Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Black Cauldron

My attempts to turn my home rehearsal studio into a private ice rink, in order to prepare routines for my new Aida on Ice, have not worked out as well as I had hoped. Mr. Brad, my interior designer, promised me a floor of ice, smooth as glass, instead, I have a wonderful collection of mildew, warped parquet, and a new stream carving its way through the south lawn on its way to Johnny Carson's house. He was over here this morning waving a rake and acting like a deranged lunatic. I very nearly had to call the police to come take him away. Anyway, I spent the weekend looking for an alternate facility for rehearsals and finally found a little rink tucked away off Pico and La Cienega called Rosita's Ice-A-Rama. What a family of Guatemalans is doing running an ice facility, I'm sure I could not say, but the price is reasonable and we were able to work out a schedule for rehearsals around midget hockey and beginning figure skating. 

Tonya Harding and I were down there this afternoon working on some basic moves for some of my big solo spots. I see the show as sort of a battle of classical ballet versus jazz in the Egyptian/Ethiopian struggle that underlies the plot. As the lead Ethiopian, my routines will showcase my big jazzy show dancing style versus the dainty moves and tutus of the Egyptian chorines. Bob Mackie, using the Matthew Bourne
 Swan Lake as an inspiration, is coming up with such innovative ideas for the ensemble. He even has some great feathered head dresses on the drawing board for the elephants and the leopards. 

After an exhausting few hours of trying to do a time step in figure eights, I came home and collapsed in the plush Ottoman splendor of my home theater (only the carpet around the door has gotten damp from the recent flood). There, I discovered the 1985 Walt Disney film,
 The Black Cauldron sitting in my 'to view' pile so I settled in for an hour and a half of Celtic mythology and evil magic. 

The Black Cauldron
 was Disney's 25th animated feature and dates from just before the revitalization of the animation unit under Michael Eisner in the late 80s. During the previous decade, Disney had turned out a number of lesser animated films, squandering the great legacy of animation that had made the studio famous. Various styles and formulae were tried without much success. For The Black Cauldron, the studio attempted a darker, more daring feature that might appeal to older audiences as well as families with children and it was their first animated production to receive a PG rating for some of its more grotesque images. The source material was Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain a series of five novels for young readers from the sixties which used Celtic folklore and mythology as their basis and in which the universal themes of the young, untried hero coming of age in a quest are prominent. The second of the Chronicles is entitled The Black Cauldron and tells of how the hero, young Taran, must go in search of an evil cauldron, hidden by three witches in the marshes of Morva in order to foil his powerful enemies. 

For the film, Disney took pieces of the first novel,
 The Book of Three, the second novel, and various other characters and incidents from elsewhere in the series. They then seem to have inserted them all in a blender and pressed 'puree'. Fully nine writers are credited with the screenplay which is, quite frankly, an appalling mess. In certain scenes, the movie wants to be a twee comedy along the lines of The Gnomemobile while in others, it's reaching for something scarily adult and more Stephen King. I have the impression that studio execs were looking at footage in the screening room and then running back to the art department going 'more for the kids' or 'more laughs', completely misunderstanding the kind of film the source material would require and more and more script doctors made things worse and worse. 

The plot, as far as I can determine, follows young Taran (Grant Bardsley), assistant pig-keeper to a magical white pig who can foretell the future. When the evil horned king (John Hurt), hears of the wondrous porker, Taran is sent into hiding with the pig, promptly losing her in the process. He ends up a prisoner in the Horned Kings evil castle, but eventually escapes with the help of the Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan) and the decayed minstrel Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne) with his truthful harp. This mismatched trio, along with the forest creature Gurgi (John Byner) then set out to find and destroy the magical black cauldron of the title before the Horned King can find it and use it to create an army of cauldron-born undead. They reach the end of their quest only through cooperation, bargaining, and, ultimately, sacrifice.

Taran and Eilonwy, the young hero and heroine, are bland Disney creations and little is done to give them any personality beyond that of suburban teen. They're an excuse for the plot. Fflewddur, with the old pro Hawthorne providing vocal talent, fares a bit better and his constant battles with truth and his harp are enjoyable. Gurgi, so vividly realized in the books, here becomes a cross between, Mark Twain, a small dust mop and an English sheep dog and looks like he was designed to sell thousands of beanie babies, rather than give us a creature out of folklore. The less said about the rendering of the fairy-folk, the better. Let's just say that they've got the Smurfs beat by a mile on the saccharine meter.

The truly magnificent creation is The Horned King. Here is a classic Disney villain, perhaps the finest vision of animated evil since the
 Night on Bald Mountain sequence from Fantasia. He's scary, cloaked in shadow and the special effects animation behind him and his cauldron born as he attempts his takeover of Prydain is wondrous to behold. If the studio had trusted the vision that produced this facet of the film and hadn't over compensated with the bland heroes and comic relief, they might have had a classic. 

The visuals are impressive, many of the backgrounds are lovingly realized watercolors that evoke the places of western Britain without being truly of any special place or time. As mentioned above, the fire and water and effects animation in some of the action set pieces is magnificent and the film is worth viewing for this alone. Unlike most Disney cartoons, this film is not a musical. The plot is so opaque, I have no idea how they'd fit production numbers into it, even though there are moments when characters seem about to burst into song. The score, by Elmer Bernstein, sounds like warmed over Willy Russell and I kept expecting someone to reference Marilyn Monroe.

This is a film for Disney animation completists. It's not one to pop into the player to entertain young children on a rainy afternoon. It's too confusing and too scary for the very young and the older ones will see all the shortcomings. Give them a set of the books instead.

The DVD contains the film in original theatrical ratio. It's a good transfer visually but the soundtrack is tinny and, at times, not well balanced. The only significant extra is a World War II era Donald Duck short about Halloween that's not particularly funny.

Mud rolling. Apple eating. Twin dragon things. Gratuitous cutesy-poo fairies. Gratuitous over sexed female witch. Battlement diving. Magic sword. Magic bauble. Magic cauldrons. Sacrificial swan dive.

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