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Ink & Paint
Ink & Paint is a podcast journey through the Disney animated classics! Each week, host Daniel Lammin and a special guest will look at each film in the official Disney animated canon, and talk about their artistic, historical and social context. Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss an episode! Have comments or questions for Ink & Paint? Record a message for Daniel right from your phone, and we'll try to use it in our next episode!

Episode 28: The Black Cauldron Part 2
In the second part of our two-part look at the troubled Disney feature 'The Black Cauldron', Daniel is joined by arts critic Richard Watts to discuss the film’s relationship with its source material, 'The Chronicles of Prydain' by Lloyd Alexander, and why the film is a fascinating failure.

Daniel Lammin
Richard Watts - Arts writer and broadcaster

Producer/Editor ∷ Alex Amster
Music ∷ Sam Porter
Show Artwork ∷ Nikolaos Pirounakis
Episode Artwork ∷ Lily Meek

Show Notes
After years of development, ‘The Black Cauldron’ had entered production under tense circumstances. Despite the enthusiasm for the project, and the belief that it could restore Disney animation to its former glory, the film lacked clear creative leadership, and very soon into production, a number of talented artists defected to other projects. With each passing day, the scale and budget of the film continued to grow, and the film on which so many had pinned their hopes and ambitions began to spin out of control.

UNTRIED COURAGE (1983 - 1984)
For the artists assigned to ‘The Black Cauldron’, the unusual qualities of the film was still something to be excited about. Amongst the future greats in the production team were animator Andreas Deja, who had been one of those dazzled by the lavish Disney recruitment brochure featuring Mel Shaw’s artwork, and Don Hahn, who had begun as an assistant to Wolfgang Reitherman on ‘The Fox and the Hound’ and was now the production manager on ‘Cauldron’.

Kathy Zielinski receiving her CalArts Student Academy Award from veteran Disney artist Tee Hee, 1982

The film also featured the largest number of female artists on a Disney animated film at the time, working at every level of production. Many of them were trained under veteran animator Retta Davidson, including artist Kathy Zielinski, who had won the CalArts Student Academy Award in Animation in 1982 for her short ‘Guess Who’s For Dinner’. Zielinski began at Disney as an assistant animator on the extended short ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’, a project story artist Burny Mattinson had launched in an effort to escape the conflicts on ‘The Black Cauldron’. After work was completed on the short, Zielinski was promoted to feature animation on ‘Cauldron’. “On ‘Black Cauldron’, I did the three witches”, she recalled, “and one of the embarrassing scenes I did in that film was the frog that got stuck in the witches cleavage. Lucky me!”

Expansions within the CalArts animation program also brought about a resurgence of skills that had been long neglected at the studio, including effects animation, layouts and backgrounds, skills that would be integral in realising Ron Miller’s ambitions for ‘The Black Cauldron’.

‘The Black Cauldron’ background layout by Mike Hodgson © Disney

One newcomer who made a significant impact on the film was self-taught layout artist Mike Hodgson. Having recently worked in television, ‘The Black Cauldron’ was Hodgson’s first animated feature film, and his beautifully detailed Gothic style was a perfect compliment to the world of Prydain. For Joe Hale, himself a layout artist, Hodgson’s approach was integral to crafting the look of the film. “Mike was a very, very talented guy”, he recalled. “I liked his approach and his design. He worked together with Don Griffith. It was a combination of both their styles. I wanted this picture to have a little different look but I still want to have a style typical of Disney.”

Miller and Hale were keen to find new ways to make the film more of an event, even investigating the idea of using in-projector hologram technology for the Cauldron-Born sequence at the end of the film. This was soon rejected for being too expensive, but on ‘The Great Mouse Detective’, artists Mike Peraza, Phil Nibbelink and Tad Gielow were investigating the use of computer-generated imagery for the finale at Big Ben. A small amount of CGI had been tested on ‘The Fox and the Hound’, but the work being done on ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was far more extensive. Joe Hale saw a test of the CGI sequence in the film, and was so impressed that he insisted the same technology be used on ‘The Black Cauldron’, even though the film was now well into production.

“There were three scenes in ‘The Black Cauldron’ that made use of computer-generated animation”, recalled Roy Disney, who would join the film towards the end of production. “In one scene, there was a boat that is used as an escape vehicle when the castle explodes. The boat itself is computer-generated, and the first time I saw it, I realised, for reasons that were impossible to explain, that it was so technically accurate that no human animator could have done it.” As well as augmenting a number of elements in the film, CGI was used for the cauldron itself, rendered entirely as a 3D object.

‘The Black Cauldron’ was promoted as the first Disney animated feature to use CGI, but this isn’t entirely true. By the time Joe Hale decided to use the process in the film, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ was well into developing their own sequence, making ‘Cauldron’ the first film released to use CGI. This publicity also caused confusion among audiences and critics around what within the film was the result of CGI, such as the sequence where we see Hen Wen’s prophetic visions. “Many still think the visions within ‘Black Cauldron’ were computer generated”, recalled effects animator Patty Peraza. “I hand-rendered these scenes in charcoal to a hard edge and a separate soft edge. It was difficult and I don’t think it has been done before or since.”

Miller had also decided the film would be released in Dolby Stereo 6-track surround sound, another first for a Disney animated film. This meant that the film couldn’t sound like the traditional Disney animated feature. For the first time, they approached a major Hollywood film composer, Oscar-winner Elmer Bernstein. As well as composing scores for some of the big fantasy and genre films of the 80’s, including ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981) and ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984), he had also composed the sweeping score for Cecil B. DeMille’s epic ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956), making him an inspired choice for ‘The Black Cauldron’. His bombastic, brilliant score featured an instrument he had been experimenting with in the 80’s, an ondes Martonot. Using oscillations in vacuum tubes, the instrument was able to create eerie, unearthly sounds which Bernstein used to great effect in the film.

‘The Black Cauldron’ concept art by Andreas Deja © Disney

Even with John Musker now removed from the project, there continued to be tension between the three remaining directors. After so many years of development, the ideas had started to become stale, and Rich, Berman and Stevens weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on what the film should be. “There was such a clash of vision”, recalled animator Andreas Deja. “Various artists wanted more entertainment, richer character development and humour, but others sought to trim the story.” In an attempt to reboot their creative energies, the directors began swapping sequences between one another, often when they had already been animated. In a production that was already running out of time and becoming wildly over-budget, this added extra strain with questionable results. In the midst of these disagreements, Art Stevens decided to step down from the film, leaving Richard Rich and Ted Berman to direct the film on their own.

For the Ink and Paint department, ‘The Black Cauldron’ was quickly turning into a nightmare, not only because of the volume of work but due to new technologies intended to make things easier but achieving the opposite. With many of the studios outsourcing to external contractors, a number of in-house departments were left with nothing to do. Dave Spencer, who ran the Photographic Lab at Disney, experimented with a new variation on the Xerox process in order to give his staff something to do. Spencer took the same principles and applied it to a photographic process he dubbed Animation Photo Transfer (APT).

Explaining the process, production manager Don Hanh later recalled, “You have a sheet negative and you put the drawing up and you expose it like a giant sheet negative to the drawing, which creates a negative image and then processes that into a photograph negative. Then you put that against a positive piece of clear sheeting coated with UV sensitive ink, and expose light through the negative to the sheeting where the ink cures. Wash away the residue and you would end up with a nice, thin line exactly like ink.”

The APT process was tested successfully on ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’ before being employed extensively on ‘The Black Cauldron’, but being used on a much larger scale, the process soon proved problematic. The cels used for APT repelled the paint developed by the paint lab, so detergent was added as a surfactant. The polyester cels used for APT were also more prone to damage and scratches. The process looked marginally different from the Xerox process, which was still being used on the film, so Joe Hale decided to spin the difference as an artistic choice, issuing a memo in December 1983 that the Xerox process should be used for the hero characters and the APT process for the villains. Rather than being a clever solution, this added extra levels of confusion on the already frustrated production. The APT process would win a Technical Academy Award in 1985, but was barely used after ‘The Black Cauldron’.

‘The Black Cauldron’ production cel set-up © Disney

Due to the enormous demands of the film, the artists in Ink & Paint had no choice but to work overtime for the last year of production, with cameras running 24-hours a day in the final six months. “It was gruelling”, recalled painter Gretchen Albrecht. “We had three months of six days a week of overtime, and six months of seven days a week of overtime.” The demand on the department was so great that a number of male animators were transferred to Ink & Paint to help, having to learn this refined art as they went. Space was so limited that painters were set up in any space that was available and where the environmental conditions were right for the gum-based paints.

In desperation, the production began to outsource to artists all over the world to keep to schedule. An Ink & Paint department was set up in Korea to work on technical elements such as shadows and bubbles, supervised by painter Robin Police, but rather than moving the production along, this added even more strain on the schedule. “When you sent a shipping crate full of artwork to Korea”, said Don Hanh, “there was a commitment of weeks and months before you’d get it back, so it just didn’t work out. That, along with the large format, and the demands of that show, made it very, very difficult.”

As 1983 came to an end, everyone working on ‘The Black Cauldron’ were in a frantic race to make the Christmas release deadline the following year. The young artists who had been keen to prove themselves were now being pushed to their limits on a film that seemed to get bigger and bigger with each passing day. Before it would reach the screen, both the film and Walt Disney Productions itself would change significantly.

In 1982, Walt Disney Productions continued their financial decline. There were more live-action box-office failures, the most high-profile of which was the CGI epic ‘TRON’. Released in July 1982 and costing $15 million, it was modestly successful at the box office and warmly received by critics, but Disney had banked on it being a bigger hit and wrote it off as a financial failure. There was also the big-budget adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, which again was met with modest responses and audiences. By the end of 1982, profits were down a further 18 percent.

Ron Miller during the making of ‘The Black Cauldron’ © Disney

In 1983, Card Walker stepped down as CEO, and Ron Miller assumed the role, along with his existing role as President of Walt Disney Productions. His first year was a productive one, with the opening of Tokyo Disneyland and the launch of an ambitious new enterprise, The Disney Channel. A cable network offering Disney classics as well as new specially-made entertainment and educational content, The Disney Channel was endorsed by the National Parent Teachers Association and recommended by the National Education Association. They had also entered the VHS rental market in 1980 with thirteen titles released, beginning with ‘Pete’s Dragon’. The first animated classic to receive a VHS release was ‘Dumbo’ in 1981 as a rental release only, with ‘The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ soon following, though the studio was still reticent to release their esteemed classics for home video, worried it would disrupt their established and highly-profitable theatrical re-release schedule.

Director Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah on the set of ‘Splash!’ © Disney

That same year, the Disney board approved the creation of a new division within the company, Walt Disney Pictures, whose task was “developing a boldly unified program of films aimed at significantly broadening the Disney audience.” In an attempt to secure the new division a much-needed hit, Miller purchased the script for a mermaid comedy called ‘Splash!’ from producer Brian Grazer. Fearing that the film was too adult for the Disney label, Miller established a new distribution arm of the division, Touchstone Pictures, and ordered ‘Slash!’ into production. The year came to a successful close with the release of ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’, attached to the first re-release of ‘The Rescuers’.

Miller continued to push Disney in new directions, but despite the success of Disneyland Tokyo and the EPCOT Centre, they were still in a financially vulnerable position at the beginning of 1984, the year in which ‘The Black Cauldron was due for release. Unhappy with the company’s performance, Roy Disney, who had resigned from the studio as an executive in 1977 but still held a position on the board, announced his resignation from the board in March 1984. Roy realised he was never going to be able to influence anything while on the board, so he began to work with his financial advisor Stanley Gold to increase his shareholdings in the company, in the hopes it would help influence future management changes.

Saul Steinberg, 1963 © New York Times

Around the same time as Roy’s resignation, rumours began to circulate that financier Saul Steinberg had his eye on Disney. A millionaire before he was 30, Steinberg had been known to use his ownership of the Reliance Insurance Company to buy out companies through stock acquisition and dismantle them for parts. At the end of March 1983, Steinberg held 6.3 percent of Disney stock, and within weeks that percentage began to increase at an alarming rate. He filed notice that his intention was to raise his shareholdings to up to 25 percent of the company. Disney eventually bought out Steinberg’s shares, but another threat soon emerged from businessman Irwin Jacobs, known in business circles as ‘Irv the Liquidator’. He believed Disney’s stock had been undervalued after the Steinberg attempt and decided to try to take control of the company himself. After hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, Jacobs eventually stepped back. His shares were bought by billionaire Sid Bass, a close friend of Roy’s, now giving Bass a major holding, with nearly 30 percent of the company shares.

Roy was dissatisfied by the conduct of Miller and the board in handling Steinberg and Jacobs. He and Stanley Gold were once again voted to the Disney Board, and with the support of Sid Bass, called for a change of management. In September 1984, a committee was appointed by the board to review recent management performance. As a response, Ron Miller decided to resign as CEO and president of the company. Roy, Gold and Bass had been preparing for this, and had approached two powerful figures in the entertainment industry to step in to lead the company - businessman Frank Wells, who had been president of Warner Bros in the 1970’s, and Michael Eisner, who had been president and Chief Operating Officer of Paramount Pictures and spearheaded the rise of the American Broadcasting Company. “I thought, you know, Frank’s more of a business man and Michael’s a little nuts,” Roy recalled, “and the two together, kind of in some way made me think of Walt and my dad. So we began saying, ‘how would you two like to take this job?’”

Frank Wells and Michael Eisner © Disney

In their first letter to shareholders, Eisner and Wells wrote, “We clearly recognise the legacy of a true creative genius of the twentieth century, Walt Disney. We also recognise that we cannot rely on the Disney name and reputation alone to satisfy all the entertainment tastes of a new generation. Our objectives are to not only manage and aggressively market existing values and ideas, but to take our company to a leading position in today’s entertainment industry.”

One of Eisner’s first and most high-profile appointments was Jeffrey Katzenberg as Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Born on December 21, 1950 in New York, Katzenberg had worked at Paramount under Barry Diller, where he had been tasked with reviving the Star Trek franchise with the blockbuster hit ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ (1979). When Eisner became president at Paramount, Katzenberg had been promoted to president of production, and with Eisner’s move to Disney, took up a similar position at the company. He had inherited Touchstone Pictures, a division well-suited to his Hollywood savvy and flush with the unexpected success of ‘Slash!’, which had given Disney its biggest opening on record.

Jeffrey Katzenberg © Disney

In the process, Eisner had also given Katzenberg the responsibility of overseeing the animation department, a field Katzenberg knew nothing about. He was joined by Roy, who had been voted Vice-Chairman of the board. Roy had been integral to bringing Eisner and Wells to Disney, and as a way of thanks, Eisner asked Roy what role he wanted to play in the company. Disney animation had been a part of Roy’s life from the very beginning, right back to production on ‘Pinocchio’ when he was little. He knew and loved the medium, and he knew how to work with the artists. It also helped that he had a slight resemblance to Walt, even if he didn’t have his uncle’s bombastic personality. Roy asked to be assigned to animation, and was made chairman of the department.

Roy E. Disney during the making of ‘Oliver and Company’ © Disney

Throughout all this, production on ‘The Black Cauldron’ continued, the film now wildly exceeding its original $15 million budget. Roy asked to see a rough cut of the film and was startled by what he saw. The film was far more violent than any previous Disney animated film, and he thought the depiction of blood in the film was excessive. He was particularly concerned about an early sequence in the film where Taran is attacked by a Gwythaint, and suggested a few of the bloodier frames be removed.

Around the same time, an internal test screening was done of the film for an invited audience. The artists working on the film knew they had pushed the boundaries with ‘The Black Cauldron’, but were shocked when parents rushed their children out of the studio screening room during the Cauldron-Born finale, many children crying. It was clear that the film in its current state would not connect with audiences in the way Disney animation had done in the past.

Now that he was in charge of animation, Katzenberg also asked to see the progress on ‘The Black Cauldron’. Like Roy, he was shocked by what he saw, but unlike Roy, was far more direct with his criticism and proactive in his response. He demanded that the film be re-edited to remove questionable material, to make the story clearer and to make the film more accessible. Joe Hale was told to cut 10 minutes from the film.

The Disney artists were horrified. Work on the film was practically complete, and it wasn’t common practise to re-edit an animated film this late in production. There had been the incident where Walt had removed Ward Kimball’s soup-eating sequence in ‘Snow White’, but this had been before inking and painting. Joe Hale explained to Katzenberg that it wouldn’t be possible, that the editing process occurred during the storyboarding phase and that there wasn’t any excess footage they could use to restructure and re-edit the film. Katzenberg thought this was ridiculous, and threatened to take the film into an editing bay and do the job himself.

