The Black Cauldron is not one of the more well-known or well-liked Disney animated features, but historically it is an important film for many reasons. On the technical side, it was at one time the world's most expensive animated feature ever made, costing a pretty good-sized $25 million back when it was completed in 1985 after years and years of work. It was the first of the Disney animated films to use CGI, and was also the first to use the APT Process, which would replace the Xerography process that had dominated the studio's animated output since 1960. The Black Cauldron is also notable for gestating in the development phase for roughly ten years, before really entering production in the early 1980s.
It also had a lot of potential, especially when you look at the few films that had preceded it...
Many of today's top talent also worked on the film, as it was being produced at a time when Disney was trying to bring in fresh, young blood to carry the baton. The previous feature, The Fox and the Hound, would be the sort-of transition film. Many of the legends such as Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston retired during the production of that film, many of the other legends left when working on The Rescuers in the mid 1970s. The Fox and the Hound proved to be a frustrating and decidedly old-fashioned project for the young turks, who were all for something ambitious. Something groundbreaking, not dissimilar to what Walt was doing during the Golden Age. The upper management at the time, however, wanted to play it safe.
The Black Cauldron began development in the early 1970s, but it stalled and stalled. The management didn't feel like going through with it, it would only fire back up around 1980 when a longtime Disney Feature Animation member named Joe Hale was named producer of the project. The success of The Fox and the Hound in the summer of 1981 gave the studio confidence to go through with it, but from there, there was a battle of different visions. One side of the coin wanted a new age Disney animated feature that was different, the other side wanted a traditional film that wasn't too far from the likes of Snow White. According to one report, the Christmas 1980 theatrical re-release of Lady and the Tramp led to the management declaring that the film would be classical and not new age.
All of this turmoil was what perhaps hurt the script and story, and as it progressed, it seemed like it was going to be a vehicle for special effects more so than a classic Disney story with compelling, likable characters, however...
There is one thing the film had going for it. The team behind the film, and apparently Ron Miller and the 1983-era management, wanted something that was certainly not very suitable for the family audiences that Disney's animated films appealed to. Something that would be more in line with the dark PG-rated fantasy films of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Disney got their feet wet with 1979's live-action flick The Black Hole, a critical and commercial dud, but it lived on to be a cult hit. More PG films followed, even a fantasy film that was a collaboration with Paramount, Dragonslayer. Disney made even PG films by 1983, including TRON, Tex, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. This was before Miller decided to form Touchstone.
This was also before the PG-13 was invented, so back then PG was essentially what PG-13 is today. The Black Cauldron was going to be akin to those films, and not the relatively harmless G-rated Disney fare of the early 1970s. The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound had marked a sort of return to the darker side of Walt's films, the former having a gloomy bayou setting, tense moments, and a lot of Dumbo-esque tearjerking drama. The Fox and the Hound is decidedly and unusually melancholic in tone, especially in its second half. One of the themes it explores certainly elevates it, and makes it a more impressive work than something like the innocuous The Aristocats.
The Black Cauldron would've fit right in line with those dark fantasy films, so much so that sequences of graphic violence were actually animated, and fully inked and painted! Most of this violence would occur during the film's climactic "Cauldron Born" sequence, when the Horned King uses the titular object to re-animate skeletons of dead soldiers, making them his army that will destroy everything and make him ruler of Prydain.
The Black Cauldron was nearing completion in fall 1984, when Ron Miller was ousted and Michael Eisner took his place as CEO. In early 1985, Eisner brought in his Paramount comrade Jeffrey Katzenberg, and he was named Chairman of the studio. Roy E. Disney returned to the studio as well, as he and Miller didn't exactly see eye to eye. The rest?
The stories and exact sequence of events vary depending on who you ask.
Producer Joe Hale said in 2010 that Katzenberg kept telling him "Cut ten minutes". When they cut roughly six minutes, Katzenberg kept ordering him and the crew to cut ten minutes exactly. Then eventually Katzenberg himself took over and sliced minutes that weren't to his liking, resulting in around 12 minutes of cuts overall. A lot of fully animated minutes, no less.
Steve Hulett mentioned Hale and Katzenberg arguing in his new book Mouse in Transition.
Other people, such as animator Michael Peraza in his excellent series Cauldron of Chaos posts, say that cuts were made following a disastrous in-studio screening where parents angrily left with their kids when the infamous "Cauldron Born" sequence started. Katzenberg supposedly did all the cuts from there.
Katzenberg seems to justify what he had done to the picture. It's been written that he specifically wanted those graphic Cauldron Born scenes cut, as he wanted the picture to be family-friendly and not the more teen-and-adult-oriented picture that the studio was intending to make.
While a spot of bloody violence most likely won't make The Black Cauldron a better film, the edits are not seamless. Katzenberg assumed at the time that animation was like live-action, there were other takes and alternate shots. That wasn't in the case in traditional animation, and the animators were shocked when they were asked for outtakes when he was editing the film.
Other rumors and rumblings say that there were other bits of violence that got cut, including ones that were supposedly in the sequence where Taran, Eilonwy, and Fflewddur Fflam escape the Horned King's castle whilst fighting off his goons. There are also rumors that Eilonwy's dress was tearing or getting ripped off in other scenes, but that can't be right considering that four years later, Katzenberg's Disney put out an animated film with a carefully edited scene of a nude girl.
Either way, there are many minutes missing. You can tell when watching certain parts of the film, and certain scenes were re-animated hastily (this was around early 1985, close to the film's theatrical release) to replace what was cut. Taran's journey through the woods in the film's first act is a good example of this. A goon who see for a few seconds in the film that barely speaks is named Moose on a trailer for the film that appears on the 1985 home video release of Pinocchio. The soundtrack jumps (even to the untrained ear) during the rise of the skeletons during the Cauldron Born sequence. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice this...
In the scene where the first crop of skeletons rise, a goon pokes the water with a spear. Then we see a close-up of a skeleton pop out, then we see the two goons behind the man freak out. Then we see a close-up of another baddie. Next shot, the two goons and three skeletons jumping out of the water. What happened to the goon who poked the water? Why did we not get a close-up of that third skeleton?
Apparently there was a full scene showing his demise. Part of it can be seen on the aforementioned original video release of Pinocchio, where we see three close-up shots including that third skeleton! That one pops right into the camera!
And the Pinocchio VHS was printed in spring/early summer of 1985, and was released on July 16, 1985. That's how late in the game the cuts came!
Rumors say that a deleted scene showed that said third skeleton mauling or brutally killing the goon. Cels of a deleted scene show a different goon getting melted by green mist. Or is he? Because we see Taran in the mist in some scenes in the final product, and nothing happens to him. Maybe the scenes of Taran in the mist were animated late in the game? Maybe the mist was originally supposed to be lethal.
Warning for the faint-hearted! Bloody images ahead...
For me, that deleted sequence reminds me of the mass amounts of people melting in the 1981 adult-oriented animated film Heavy Metal, which supposedly had a real influence on Cauldron. I wouldn't rule that out, parts of the film really remind me of Heavy Metal.
When you get the full score by Elmer Bernstein, you'll hear how many seconds got cut.
Other people who have seen the cuts say that there's not much in it, certainly nothing significant.
Peraza said that a negative of the uncut version exists. Peraza personally feels that the film should've been more like Alien, not showing the Cauldron Born too much and creating more tension that way.
I've also heard that Disney considered releasing the uncut version when the film was being prepared for its first ever North American home video release in 1998. Apparently Roy E. Disney was all for it, but they didn't want to go that extra mile. I mean, Disney had held off releasing the film itself in its truncated theatrical form for so long. Supposedly tons of fan-mail finally made them budge, and budge they did... The Black Cauldron's first home video release (VHS only) sports a very shiny, detailed, embossed cover!
My best guess is that Jeffrey Katzenberg and most of the new Disney people saw The Black Cauldron as bad spillover from the Ron Miller era. They wanted to get it off their chests, based on reports I've read. It was the first Disney animated feature to lose money at the box office since Sleeping Beauty, a film released 26 years earlier. Instead of giving it a theatrical re-release to help get it into the black, Disney pretty much pretended the film did not exist even though it was clearly part of the canon. When advertising the following features, they mentioned what number they were, so they sorta-kinda acknowledged that The Black Cauldron existed. Other than that, nothing. No theatrical re-release, video release, anything. They shut the door on it completely...
Not in Europe and other parts of the world, however. It got a re-release - in further edited form - in the early 1990s under the title Taran and the Magic Cauldron. According to someone who posted on Toonzone ages ago (like, 2007?), Disney test screened this version sometime in the late 80s/early 90s in the US. According to Jim Korkis, another alternate title was The Dark Cauldron. If The Black Cauldron got a full-blown re-release in the early 1990s in Europe, then it must've done well overseas. Pieces of the film even appear on Walt Disney Home Video's international montage that was used on non-US/Canada video releases from the late 1980s up until the early 1990s...
