Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Black Cauldron (1985)

Voices of Grant Bardsley, Susan Sheridan, John Hurt, John Byner
Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich
Rated PG: Some Frightening Images
Based on The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

The film opens and introduces us to a farm boy named Taran who fantasizing about being a great warrior despite being a pretty lousy at his current job as an assistant pig-keeper for his master Dallben. In fact, most of the Taran's troubles stem from his daydreaming which prevents him from focusing on this appointed task. I wonder if this kid has ever heard that phrase, “He who is faithful with the small things will be faithful in the big things”. I can understand him wanting to rise above his lowly position, but its hard to have sympathy when he keeps screwing up something so simple. However, he does get the call to adventure when he learns that the evil Horned King (John Hurt) has returned and he wants Taran's pig Hen Wen, who can see into the future. After escaping to farm to get Hen Wen to safety, he quickly loses her. Way to go idiot. At least he is humbled by this experiences, which alone makes him more enduring than that whiny brat from "Eragon" (which sounds a lot like “Arrogant” now that I think about it) Taran goes off to rescue her, and encounters a few people along the way. The first is the furry Gurgi (John Byner), we looks very much like a very hairy dog, and is likely meant to be cutesy marketable or comic relief in the typical “Disney sidekick” fashion. Thankfully his role is small and he doesn’t reach anywhere near Jar Jar Binks level of annoyance, but he gets very close. His cowardice doesn't make him very enticing to the audience either. Taran tracks Hen Wen down to a miniature version of Mordor which is apparently within walking distance and gets bullied about by some guards at a castle and is thrown into prison.

Taran is eventually recused from his captivity by Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), who is also there in this castle and can make her way about freely for reasons that are never explained. This is the part of the movie where I realize that it is best not to ask questions, because her appearance got me to thinking about a few things. First, if she’s a princess, does that mean that there are other royals?, a kingdom with an army of mounted men perhaps? Does this land they’re in even have a name? It also doesn't help matters that she is constantly referred to as "Princess", making it easy to forget her mouthful of a name. That's another thing, Eilonwy doesn't do anything "Princess-y". I suspect its just there because this is a fantasy movie, and fantasy movies have princesses, because if she were just an average girl who actually did something, there is no way people would accept it, right? The two also free a middle-aged minstrel named Fflam from the prison and he escapes with the two, but other than that, he serves no real purpose. In the original books (which I can just scarcely remember reading at a young age) Fflam's gimmick was that his harp's strings break whenever he lies. While his harp and breaking strings are present, they are never explained, and his harp disappears halfway through the film anyway.

In the end we see the Horned King uses titular black cauldron to resurrect at least six of the skeleton soldiers from "Jason and the Argonauts". Hardly what I'd call a formidable force, even if they are “indestructible” as we are told. Our heroes bargain for the chance to destroy the cauldron by exchanging the magic sword they found on their travels with a trio of witches. Yeah, because you want to give such a powerful artifact over to witches. Not to mention that it seems to me that you could probably destroy the magic cauldron with a magic sword. But then again, all the seems to make to sword magical, is that it sparkles when it cuts through things. But it turns out that the cauldron can only be destroyed by someone willingly going into it and never returning. Gurgi chooses to go but since he wasn’t a very distinct or likeable character in the first place there is no sense of loss, and when the Horned King's army is defeat, the witches bring Gurgi back to life anyway, which is a serious dramatic contradiction. The only thing that could have been worse is if someone had divided by zero. Also, Taran and Eilonwy kiss and the forest animals blush. I guess they are made for each in that they are both have no real personality. Oh, and Hen Wen the pig went back home to Dallben, and has apparently been there all this time. I'm sure you were all concerned.

While the animation quality is excellent, that comes standard with the Walt Disney Company, by the end there is nothing that is really visually distinct here for you to remember. Characters are introduced with nothing to make them unique, useful or interesting. Arguably Fflam could have been cut out with no great effect, it certainly would have given Taran and Eilonwy more time to connect and develop as characters, with Gurgi acting as moderator perhaps. Ultimately, its most damning flaw is that there is no sense of scale or risk. It is honestly like watching “Lord of the Rings” set in a suburban backyard. We are told there is great danger if the Horned King is able to raise his armies from the Black Cauldron, but we are never really told what the consequences will be if this happens, or what is at stake if our heroes do not succeed in destroying the black cauldron. If there is nothing at risk, then why should the audience care?

Final Score:

Two out of Five. Forgettable.

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