Hale immediately contacted Roy, who was having lunch with Eisner at the time, and told him what Katzenberg was threatening to do. Eisner intervened, asking Katzenberg to leave the responsibility of fixing the film to Roy. Katzenberg conceded, but demanded that ten minutes still be removed. Hale and Roy got to work reshaping and cutting the film, and screened the results for Katzenberg. After the screening, he asked if ten minutes had been cut. Roy replied that it had only been six minutes. Katzenberg told them to try again and not come back until ten minutes had been cut.

‘The Black Cauldron’ production cel set-up from deleted footage © Disney

Twelve minutes were eventually removed from the film, with a number of scenes needing to be reanimated and rewritten for continuity. It now became clear that the film would not make its intended Christmas 1984 release date, so it was decided to delay the release by a further six months. Roy himself even wrote additional dialogue for the film.

This came as yet another blow to the beleaguered artists who had worked so hard on the gargantuan film. They had wanted to make it an event, but now a brash Hollywood executive who didn’t know anything about animation and had suddenly been placed in charge of them wanted to cut it to pieces and release it as quickly as possible. Even Roy, who had become a fast ally for the artists against Katzenberg, didn’t have much faith in the film. He admitted to not understanding it.

In six months, ‘The Black Cauldron’ would finally make it to cinemas. What audiences would make of it though, or even what final form it would take, was now anyone’s guess.

Just before the release of ‘The Black Cauldron’, Joe Hale was interviewed by the ‘New York Times’ for a profile on the film. When asked about the new management at the company, Hale remarked, “'The executives have been great. They’ve left us alone during production and are supporting the film with a substantial advertising and marketing campaign.” This couldn’t have been further from the truth, but for the sake of the film, the appearance of a united front was necessary. “We decided to go back to the essence of the great animated features of the past,” he said. “We want real heroes and, to have real heroes, you need real villains. We wanted the Horned King to be as formidable as the wicked stepmother in ‘Snow White’, and I hope we succeeded.” By the time the article was published on August 3, the fate of ‘The Black Cauldron’ had already been decided.

Theatrical Poster, 1985 © Disney

The film had taken twelve years to complete, five of which were spent in production. It had used over 460,000 cels painted with 1,165 different shades and colours from over four hundred gallons of paint. The film had originally been budgeted at $15 million. According to publicity at the time, that budget had increased to $25 million, making it the most expensive animated film ever made at that point. In recent years, some have claimed the budget had actually been as high as $44 million.

‘The Black Cauldron’ was released on July 24, 1985. It was the first Disney animated feature to be given a PG rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, as well as the first to be released under the branding of Walt Disney Pictures. For the first time, audiences were greeted with the now-iconic studio fanfare of the stencilled silhouette of the Disneyland castle.

Walt Disney Pictures fanfare © Disney

Contrary to popular belief, the film received a tepid-to-warm response from critics, many of them praising the animation, the vocal performances (especially John Hurt’s chilling work as The Horned King) and the score. Writing for the ‘Chicago Sun-Times’, Roger Ebert praised the film as “a rip-roaring tale of swords and sorcery, evil and revenge, magic and pluck and luck… And it takes us on a journey through a kingdom of some of the more memorable characters in any recent Disney film.” Charles Solomon in the ‘Los Angeles Times’ called the animation “some of the best work the studio has produced since Walt Disney's death in 1966”, but felt that if “its script and direction were equal to the animation, ‘Cauldron’ would be a masterpiece to rank with ‘Snow White’ and ‘Pinocchio’, instead of the frustrating, beautiful, exciting and ultimately unsatisfying film that it is.”

It was at the box office that the fate of ‘The Black Cauldron’ was sealed. By the end of its domestic run, the film had made only $21.3 million dollars, nowhere near enough to cover its staggering budget. It was an enormous financial loss for the company, the first animated feature not to make a profit since Walt’s death and the greatest loss on an animated feature in decades. To make matters worse, The Samuel Goldwyn Company had months earlier released ‘The Care Bears Movie’, a $2 million Canadian production that had received mixed reviews but had made $23 million at the domestic box office. The success of the film sent shockwaves through the US animation industry, and made the failure of ‘The Black Cauldron’ all the more upsetting for the artists who worked on the film.

There were no attempts to defend from within the company. Jeffrey Katzenberg was open in his dislike for the film, saying that it lacked “the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander's work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted.” In an interview on the Today Show, Roy was asked what the film was about, and found he didn’t know how to answer.

