1985 was a fine year for Hollywood. Icons fell under the stampede for sequels while future classics were created. It’s time to look back.
In the coming weeks and months the HeyUGuys team will focus on some of best from ’85, exploring their legacy and capturing something of their enduring essence.
We’ve already watched a boxer win the Cold War, today Matt Rodgers shines a much-needed light on an oft-forgotten, and dark, Disney outing.
This year, Disney PIXAR will release The Good Dinosaur, a film beset by a myriad of production issues that you wouldn’t normally equate with an animated movie, let alone one from The Magic Kingdom’s Studio. A parallel is drawn with 1985’s The Black Cauldron, a creative nadir for the Mouse House, but without this certificate testing dark fantasy, you might not have an Inside Out, or a zillion YouTube video clips of toddlers singing “Let It Go”. Its importance to the evolution of animation makes it as much of a landmark motion picture as Toy Story.
An adaptation of The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, Cauldron was in production at the same time as Basil The Great Mouse Detective, in fact, the directors of that 1986 release, Ron Clements and John Musker, were removed from their duties on Cauldron as part of a huge shake-up that was overseen by newly appointed chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and CEO Michael Eisner.
They had to deal with their rodent Sherlock Holmes adaptation having its budget slashed in half, although this was tempered by the fact that release was a long way off, but Cauldron, which had been slated for a Christmas 1984 bow, was about to be dragged into the editing suite by Katzenberg.
Much to the chagrin of the producers, he set about cutting down what was perceived to be a lengthily run time, along with some of the more adult content. Disney had always dipped their wand in the darker elements of the fairytales they told, but Cauldron was fully immersed in the shadows.
Over the years, some of the footage has been found in the Disney vaults and restored, but it’s easy to see why they were omitted; a sequence depicting The Horned Kings army of the dead consuming soldiers in a green mist is as terrifying as Emil melting in Robocop, whilst another showed the story’s Princess Eilonwy partially naked during an escape sequence. It’s no surprise that this would become Disney’s first PG release.
Of the 12 minutes Katzenberg exorcised, the edit that was detrimental to an already muddled final film was the one centred on the titular cauldron’s origin story. Instead of a vital piece of exposition that would propel our heroes onward, adding weight to their mission, we get a throwaway line on the whereabouts of the MacGuffin, plus some noticeable jump cuts that interrupt the score.
Disney animation was in bad shape, their Golden era long since over, with arguably their last real “classic” being 1967’s The Jungle Book. The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Rescuers (1977), and Robin Hood (1973) are fondly remembered through a haze of nostalgia, and did fare business at the box office, but they aren’t cherished in the same way as, say, Bambi (1942), and on the horizon they only had the lacklustre Oliver & Company (1988).
The final film is an extremely odd, wholly derivative take on fantasy folklore, the obvious template being The Lord of the Rings. There’s an age-old artefact that is being sought by a long-dormant evil presence, a young farm boy tasked with protecting something vital, a duplicitous companion who speaks to himself in the third person and calls our protagonist “master”. Oh, and there’s a magical pig that can see the future when you shove its head in a puddle of water. You get the picture.
It’s not the kind of family-friendly fare that’ll make cuddly-but-annoying sidekick, Gurgi, the top of the most-wanted Christmas list. It’s a very cold, emotionless watch. Add to that the complete absence of any musical numbers, at this point a first in the studios history for an animated flick, and you get the overriding feeling that Disney had no idea who they were making this for, and Katzenberg, despite wading in with his clippers, was attempting to salvage something from a vision, however ambitious, that didn’t fit with a long-established brand.
The Black Cauldron was eventually released in July 1985, smack bang in the middle of summer. This $20m marketing nightmare had to compete with the likes of Back to the Future, The Goonies, Fletch, and Cocoon. They each had recognisable directors, stars, and Steve Guttenberg, whereas Disney was offering up a bleak adventure that asked you to “escape into a world of darkness” in the theatrical trailer, and used the “70mm photography and Dolby sound” as selling points, rather than offering up a coherent idea of what it was about. Ready kids?
So Disney’s 25th animated feature film was a milestone for all of the wrong reasons; a $44m budget returned only a $21.3m domestic gross, it was out-performed by The Care Bears Movie, and reviews were mixed at best, with praise forthcoming for only the technical aspects of the filmmaking. You’re also going to be hard pressed to find the DVD in many peoples libraries, let alone hear a wide-eyed child offer up “no mommy, not Olaf, I want to watch the Horned King!”
So what makes this such an important landmark in the history of Disney animation? The fact that it was the most expensive animated film of all time? That it employed computer generated imagery long before the “tale as old as time” dance sequence? Nope. The fact that it was a monumental flop, that’s what.
With the Katzenberg and Eisner regime in place, The Black Cauldron was to become a huge exclamation mark against a period of underachievement for the studio, their lowest ebb, but more importantly, one that would provide a creative catalyst that would lead to arguably the greatest era in the Mouse House’s history; The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) were all born from a desire to return to the values that were noticeably absent from Cauldron’s po-faced storytelling.
They’d be similar misfires, such as 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, or 2002’s Treasure Planet, but their budgets would eventually be recouped thanks to Disney’s lucrative home DVD market, a viewing medium that wasn’t afforded to Cauldron until 13 years after theatrical release.
With a production notoriety more intriguing than the film, the history of how the The Black Cauldron got made actually embellishes the viewing experience, so its definitely worth watching, if only to see how dark Disney got before their whole new world.
Read on about other classmates from 1985…
Most Likely to make an inappropriate joke while arching an eyebrow:
Most Likely to Hit the Mat and Stay Down: