Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Remake I Can Get Behind?: Disney Planning a 'Chronicles of Prydain' Film

This is a real shocker.

Well, it is if you already know my stance on Disney making live-action remakes of their animated classics.

Remakes that are really just remakes of Disney's versions of these stories, rather than new takes on the stories they adapted in the first place. There are some exceptions. Tim Burton did it with his Alice in Wonderland, and it looks like Pete's Dragon will be nothing like the original, to the point where it makes one ask... Why didn't they just make it an original dragon story? Oh, but you gotta have that recognizable name to get in the crowds, sorry.

Anyways, I'm no fan of this movement at the Disney live-action house. It's even more annoying to me that these remakes make for about 90% of the division's slate, as non-rehashy stuff has quickly been kicked out the door in the past two years. Even if this summer's The BFG turns a nice profit, I don't think it's going to matter. I'll only believe there's some hope for a little more originality here until projects like A Wrinkle in Time, Floors, Goblins, and several others are actually being filmed.

So after all the news of things like Dumbo and Winnie the Pooh and Pinocchio getting the live-action remake treatment, here comes a story I'm not upset about it... Almost at all, really...

Disney plans to revisit Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain. What's that, you ask? It's the book series that Disney Feature Animation adapted over 30 years ago, into the infamous The Black Cauldron...

Okay, someone reading might ask... What is The Black Cauldron? Disney doesn't seem to care if people know about it or not nowadays, but here's what it is... It's a 1985 Disney animated feature based on those high fantasy books, real swords-and-sorcery tales based on Welsh folklore. It has something of a reputation based on two things, really... #1) It was a money-loser at the box office and nearly jeopardized the animation studio, and #2) It happened to be the first Disney animated feature to receive the coveted PG rating. We're talking post-1984 PG, here... Though I'd argue that a lot of the earlier Walt films were scarier than it.

It was a ridiculously troubled production, with development work stretching back to 1971... Fourteen years before the picture finally hit the big screen! As many a historian knows, the 1970s was a transitional age for the Walt-less animation studio. 1971 Disney Feature Animation (or simply just Walt Disney Productions back then) was a bit different from, say, 1978 Disney Animation. In the early 1970s, there was a push to stay safe as financial troubles lingered. The Aristocats and Robin Hood, two rather run-of-the-mill comedy romps that probably belong in the early 1960s more so than the early 1970s, were a result of this environment.

Then, newly-hired, young animators wanted ambition. Cool stuff. Things that would do something new, in the same way Snow White and Fantasia did roughly 35 years earlier. Things ramped up with 1977's The Rescuers, a picture that showcases more energy and ambition than Aristocats and Robin Hood. After its runaway success, it seemed like Disney was going to tread back into the waters that Walt explored with his early features. The upper brass, however, made the move forward difficult. One of the animators who was very disillusioned with the climate, whose last name rhymes with tooth, marched out of the studio with over ten other animators. It was a huge blow, and caused many setbacks to the pipeline.

(For those who are confused, the tooth-man is Don Bluth. He'd go on to make The Secret of NIMH and kickstart the 2nd Golden Age of Animation with his big 1986 hit An American Tail, and also gave us films like The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, and Anastasia.)

Disney was stalling by 1980, the in-production The Fox and the Hound being an odd mix of Rescuers' forward-thinking vibe and the stodgy, staleness of the early 70s output. The Black Cauldron was inching closer to production during this time as well, despite a lot of behind-the-scenes drama and persisting creative differences between all the people involved. Such a confused and muddled environment lead to questionable decisions being made, decisions that kept The Black Cauldron from being the animated fantasy epic it could've and should've been.

It's a film that shows it went through hell, but not in a good way. Sometimes a troubled production turns out a winner, just watch Pinocchio and see what I mean. Sometimes, it does not, and The Black Cauldron is a fine example of this. Not a bad film, but its story is mostly rote, the characters are kinda cardboard, and outside of some glitzy fx work and then-groundbreaking use of CGI, it's just middle-of-the-road at best. It should've been like Star Wars, or The Dark Crystal, or The Neverending Story, or any good early 1980s fantasy film.

