With The Black Cauldron, animation at Disney had officially hit rock bottom. “That film was supposed to be our ‘Snow White.’ But we just weren’t ready for it,” Ron Clements reportedly said at the time. But a behind-the-scenes tale of struggle that would ultimately bear triumph was brewing at Walt’s beloved company. And it’s important to recognize this film, not for what it wasn’t, but for what it represented for the studio at the time.
Based on Lloyd Alexander’s award-winning teen lit series The Chronicles of Prydain, the events of the film follow a young assistant pig keeper named Taran, his oracular pig named Hen Wen and a powerful cauldron that could raise a dead army for an evil king. Disney optioned the rights to the whole series in 1971, but the studio’s intense aversion to sequels meant it would try to do all of Prydain’s five volumes justice in just 80 minutes.
The film took seven years to complete, largely because chief executive Ron Miller (Walt’s son-in-law) didn’t feel his new Cal Arts recruits (including the likes of John Lasseter and Tim Burton) were up to the epic challenge. In some ways, Miller was right, but it was the whole company that turned out not to be ready for a film of such scale, and there was still much strife to come before the magic returned to Disney feature animation.
For years, The Black Cauldron was a pipe dream for many of these green animators. They were desperate to cut their teeth, but endless promises, delays (including another animators’ strike) and trial projects like Pete’s Dragon, Mickey’s Christmas Carol and The Fox and the Hound were grating on nerves. The delay of The Black Cauldron was one of the catalysts that lead to Don Bluth jumping ship and taking roughly a quarter of the studio’s animators with him. Ironically, later it was word of the impending release of Bluth’s first film, The Secret of NIMH, that finally pushed production into high gear. Production costs ballooned to an astonishing $44-million to vault this film among the company’s greats. Miller wanted the film shot in 70mm (the first since Sleeping Beauty), animators dabbled in computer technology for the first time, and there was even effort put into developing hologram technology to make the dead army appear as if it was walking off the screen and into theatres (this didn’t pan out). None of it was enough. A year before its release, the film would cost Miller his job. He was ousted in a coup led by Walt’s nephew Roy in 1984 after threats of a takeover surfaced. For the first time, outsiders Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were brought in to turn the struggling company around.
To the new management, though, animation was on its last legs. In his blog, animator Michael Peraza recalls listening to Eisner’s first speech as CEO. It triggered new anxieties over the future of feature animation as it became clear the new executives were “just a little ignorant about animation and the steps it took to create the magic.”
I remember all too well … hearing Michael Eisner announce how happy he was to be at Disney. He explained that he grew up loving all the wonderful Disney characters, “After all, who could ever forget Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse?” That is an exact quote folks. The backlot was dead quiet.
Eisner brought Jeffrey Katzenberg with him from Paramount to run the film division and gave the struggling animation department to Roy Disney, one of the few who still believed film was the heart of the company. One of the first things Katzenberg did in December, 1984, was move the animators off the Disney lot in Burbank to a building in Glendale. The animators were furious that they were forced to leave the same halls that Walt once walked. Katzenberg proved to be very demanding, famously butting heads with producer Joe Hale over whether or not one could “edit” an animated film — Katzenberg prevailed by literally cutting the tape himself. But Peraza’s blog has kind words for the executive who was, at first, clearly out of his element:
Jeffrey however proved to be a very hard working exec and showed how serious he was in rectifying his lack of knowledge by immediately going into a thorough self education process involving every step of the creative and production processes used by Disney feature animation. He soon became a hands on manager who garnered the respect of quite a few on the staff (including me) and along with Roy Disney’s help and guidance would see Disney animation eventually regain its prominence in the field.
By the time the film came out in July, 1985, the numerous setbacks had already plagued it beyond repair. It pulled in a measly $4-million during opening weekend, getting beat at the box office by National Lampoon’s European Vacation, the already month-old Back to the Future, and a re-release of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. Its lifetime gross sits around $21-million, falling short of The Care Bears Movie for animated feature grosses of 1985. It was never re-released theatrically, unlike many of its counterparts in the Disney canon, though it was eventually released on VHS and DVD in 2000, and a 25th-anniversary DVD hit stores in 2010. Unsurprisingly, critics panned the film save for Roger Ebert, who thought the dark aspects were a return to the “old tradition” for which Disney was famous.
Watching this film for the first time two years ago (and again now) and knowing a bit about the studio strife at the time, I definitely find myself in the camp of those wondering what could have been if the studio had waited for technology and talent to catch up with its ambition. It would pay off in spades later, during the height of the renaissance, with Beauty and the Beast, which Walt himself had been interested in animating back in his day. For now, though, any Disney animation fan can appreciate this film for what it was trying to accomplish and for the role it subsequently played in kickstarting a golden era during which Disney animated features were simply unbeatable.