Awaking the Living Dead: The Lost potential of The Black Cauldron

Over the years, The Black Cauldron has been called Disney’s forgotten film, Disney’s biggest flop, and the film that Disney doesn’t want you to remember exists. While I wouldn’t go so far to say that the film is terrible, it is definitely no Beauty and the Beast. The sad thing is, The Black Cauldron was actually Disney’s 25th animated feature and a film many thought was a potential masterpiece. The film was based on an extremely popular and exciting series of children’s books written by Lloyd Alexander.  Much of the initial visual development and character art was created by artists with unique styles like Mel Shaw, Mike Ploog, and Tim Burton. Their designs were absolutely beautiful and would have led to a visually stunning film had they come to fruition. The film was also going to be technologically cutting-edge, using a variety of new animation techniques created by Disney’s very experienced Visual Effects animation department. So what exactly happened? This was another very chaotic time in the Studio’s history. The famous Nine Old Men who had made most of Disney’s classics were in the midst of retiring while a new crop of very green and very excited animators from Cal Arts were just coming in. At the same time, the company’s executive branch was in the midst of a shakeup, with Walt Disney’s son in-law, Ron Miller, being replaced as head of the studio mid-production. These problems higher-up lead to problems in the films development. A lack of communication and experience coupled with a struggle between those who feared the company going in new directions and those who wanted to push the boundaries of what a Disney film could be lead to the chaotic mess that is The Black Cauldron. My goal in this article is to help explain the complicated development story of the Black Cauldron and how it went from a film with the potential shown in the gorgeous visual development art below, to the lackluster product Disney tries to push into the shadows.


The Journey Begins


The Black Cauldron was a project that Disney was really banking on to be a hit. The Studio first acquired the rights to the popular Chronicles of Pyrdain series by Lloyd Alexander in 1971. The five book series followed the adventures of Taran the assistant pig keeper and the magical princess Eilonwy The series was heavily based in Welsh folklore and was often compared to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Disney thought that a film based on these books would put Disney Animation back on the map after the problems following Walt Disney’s death. They wanted to create an epic film would be considered the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of the post-Walt generation of animators. They even used the film as a selling point in their employment brochures, hoping that it would recruit even more talented animators to the studio. It was a strategy that worked quite well and many young animators who are now greats in the industry were attracted by this pamphlet and the The Black Cauldron.


There were many incredibly talented artists working on the film in the early visual development stages. The studio called Disney veteran Mel Shaw who had worked on films like Bambi, to create visual development paintings. The result was some incredibly gorgeous and dramatic pastel fantasy illustrations that many of the other studio artists took their inspiration from. Though the drawings were beautiful, they implied a film with a much darker tone than Disney had been recently creating.




Disney colour stylist and background painter James Coleman followed suit with some equally dark and beautiful concept paintings for the film. Especially striking were his paintings of the faire folk and their land.



To try to get the film to connect with modern audiences, Disney animators also looked to some modern comic illustrators for help. One of these was Mike Ploog, who was well known for his work on horror comics. He created some dark creepy concept drawings that focused mainly on the undead cauldron born, the witches, the horned king, and the castle dungeons.  His work also pointed the film in a much darker direction.



An interesting dark tone was also being brought to the film by a young artist named Tim Burton. Before becoming a famous director, Tim Burton worked as a Disney animator during the 70s and 80s and was assigned to the task of creating character concepts for The Black Cauldron. His concepts for the various monsters in the film were different than anything that had ever come out of Disney before, and they really excited many of the other animators.


Tim Burton Creature.jpg


Not only was The Black Cauldron going to be artistically innovative, but the studio planned to make it their most technologically innovative film as well. The decision was made to make the film in 70mm, a super wide screen form of film that was so costly that it had not been used by Disney since Sleeping Beauty. They also proposed to use a new special effect to compete in the Hollywood blockbuster market, holograms.  During the film’s climax, one of the zombie monsters featured in the film would have appeared in the audience in hologram form. Unfortunately, the special effect never came to fruition, as it was decided that the hologram technology would have been too expensive to develop, and too impractical to expect theaters to install. Due to budgetary reasons, the hologram, and many other proposed special effects, like the stop motion background elements experimented with in these photos, were all eventually cut.


But not all the technical innovations proposed for the film were rejected. The film’s very experienced special effects team came up with many innovative techniques. The Black Cauldron was one of the first Disney films to use computers and CG animation. Although Disney technically lists the 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective as their first animated film to use CG images, that’s not entirely true. The CG gears in The Great Mouse Detective were the first CG element made for a Disney film, but after the computer team had successfully fulfilled that task, they were asked to create a few CG elements for The Black Cauldron. Eilnowy’s magical bauble, some scenes of the row boat, elements of the witches’ magic, and even a few scenes with the cauldron used CG elements.  The film was also the debut of another important, but more subtle advancement to animation, the APT process. This was an upgrade on Disney’s old Xerox process of transferring drawings onto translucent cels. The new process allowed the drawings to be transferred with coloured outlines rather than the solid black outlines that had been used since 101 Dalmatians. This was a very small change which actually greatly enhanced the look of the animation.  These technological developments were some of the few good ideas that actually made it into the final film.

