The Black Cauldron (Disney, July 1985)
The Black Cauldron, an animated feature from Disney, was released on July 24th in 1985. It was one of a number of films I consulted on for the studio. At the time, it was purported to be the most expensive animated film ever made (though cheap by today’s standards). It had quite a turbulent history and almost killed off Disney animation entirely.
The film is based on two volumes of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, a five-volume series of fantasy novels, aimed at the YA audience. Personally, I love these books. The story goes that Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” recommended the books to Walt to adapt. Disney Studios acquired the rights back in 1971 and began adapting.
By the late ’70s, the project had gone through multiple producers, directors, story artists, and others. Don Bluth and about a dozen of his team quit Disney Studios and went off to start Bluth Animation (or whatever it’s official name was), in no small part over the way The Black Cauldron was going. This was before I was consulting with Disney but my understanding was that Don wanted more say in the story development and the studio execs wanted him to stay animating. And while I think Don is a better animator and director than writer, the wisdom of the studio execs in this case goes to show how, if anyone should be replaced by A.I…
The film got put on the back burner but, eventually, it was brought back to life and continued into production. Finally, it was completed and released in 1985.
The result, I fear, didn’t really please anyone. It was too dark for some, too comedic for others. It was very different from the books, changing a minor villain from the books into the major villain, a minor story point into the crux of the movie, and concentrating mainly on the books’ non-human characters.
It was a major box office disappointment and a significant reason Michael Eisner and Jeff Katzeberg — who had come to power at Disney during the last couple years of the film’s production — were seriously considering closing down Disney Animation altogether. (But that’s a story much too complicated a tale for right now.)
The Horned King, from The Black Cauldron
Part of my work on the film was to pay a visit to Lloyd Alexander, to talk to him about how the film was going. I was happy to get a chance to meet Lloyd, since I so liked these books.
Lloyd and his wife Janine lived in Pittsburgh so it was to Pittsburgh I flew and spent a lovely afternoon having lunch with them in their home. We talked about the film and how it was being adapted and the changes that were being made. Lloyd was happy his books might find a wider audience from this and accepting of the fact that the studio was changing things.
I reminded him of the story where a fan of an author’s work says, “Hollywood has destroyed your books!” To which the author replies, pointing to his bookcase, “No. They’re fine. They’re right there.” (James M. Cain is the writer who is most frequently cited as the source of the quotation. But it’s accredited to and claimed by any number of authors. I even had Ray Bradbury say it to me one day in his office. But Ray didn’t claim to be first.)
John Hurt was great, voice acting as the Horned King (the main villain of the film). I was very pleased to run into him again a few years ago, when we were both guests at Gallifrey One, the Doctor Who convention in L.A., and had a few minutes to reminisce.
Craig Miller’s career has been all over the pop culture map. He started in Hollywood as a publicity executive, working with Lucasfilm, Warner Bros., Disney, Universal, Jim Henson Productions, etc. on such films as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Crystal, Altered States, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Splash, The Thing, The Last Starfighter, Real Genius, The Wicker Man, Excalibur, and others. Wanting to do something more directly creative, he switched to writing in the mid-1980s and, since then, has written and produced over 300 episodes of television, primarily animation, on shows ranging from Curious George and G.I. Joe to Showtime’s live-action horror anthology series The Hunger.