The Troubled Development of The Black Cauldron


The Black Cauldron is considered one of Disney’s Cult Classic films. In the 1980s a lot of “kids films” would have dark and scary imagery that would really push that PG rating– Secret of Nimh, Watershed Down, Return to Oz, Labyrinth, Never-Ending Story etc. However, when Disney tried to do something different and more in line with the darker films it was considered one of their biggest failures.

Now The Black Cauldron has grown a small, yet dedicated fanbase.. So how did this all start?

In the 1980s Disney was going through some rough times, worried that someone might buy them out or that they’d have to sell off certain divisions just to stay afloat. Then Disney President, Ron Miller, wanted to try and breathe new life into the animation division at the company and make their “next big hit”. He decided to try an epic fantasy by acquiring the film rights to the book series The Chronicles of Prydain by author Lloyd Alexander.

The first concept was to condense all five books into a single film but after they realized it would be too long of a film they instead adapted the first two books with the possibility of continuing the story in the future.

Ron Miller had high hopes for the project and wanted to make sure that the best animators at the studio,  specifically the “Disney Veterans”, who were the animators that came after the Nine Old Men. These animators were in charge of the new film while the 2nd and 3rd generation animators would work on smaller projects like The Rescuers and The Fox and The Hound.

When The Black Cauldron was set to start production, Legendary Animator, Don Bluth, was set to help helm the project, but after multiple delays he felt frustrated that Ron Miller wouldn’t let the younger staff prove themselves and he spoke out publicly about it in places like The New York Times.

After much tension Don took almost half the younger animators with him and started his own Legacy of films, which had a big impact on the Black Cauldron‘s production. 

As time went on the film finally started taking shape with John Musker set to Direct and Art Stevens wet to Produce. Then an upcoming artist, Tim Burton, worked on various character designs and sketches, but his work was later discarded.

Production became frantic when Ted Berman and Richard Rich were brought on as additional directors. Art Stevens was made the 4th director while Joe Hale became the film’s producer, causing John Musker to leave the project in favor of The Great Mouse Detective.

Glenn Keen was then brought in to do the new character designs however his art resembled a lot of his older designs. Effectively the project became a too many cooks in the kitchen situation.

Tim Burton’s Concept Art for ‘The Black Cauldron’

In 1984, Ron Miller stepped down as CEO and Michael Eisner took his place and Jeffery Katzenberg was brought in to oversee the animation division. When he saw the Black Cauldron he thought it was too dark to be considered a “Disney Film” and said the film needed to be edited down by 10 minutes.

Joe Hale thought it was a ridiculous request as most of the film had already been finished, so Katzenberg edited it himself. The amount of footage he edited out equated to about 10 minutes, though each scene he took out was about 15 – 30 seconds at a time, leading to a number of awkward jump cuts and cut dialogue. 

The film finally released in 1985 to mixed critical reviews. Angry parents thought the film was too dark and this led to a less than desirable box office given how much the film’s troubled production costed the studio.

It did so poorly it was outperformed by The Care Bears Movie which came out around the same time. The studio was disappointed at the troubled development of the film and how the source material was wasted. Despite a popular rumor, the film did not almost kill Disney. And a few years later The Little Mermaid released bringing a new era for the company.

Since the film’s initial bomb it has had a amassed a following due to it being very unique when compared to the other Disney films of that era.

People enjoying the dark tone, the setting, the characters and the stellar animation. When the film was first released on home video a new generation of fans was introduced to the dark world of Prydain. I recent years it has become known the the original Pre-Katzenberg cut exists inside Disney’s vault of past works, yet the full version hasn’t been seen outside the studio for decades.

Apparently Producer Joe Hale spoke with Roy E. Disney about restoring the Pre-Katzenberg cut of the film, saying: “I talked with Roy about restoring the cuts when I learned that it would be put on a VCR Tape. 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 through that expense for the release of the tape“. Kinda reminds me of when he went back on his promise to help Richard Williams finish The Theif and the Cobbler.

In 2016 Disney renewed the license for The Chronicles of Prydain, leading many to believe that they might revisit the series with a live-action film or television series. Now, in the days of Disney Plus. that seems all the more plausible. If they do decide to go through with it I only hope they try to faithfully adapt the books as I myself enjoy them.

By the way for those who say Princess Eilonwy should be part of the Disney Princess lineup, that likely isn’t going to happen because Disney doesn’t own the character. She is property of the Alexander Estate. It’s like saying Susan and Lucy from Narnia should be in the lineup.

What do you think of this film? Do you have memories of watching it when you were younger? Did it leave an impression on you?

Sources: Animated Views

Pirates & Princesses (PNP) is an independent, opinionated fan-powered news blog that covers Disney and Universal Theme Parks, Themed Entertainment and related Pop Culture from a consumer's point of view. Opinions expressed by our contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of PNP, its editors, affiliates, sponsors or advertisers. PNP is an unofficial news source and has no connection to The Walt Disney Company, NBCUniversal or any other company that we may cover.