Asked about the film in 1999, Lloyd Alexander was surprisingly forgiving of it. “First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book”, he said. “Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable. I had fun watching it. What I would hope is that anyone who sees the movie would certainly enjoy it, but I'd also hope that they'd actually read the book. The book is quite different. It's a very powerful, very moving story, and I think people would find a lot more depth in the book.”

In the wake of the film’s failure, Joe Hale and other senior members of the production team were fired. The artists were sure they would be next. “We thought Black Cauldron might be our last movie,” remembered Gretchen Albrecht. “Hardly anybody saw it. I remember being called to a meeting at the Coral Room restaurant on the lot with the Ink & Paint supervision and we really thought we were going to our ‘last supper’ because we knew the film was not the best and it was expensive.”

In this moment of crisis, Roy Disney came to their defense. “There’s no question in my mind that we now have the staff and resources to complete the task”, he said publicly in 1985. “Happily, we’re getting to the point where the staff is the best in the studio’s history. Twelve years ago, the average age of a Disney Animator was fifty-seven and today it is thirty-three. When we are dealing with young artists who are already that good and still have the potential to grow, the odds are you’re going to produce some great animation.”

‘Taran and the Magic Cauldron’ theatrical poster, 1990 © Disney

In 1990, Disney tried to salvage what they could from ‘The Black Cauldron’, with plans to rework and re-release the film under the title ‘Taran and the Magic Cauldron’, its original title in European markets. They advertised the film as being more family-friendly and magical, but after early unsuccessful test screenings, the re-release was dropped.

And with that, ‘The Black Cauldron’ disappeared into legend. Despite the boom in home entertainment and the success of The Disney Channel, Disney did not make it publicly available for over a decade. The film began to earn a reputation as “the film Disney didn’t want you to see”. For animation enthusiasts, the only way to see ‘Cauldron’ was through rare bootleg VHS copies. It wasn’t until 1998, after receiving a barrage of letters from fans, that Disney finally released the film on home video. The film has subsequently been treated poorly by the studio, though when Disney+ was launched in 2020, the film appeared on the streaming service in a new 4K restoration, albeit with no fanfare whatsoever.

Since its release, ‘The Black Cauldron’ has built a cult following, and there are still hopes that Disney will restore the film to its original length and reinstate the deleted footage. “I spoke with Roy E. Disney about restoring the cuts when I learned that it would be put on VCR tape”, Joe Hale later said. “As I am sure that you know, the original version would be on the master negative, as the master negative is never cut. It’s the ‘inner negative’ that is cut. So all that is needed would be to make another ‘inner negative’ from the master and all the cuts would be restored. Roy did not want to go to that expense for the release of the tape.”

To date, Disney have not expressed any plans to restore the deleted footage to ‘The Black Cauldron’. While some production cels from the gruesome Cauldron-Born sequence have appeared on the collectors marker, none of the deleted footage has even been released. In May 2021, YouTube channel Yesterworld Entertainment released a video essay on the film, including an extensive comparison between rare final storyboards and the theatrical release. This comparison is the closest we have come to seeing what the film might have looked like before it was recut.

‘The Black Cauldron’ may be the most infamous Disney animated film, but almost entirely through reputation. Very few audiences have ever seen it, and it is likely that the newer generation of Disney fans don’t even know it exists. Watching the film now, it’s very hard to divorce it from the baggage of its reputation or the trauma of its creation. More than any Disney animated feature, it bears visible and debilitating scars, including awkward jump-cuts and frustrating narrative gaps, with the dialogue now entirely at the service of exposition rather than character. It’s also hard to say whether the film would be improved with the restoration of the deleted material. Lost cuts of compromised films are the stuff of film legend, but not every film is a ‘Blade Runner’, a lost masterpiece waiting to be restored to glory. It is possible that the problems with ‘The Black Cauldron’ are endemic, written into the fabric of the film itself. We may like to believe that Jeffrey Katzenberg butchered a lost Disney masterpiece, but perhaps it was a genuine attempt to save a film that was already in trouble.

