Monday, December 06, 2010

“You weren't listening. We never give anything away. What we do is bargain, trade.”

In case you haven’t noticed before, I’m a little bit… off-center in a lot of matters regarding taste. Case in point: while many who’ve read fantasy turn to the big named series as their preferred series (I’m talking about The Lord Of The Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Dragonlance Chronicles (yes, I’ve read it, I have no excuse), Harry Potter or even The Inheritance Trilogy Cycle (no, I haven’t read it and need no excuse)) the series I look to with the most fondness are The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Long story short, it’s a high fantasy series of five books that are based (somewhat loosely) on Welsh Mythology. It’s a tremendously underrated series that manages to cram in a lot of heavy themes and is just as deserving of the cinematic adaptation treatment as the others.

In fact, the series has already received the movie treatment back in the 1980s from no less than Disney itself with The Black Cauldron in 1985. Unfortunately, its got a reputation as the black sheep of the Disney animated canon. Let’s explore!

Well, uh, considering it’s a movie based on the 2nd book of the series, its really radically different from the books aside from some of the core characters and themes. There is a legendary evil cauldron that can create invincible undead soldiers and a powerful evil lord is trying to find/use it to take over the world. Our hero, Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley), is an orphan who grew up in a wizard’s remote cottage/estate and serves as Assistant Pig Keeper to an oracular pig. Taran is a headstrong youth who dreams of great heroic deeds and mostly by chance he gets caught up in ADVENTURE! Along the way, he encounters the Horned King (voiced by the ever-awesome John Hurt) (an amalgamation of the books’ villains Arawn Death-Lord and a warlord named the Horned King), the Princess Eilonwy (voiced by Susan Sheridan) (who sadly doesn’t have her signature red-gold hair, here its just blonde), Gurgi (voiced by John Byner) a short, furry, cowardly…thing, and Fflewdur Fflam (voiced by Nigel Hawthorne) a old bard (probably the saddest change from the books where he’s a young king of a distant land who prefers to go wandering around as a bard because ruling his kingdom is boring).

Right, so the storyline of the movie really diverges from the books, but I really don’t think they could’ve done otherwise back in the 80s, since animated movies didn’t really get sequels or series. For what it is, the changes from the book are a bit disappointing, but nothing actually deal breaking.

Here’s where things get really interesting. Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich, the movie’s art direction and animation are right up there with the rest of the accepted Disney canon. The Black Cauldron looks gorgeous. Not just gorgeous, but there’s a lot of creepiness involved too, with the Horned King being one of the most malevolent looking villains I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie aside from maybe that guy from Night On Bald Mountain in Fantasia. And the guy gets one hell of a villain death scene (like that‘s a spoiler. It‘s a Disney movie for crying out loud). It’s not a fully unified artistic direction however, what with the Fair Folk looking and behaving like your standard Disney fairies (Doli is supposed to be a Dwarf, not a Pixie), but overall, the art department really brought their A Game to the movie, and it really made me nostalgic for traditional cell painted animation.

Okay, this is going to be long. Based on “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander, story by David Jonas, Vance Gerry, Ted Berman, Richard Rich, Al Wilson, Roy Morita, Peter Young, Art Stevens and Joe Hale; additional dialogue by Rosemary Anne Sisson and Roy Edward Disney; and additional story contributions by Tony Marino, Steve Hulett, Melvin Shaw, Burny Mattinson, John Musker, Ron Clements and Doug Lefler. Whew. The writing is not bad but struggles with trying to cram in and adjust two books worth of material into one movie. That’s really the biggest flaw of the film. Characters behave like they should, but the whole thing feels very rushed, which is unfortunate. Still, the general theme of Glory and ADVENTURE! carrying a much heavier price than those who would seek it out understand are right there from the start, and there are a couple of misty-eyed moments to be found by the end. Its quite dark for a Disney animated movie.

The soundtrack is by the legendary Elmer Bernstein and it works brilliantly with the movie. Can’t complain about it. Also, in a departure from essentially every other Disney movie, there are no songs. Yep. Not. One. Song. That should tell you this movie means serious business.

The Black Cauldron has a large number of flaws. It also bombed in theaters and kind of drove Disney’s animation arm into the ground until The Little Mermaid, which is a damn shame really. The movie has some of the most impressively fluid animation work I’ve seen in a while and a story that, while divergent from its source material, isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty with some pretty dark themes. It’s definitely worth checking out if you get a chance, and it really makes me wonder what a big budget, live action, book faithful take on the series would be like. Hmm. Guess I’ll just have to become a famous writer and some time in the future adapt the screenplay. Obviously.

Curiously enough, its not easy to find the actual trailer for it.

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