Really, its budget was its undoing, a record $25 million at the time. The picture didn't really appeal much, either. It was released after the tumultuous final stretch of CEO Ron Miller's run, which meant that the new management - namely Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg - found it necessary to simply dump the yucky spillover so they could clean their hands of it. After it lost money, there was actually talk of dismantling Disney's feature animation studio. Imagine that! But Roy E. Disney was a strong voice, as was the legacy Disney Animation left over the decades, but there was a brief compromise. Budgets on the next few pictures would be much smaller, but that went out the window once big money was being made in animation again. Thank Don Bluth and Steven Spielberg for that, if it weren't for An American Tail, there probably wouldn't have been an animation renaissance. Or at least at that time.

The film has a bad reputation because of all that, and it didn't help that the Eisner-Katzenberg regime buried it. It didn't receive a theatrical re-release in the US, only a test re-release was done sometime in the late 80s/early 90s. Overseas it was re-released, and it took thirteen years for the picture to hit home video in North America. By 1998, Disney was scraping the bottom of the barrel with the animated features, finally getting the last and "least desirable" ones out.

The flopping had less to do with the perceived quality of the picture than what was going on at the time at the mouse house.

So I think a live-action adaptation of the five books is actually not a bad idea, considering that this is a rare instance where Disney Animation didn't quite get it right the first time. I have objections to something like a remake of Walt's Cinderella or Disney's Beauty and the Beast, because those animated films are high quality works. They don't need to be "bettered", or remade just for a buck and to please insecure animation-avoiding teens. New takes on those stories are also arguably redundant. The Chronicles of Prydain books are in need of a proper adaptation, and the 1985 Disney animated film is the only cinematic adaptation that exists.

What would truly please me would be this: If the new Prydain movie is animated, or done by a separate animation studio for Disney so it's not part of the canon. You know what I'm talking about? Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Nightmare Before Christmas weren't Disney Feature Animation productions, yet they were still animated pictures made for Disney. Same goes for things like Enchanted and Frankenweenie, not to mention the scrapped Disney Double Dare You project. However, that's definitely not going to happen, so live-action it is.

Anyways, as long as it attempts to adapt the books faithfully and not be like the 1985 film, consider me a bit interested. There's probably not much of a strong nostalgic connection to The Black Cauldron amongst people my age, as it's not a very well-known or well-respected film. This makes me believe that they'll work to make their film different in almost every way, if it's too close to the animated film, then I'll have issues.

What do you think of this project being a possibility at Disney's live-action department?


  1. I want to see the Horned king in live action

  2. I'm excited! I'm one of the few people who really enjoys Black Cauldron, despite its issues. I'm well aware of the production woes, how no one really believed in it, and can concede that the story is a little rote. But I love Taran and Eilonwy and think the Horned King is one of Disney's most distinct and fascinating villains. I'd love to see an animated version that's not part of the canon or a live action film. I feel like the latter has the potential to make it super compelling to audiences today.

  3. I honestly don't see the problem with Disney remaking their animated films as long as they respect the original, bring in some new elements (like how the upcoming Jungle Book plans to bring in more references to the book than the original and be little more darker while also maintaing the spirit and tone of the original animated film),and are good films in general. If they are less like Alice in Wonderland and are more like Cinderella they could end up being good maybe even great films.

  4. Funny thing though is that Disney made another animated film that was just as dark, over 10 years later, during their "renaissance" period but at a time when politics have changed at Disney again: that movie, was "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".

    Both Black Cauldron and Hunchback aren't acknowledged as much as their more happier family friendly movies, which explains their obscurity (Disney's live action "Return to Oz" which itself was a leftover of a pet project of Walt's, was criticized for being too dark as well).