lilo & Stitch. I would have to re-watch Oliver and company, Home on the range and some of the 70's stuff. Jesus, the list is longer than I expected.

2D 3D Animation said...

nice post.

Tom said...

As a kid, this seemed way too dark for me. So I never saw it. Maybe as an adult I will appreciate it more; I think I'll check it out.

Rebecca said...

I don't care how pretty it is, I still refuse to see it. Your plot recap gave me a headache. :-p

I also have to say I've never heard anyone call The Book of Three the best in the series. It definitely could have been a movie on its own (with a name change, of course), and I might have found something like that tolerable to watch. But as for a favorite, everyone else I've ever talked to chooses Taran Wanderer, while I'm the odd one out with my pick of The High King.

Tim said...

Taran Wanderer runs afoul, for me, of a bias that I've had since as long as I can remember: I don't much like explicit coming-of-age stories. Or implicit ones, for that matter.

Afraid I don't much remember The High King.

Javi: I'm keeping a list of all the films, ranked, as I see each one (sometimes for the first time in a decade). I shall reveal it once the whole thing is done.

todd said...

This is one of very few movies I saw at a theater, and my only clue it was apparently a flop was never really hearing much more about it afterward. I liked it fine at the time and am encouraged to see it again and compare.

I cannot stand anything Disney after 1994 or 1995.

MattDamon84 said...

This is one of the most intellegent, informative reviews that I have read in a long while. Fantastic back story on a much aligned, mostly forgotten film. Thank you for your review!

weepstah said...

My biggest gripe with Black Cauldron is it's music. The theremin-y villain theme that played each time the Horned King (or his castle) appear drove my to distraction. My favorite is book of the series is quite easily The Black Cauldron. The interplay between Taran and Ellidyr is wonderful to me and the general tone of sacrificing for those you care about speaks strongly to me.

Disney made all sorts of odd, non "Disney" films during this time, didn't they? Return to Oz, Watcher In the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes...even the dreaded Black Hole.

I just discovered your blog and am loving it!