The Black Cauldron got its first home media release in 1997 in the UK. The US release followed, and reportedly sold a good 5 million units. Not too shabby! The Black Cauldron was also an early DVD title, as it was issued under the Walt Disney Gold Classic Collection line in fall 2000. Disney gave us a better-looking version in 2003, but that DVD was only released in France and supposedly South Korea. We got that nice transfer in 2010, for the film's 25th anniversary. No plans for a Blu-ray release have been announced as of this writing, but considering that the film turns 30 this summer and it's one of the few Disney animated features left that's not on Blu-ray, I assume we'll get the Blu of it this coming summer. Probably just an upscaled version of the 2010 DVD, same bonus features and cover artwork and all.
So, a lot of fans out there really want to see the pre-Katzenberg cut of The Black Cauldron, including myself.
Now, I'm not insinuating that shots of violence are going to make the super-flawed film any better. The same goes for the arguably unnecessary stuff that was edited out. I think it would still have massive story problems, because the film loses steam after a good first act and the characters are mostly cardboard. Even the look of it isn't all that inspired, though there are some spooky, dark shots that stand out. But I want to see what the animators and filmmaking crew originally intended to put out, the PG-13 fantasy flick that was in mind. I also love seeing animation that gets cut from films, no matter what medium.
If anything, I'd like to see The Black Cauldron get a Blu-ray set that would fully dive into the development and production stages of the film. The history of the film itself is certainly more interesting than the film's storyline, and all the changes and trouble it went through. If anything, I want to see a work print or script of an earlier version. Some bits I've heard sounded pretty cool. The Katzenberg episode is just one but many chapters in the film's long journey to celluloid. There are multiple articles and readings on it, though. Again, Steve Hulett revealed A LOT of details on what was going on with the film back in 1980 and 1981. Stories about the original screenwriter of the film, the creative differences, producer Joe Hale attempting to get the younger artists' ideas (such as Tim Burton's bold designs) into the film, what the management wanted, and so on.
I would love to see a Blu-ray set or a book (preferably by someone like Jim Korkis, who gave us The Vault of Walt and Who's Afraid of 'Song of the South'?) chronicling the entire development and production history of the film. I know bits and pieces: Early development with Mel Shaw and Don Bluth, what Hulett had to say, an article from 1983 that revealed many unused story ideas (while also revealing the big 3D plans the studio had for the film at one point), and the whole Katzenberg fiasco. I'd love to know more though.
It's a very fascinating chapter of Disney history, and we deserve the full story. At the same time, we should be able to see via an adult collector set what the original negative was like. I think Disney certainly had an opportunity when they were making the excellent Walt Disney Treasures sets in the early-to-mid 2000s. But even then, they didn't use that outlet to release the controversial Song of the South. If anything, if that film finally got a US home media release, then I'd think there would be a better possibility of getting the uncut Cauldron.
I know that releasing a PG-13 level edit of a rather obscure film wouldn't be on Disney's current agenda. Disney has all but abandoned the idea of good home media releases outside of their Diamond Editions. Pixar produces their own Blu-ray sets, and they never slack off. Many of the non-Diamond Edition Disney animated films got very underwhelming and in some cases awful sets over the last couple of years, so I assume we'll be lucky to even get the film itself on Blu-ray or a home media format any time soon.
Will Disney license it to the Criterion Collection? Most likely not, though that would be ideal. Disney may like to keep everything under their roof, but they sure don't treat certain things very well. There are hours and hours of content that's just waiting for some kind of release, they don't move. They don't do anything. As Leonard Maltin asked: If Disney is so gung-ho about digital media and the cloud, where are the episodes of the classic Disneyland TV series? Where are the episodes of the classic Disney TV Animation/Disney Afternoon cartoons? To say nothing of their other TV shows and live-action films. I mean, they haven't even given us proper season sets for their current animated shows (where are the Phineas & Ferb season sets? Gravity Falls? TRON: Uprising?) or live-action shows.
So will Disney release the film itself? Who knows, and while it's probably unlikely that they'll officially release an uncut version of The Black Cauldron, it doesn't hurt to try and ask for it...
And that's exactly what a fan named Brian Martin has been doing. He's been reaching everyone he can with his petition, people who worked on the film and several others no less. I signed, even though it might not work out in the end. If you want to sign, here's the link. One thing is for certain, if I ever got to see a work print of a pre-Katzenberg version of the film - be it the original negative or an even earlier iteration of the film, I'd tell you right away on here...