THE BLACK CAULDRONOriginal Medium: Prose fiction
Adapted into animation by: Disney
First Appeared: 1965
Creator: Lloyd Alexander
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Stepchildren have always played a big role in Disney character dynamics. The fact that she was a stepchild was a large factor in the ill-treatment that led to Cinderella's ultimate rise in social standing; and Snow White's status as a stepchild also affected the unfolding of events in her story. Silly Symphonys such as The Ugly Duckling were about stepchildren. It's even possible for a
movie itself, at least metaphorically speaking, to be one big stepchild. For example, The Black Cauldron was treated like a stepchild from the day of its release.
That day (July 24, 1985) occurred during a lackluster period of Disney animation, when the studio was releasing such films as Oliver & Company (1988), The Fox & the Hound (1981) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986), before the late 1980s renaissance, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989) put the studio back on track. But that doesn't fully explain why its heroine, Eilonwy, never became part of the Disney Princesses franchise, despite the fact that she falls squarely within the "princess" demographic. Could the fact that she doesn't "seem" to fit have something to do with the feature itself being a "stepchild"?
Maybe, but that doesn't explain how it came to be a "stepchild" in the first place. Maybe that's because it, almost alone among Disney animated features, isn't a musical. With nobody breaking into song at odd moments, audiences didn't have anything like "He's a Tramp" or "I Got No Strings" to whistle on the way home making the whole experience seem less special, like a Disney cartoon "should" be special.
Another way it stood out from the crowd was its "heroic quest" style plot. In contrast to, say, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, which were about people having fun in exotic places, The Black Cauldron was about a hero trying to prevent an instrument of power from falling into evil hands. The stuff of legend, perhaps, but not of song and dance.
The hero was Taran, who started as a lowly swineherd, a farm worker who tends pigs. He was thrust into adventure when his pig, Hen Wen, was stolen by The Horned King for her oracular powers. The villain hoped Hen Wen might lead him to The Black Cauldron, which has great powers in the area of making war. What a soothsaying pig was doing on a small, out-of-the-way farm in the first place wasn't entirely clear.
The usual rag-tag band of misfits gathered around Taran, just like they'd gathered around Ren and Killraven. In Taran's case, they included Ffleudder Fflam (a middle-aged bard with a melodramatic way of speaking), Gurgi (a cute but annoying creature that stood in place of a dog) and, of course, Eilonwy.
Taran and Eilonwy were voiced by Grant Bardsley (a face actor with no other voice credits) and Susan Sheridan (also a face actress, whose few other voice roles include the young Santa Claus in a 1992 TV movie), respectively. Ffleuddder was Nigel Hawthorne (who also voiced Jane's father in Disney's Tarzan.) Gurgi was John Byner (various minor voices in Rugrats, Duckman and Aaahh! Real Monsters). The Horned King was John Hurt (Trevor Bruttenholm in Hellboy, Adam Sutler in V for Vendetta),
Like 101 Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone and other Disney features, this one was based on a book generally regarded as a modern classic of English-language literature so modern, it's still under copyright, unlike, say, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Beauty & the Beast. The original was published in 1965, as the second book in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series, based loosely on ancient Welsh legends. Neither critics nor the general public gave much indication of having gotten excited over it.