And yet, despite its reputation as a disaster, ‘The Black Cauldron’ is among the most spectacular pieces of hand-drawn animation committed to film, comparable in its detail and scale to ‘Sleeping Beauty’. The screenplay and characters may not be strong, but the visual language of the film is extraordinary, offering a glimpse into a very different future of Disney animation. The new generation of Disney artists wanted to prove what they could do, and in many ways, that is exactly what they did. There are sequences in ‘The Black Cauldron’ that rank amongst the most impressive in Disney history, an evolution of the style that does hearken back to the Golden Age. And at its heart, there are still the rich Disney values of bravery in the face of adversity, the search for home, belonging and purpose, and the coming together of lost souls as a found family.

Maybe it was folly to believe that ‘The Black Cauldron’ would be the ‘Snow White’ of the new generation. Maybe that reaching into the past was a reach in the wrong direction. Even Walt could never match what he thought he had achieved with his first film, and often his attempts to do so ended in personal, financial and artistic disappointment. What ‘The Black Cauldron’ offered was not a return to the past, as the veteran artists believed, but a vision of the future for those taking over from them. Looked at now, over 30 years after it entered the world a bruised and broken film, ‘The Black Cauldron’, at its mysterious, haunting best, offers a glimpse into what that future might have been.

‘The Black Cauldron’ concept art by Mel Shaw © Disney

Though ‘The Black Cauldron’ did not bring an end to Disney animation, it would be the last animated film ever made in the original animation building Walt Disney had constructed for his artists in 1940. In December 1984, the entire animation department was moved from Burbank to the Air Way facility in Greendale, a series of portables and warehouses in the middle of an industrial area. The animation building would now be used as office space for artists and stars working on the far more successful adult films being made through Touchstone.

For a department already crippled by the failure of their intended magnum opus, this exile was a demoralising blow. They had dreamed of walking the same halls as Walt Disney, working at the same desks where ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Jungle Book’ had been made. Now they would have to work in cramped, badly ventilated office spaces ill-equipped for the task, miles away from the studio lot itself.

Many saw the architect of their woes as Jeffrey Kazenberg. The bullish manner in which he had overhauled ‘The Black Cauldron’ had turned the staff against him, convinced the Hollywood executive knew nothing about animation and cared for it even less. He was also bringing more new faces into the company as combative as he was, a disruption to the collegial atmosphere they had built in the wake of Don Bluth’s departure.

Bluth was also positioning himself as a serious threat. He had yet to follow-up his critically acclaimed debut film, but in 1986, it was announced that Don Bluth and his company would be teaming up with legendary director and producer Steven Spielberg for their next film. Spielberg expressed a deep love for animation, and was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. With his power and resources, Don Bluth finally had the clout to take on Disney animation.

The artists at the studio barely had time to lick their wounds. There had been five years between ‘The Fox and the Hound’ and ‘The Black Cauldron’. On average, there tended to be at least three years between releases. For their next feature film though, Jeffrey Katzenberg made a shocking demand - they had only one year to deliver it.

‘The Black Cauldron’ was the last gasp of the Disney that was. The Disney that was to come was about to be born in the foggy streets of Victorian London, with a strange clockwork kidnapping, a diabolical criminal genius and a great mouse detective.


The 1998 US VHS release, the 2000 US Walt Disney Gold Classics DVD release, the 2010 25th anniversary DVD release and the 2021 US Disney Movie Club Blu-ray.
  • After years of being publicly unavailable, ‘The Black Cauldron’ made its home video debut on VHS in August 1998 as part of the Walt Disney Masterpiece line.
  • The film made its DVD debut in October 2000 as part of the Walt Disney Gold Classics Collection. The disc included a gallery of stills with production material, but while it was presented in its original 2.20:1 aspect ratio, the disc was a non-anamorphic widescreen release.
  • ‘The Black Cauldron’ returned to DVD for its 25th anniversary, this time with a remastered anamorphic transfer, in September 2010. The disc now featured a deleted scene, but this was an early piece of pencil animation, not part of the material deleted from the film prior to release.
  • In 2020, the film was added to Disney+ in the initial launch of the service, but to the surprise of fans, in 4K UHD resolution with Dolby Atmos sound, the result of a recent 4K restoration of the film.
  • After years of waiting, ‘The Black Cauldron’ was finally released on Blu-ray in May 2021, but only as part of the Disney Movie Club. The disc features a Mickey Mouse short and the same deleted Fair Folk scene.

Disney animation begins its recovery with the rambunctious, erudite and thrilling adventure, ‘The Great Mouse Detective’.

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