The Early 80’s was a magical time when kids movies like NeverEnding Story, The Last Unicorn, The Dark Crystal, and Secret of NIMH all subscribed to the theory that the most effective way to entertain children is by scaring the living crap out of them. Not to be out-shined by any one else, Disney tried their hand at terrifying children, too. After some test runs with Watcher in the Woods, and Dragonslayer, they perfected their sinister craft and laid down the child-scaring law with the darkest Disney movie of all time, The Black Cauldron.
The poster is about as cheerful as this movie gets
The movie opens with a tale of a king who was so cruel and evil that even the gods feared him, so the threw him alive into a molten crucible to hold his demonic soul, and forming the Black Cauldron (One minute into the movie we have tales of throwing people into molten iron.).
Fast forward to “present day” and we meet Taran, an assistant pig keeper who protects a magic pig that knows where the cauldron is hidden. Because the evil Horned King is after the cauldron so that he may summon a deathless army, Taran, Princess Eilonwy, a pathologically lying minstrel, and an annoying creature named Gurgi (who is essentially Sméagol mated with a schnauzer), quest to find the cauldron before the Horned King can get it.
So far, this sounds a lot like Star Wars. Nothing too dark in that. Taran even has a
light saber glowing sword that can cut through anything (which he stole from a corpse). But hold on, this is about to get a whole lot darker…
EVERY FRAME OF THIS MOVIE IS DARK
Bright and cheerful = 5%
Heavy Metal album art = 95%
Disney movies (at least the good ones) all have dark scenes, and I don’t just mean dark-theme, I mean visually dark and uncomfortable scenes. But the Black Cauldron ups that by making every piece of this movie foreboding and bleak. Even the normally bright and cheery scenes have a darker quality than other animated movies. They called this The Black Cauldron and by-god Disney wanted some blackness. That being said, the art in this movie is extremely good. Disney spared no expense in hiring the best animators to show your children the blackest pits of their souls.
THE VILLAIN IS THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES
The villain is a terrifying creature called the Horned King. The best way to describe him is to take Skeletor from He-Man and Darkness from Legend then mix and concentrate only the scariest parts. Disney chose actor John Hurt to lend his gravelly voice to their perfect evil overlord.
Most Disney villains have a light moment, such as a joke at their expense or maybe a funny expression. But not the Horned King. His always serious and always scary.
The Black Cauldron was the first Disney animated feature with no singing. Our hero never sings how misunderstood and different he is. Our villain never sings about his nefarious plans. Singing lightens the mood, and Disney wanted none of that.
Instead of singing about it, the Horned King just monologues to thousands of rotting corpses about his evil plot.
THE LIVING-DEAD MURDER PEOPLE
Once the Horned King gets his claws on the Cauldron, he creates his undying army out of the mountain of bodies he keeps lying around. Now alive, terrifying, and insanely evil, his Cauldron Born (Sorry, another Heavy Metal band already took that sweet name) immediately kill and devour(probably) the Horned King’s living and loyal army. They die screaming.
THE HORNED KING’S GRAPHIC DEATH
In the end, The Horned King dies. Now many Disney villains die, but rarely is that death the kind of death normally reserved for Nazis in Indiana Jones movies. Namely, having the flesh graphically stripped from his bones as he screams.
A CHARACTER COMMITS SUICIDE
So you’re probably thinking, “Yeah yeah, I get it, Seth. This movie is a bit dark. But that doesn’t make it darker than the others.”
OK, but how many children’s movies have you seen where a character kills themselves because they have no friends?
During the climax, when the Horned King has summoned an army of skeletal warriors to murder everyone in their path, Taran volunteers to destroy the army the only way possible, by selflessly throwing himself into The Black Cauldron, and dying. Gurgi stops him, saying that Taran shouldn’t kill himself because he has many friends. Since Gurgi has no friends, he should die instead. And with that uplifting message, Gurgi kills himself. That’s right, a Disney character outright commits suicide because the world is a better place without him.
For obvious reasons, The Black Cauldron was a box office bomb. It’s only started gaining a cult following, mostly from the generation that grew up scarred by it. And it’s actually a very enjoyable movie and I plan on reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Pydain novels on which it was based.
“Escape into a world of darkness…”
Can’t say they didn’t warn you.