The Film That Almost Killed Disney Animation: The Black Cauldron

The Film That Almost Killed Disney Animation: The Black Cauldron

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.

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Aonghus Fallon

Funnily enough, I read the first in the sequence a few months ago. I even watched a clip of Lloyd Alexander talking about the inspiration for the harp – ie, its strings snap whenever its owner lies, THAT harp – and he came across as a really nice guy. I did think about watching the adaptation, but never bothered. However that shot of the Horned King might have changed my mind….

Joe H.

I also love the books; I just reread the entire series a couple months ago for the first time in 30+ years and though they held up remarkably well.

I never did see this one in the theater; it came out the summer before my senior year of high school, so I was at just the wrong age for it, and the reviews were bad enough to keep me from going regardless.

I remember reading an article at the time, maybe in Newsweek?, talking about how Disney had backburnered this one in favor of The Fox and the Hound, in part to give the animators something easier to work on before having to deal with the much more technically challenging animation The Black Cauldron would require.

I did eventually see the movie a couple of times; initially via a Netflix rental. Unfortunately, those reviews were not wrong. Having said which, it’s currently on Disney+ in a 4K HDR version, so you can at least watch it and appreciate the artistry of the animation in a version that looks possibly better than it did in the theater.

Brian Kunde

Been years since I saw this (when it first came out in a home version). What I recall most are the continuity problems, as when they play up Eilonwy’s “bauble” and then completely forget about it, and one of the few things they get right; Gurgi! Very nice read, but really kind of … short? Surely you have more memories associated with the books and film. Would be happy for a follow-up.

Sarah Avery

I recently read through all five Prydain volumes as the family read-aloud books with my boys. (Somehow, we have kept the read-aloud habit going into my kids’ 15th and 12th years of life.) Older Kid would exclaim at the end of every chapter that this was what non-toxic masculinity could look like. There are so many different ways to be a good man in that series. Gwydion’s advice to Taran hits just right every single time. Taran’s kind of a mess, and 12 years old, when he starts out, which makes his process of growing up feel more earned than if the masculinity he was trying to grow into had been all virtuous from the start.

Maybe someday that series will get the adaptation it deserves.

Thomas Parker

I too adore the Prydain books and read them to my children (I do a hell of a Gurgi), and I also passed on seeing this because of the overwhelmingly negative things I heard about it.

Not a good sign when so many people fall into that category, is it?

Sarah Avery

I’m no voice actor, but my Gurgi was the best character voice I’ve ever done.

Thomas Parker

I would probably say that Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web is my best character voice, but since I’ve read the book to my 4th graders every year for the past twenty years, I’ve had a lot of practice.


Not sure how I never came across this movie as a kid. The book of three was probably the first fantasy novel I read on my own.

It left quite an impression and I read it more than once but I never went on to the others for some reason.

I sold a ton of stuff in a moving sale and I regret selling the paperback set I had. They all had green pages on the ends and were the older cover art.

When my nephew was five he was obsessed with the black cauldron movie and went as the horned king for Halloween, it was amazing

Arthur Drake

That’s really cool you got to sit down with Lloyd and talk about how the film was going. I remember thinking the horned king and the setting were really cool as a kid, though never connected much with the way the story was presented. Probably like you said it couldn’t find the right tone.

Dale Nelson

I reread these not long ago. They were favorites when I was around 12, and help up well when I read them in my sixties.

James McGlothlin

Never saw the movie, but loved the books back in my junior high days. I also recently reread these. Though I think they’re still good books, I was disappointed a bit. They’ve lost a little magic for me compared to my youthful reading of them.

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