So you see, The Black Cauldron started out with a ton of potential to be a really memorable classic Disney film. The story was grand and exciting, a combination of Disney veterans and fresh newcomers were creating some really edgy and exciting concept art, and the special effects department was working with a lot of innovative techniques. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.


Chaos Erupts


So what exactly went wrong? To start with, the film was made during what was probably the most chaotic time in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios.  After Walt Disney’s death, the animators separated into three groups that did not get along .First there was the Disney veterans, led by the few remaining Nine Old Men who had not yet retired. Then there were the animators lead by Don Bluth, people who had worked under the Nine Old Men and felt they had never gotten their opportunity to shine. Finally, there were the newcomers, which consisted of a bunch of inexperienced, but energetic animators from Cal Arts. Many of the problems that occurred in the production of The Black Cauldron were the result of the tensions between these groups.

As I said, Disney had owned the film rights to the Chronicles of Pyrdain books since 1971, but development on the film didn’t really begin until 1980. This was because the head of Disney at the time, Ron Miller, didn’t think the newer animators were experienced enough to conquer the challenge of such an epic tale. This did not sit well with Don Bluth, who was considered one of the best animators at the studio. He was impatient to work on more challenging and prestigious films, especially The Black Cauldron. He was annoyed and offended by Ron Millers underestimating of his and the rest of the animator’s abilities. So in 1979, he left the studio and took 13 of the more experienced Disney artists and animators with him to create his own studio, leaving Disney with a staff made up of mostly near retirees and newcomers. It was the first blow to The Black Cauldron’s potential that occurred before development had really even begun.

The tensions between those in charge continued to make things worse and worse for the film. Early on, Art Stevens was chosen as producer on the film and John Musker was chosen as a director. Things seemed to be going smoothly with this arrangement, until The Fox and the Hound wrapped up and the directors from that film, Ted Berman and Richard Rich, joined the production. They decided to change around basically everything that had been done on the film so far, which didn’t sit well with those who had been already working on it. With all this fighting, Ron Miller decided Art Stevens was not a strong enough producer to lead the film, so he was fired and replaced by layout artist Joe Hale.  Then the other directors started to push John Musker off the project, giving him less and less to do until he finally left to direct The Great Mouse Detective with Ron Clements. The studio became filled with confusion, miscommunication, and disagreements that destroyed the once extremely promising The Black Cauldron.

The first place things started to far apart was with the film’s story. Early on the decision was made to base the film on the first two books in the series and ignore the last three altogether. The Horned King, a minor villain in one of the books became the main villain of the film. Storyboard artist Vance Gerry was put in charge of coming up with the main story beats and the characters’ personalities.  For example, he made the decision to make the Horned King and his henchmen a group of larger-than-life comedic Vikings to keep the film from being too dark. Slowly Gerry’s initial ideas were thrown out for being too comedic, and the film’s story got darker, more complicated, and further away from the books. With all the tension, many of the people working of the film’s story hardly ever communicated with each other, causing the films plot to become episodic and confusing. A British screenwriter, Rosemary Anne Sisson was eventually hired to write a more complete script. Unfortunately, she and the directors quickly ran into creative differences, so she finished the script she was payed to write and then left the directors to make the film with no more of her input.  To make things even more chaotic, midway through the film’s production, the directors decided to take over directing each other’s assigned scenes. This lead to tons of rewrites and discarded work, with whole scenes being thrown out and replaced by inferior versions, simply because the director wanted to make changes (an example of one of these needlessly thrown-out sequences is the original introduction of the faire folk, which can be watched here ) . With all this going on in the story department, it’s no wonder the film’s plot turned into a complicated, episodic, and sometimes even pointless mess.


The character design department carried a lot of tensions as well. As I showed earlier, many of the young animators wanted to try out new styles of design that deviated from what the company had done in the past. However, the veterans at the studio were hesitant to change what had always worked. That is why Vance Gerry’s comedic Viking horned-king above was discarded in favor of a scary villain that many considered a male version of Maleficent.

MBCB 8.jpeg


The directors and producers were so worried about making a big break from the old “Disney style” that they contacted a retired member of the Nine Old Men,  Milt Kahl, for help designing the characters. Milt Kahl was a fantastic animator, but in the past he had relied on early concept art to guide his character designs. This time the studio did not send him any concept art to work with, only an idea of the film’s story. Kahl was forced to create drawings out of basically nothing, which meant many of his character designs ended up bearing a strong resemblance to old Disney characters. His drawings of Taran were a mix of Peter Pan, Arthur, and Mowgli, his Eilonwy could have been sisters with Alice and Briar Rose, and  his drawings of Fflewder Flam are Roger from 101 Dalmatians in a different costume.  Although many of Kahl’s designs were later tweaked or rejected, the directors loved his designs for Taran and Eilnowy.  They ordered them kept unchanged, despite how recycled they looked compared to the fresh new ideas created by others.



And those amazing creatures Tim Burton had designed? While producer Joe Hale found them to be fascinating, he and the directors again worried that they were not “Disney” enough. Animator Andreas Deja was instructed to “disneyfy” Burton’s designs.  He tried to find a good compromise between what the directors and producers wanted and Tim Burton’s unique style, but by his own admission felt that Burton’s designs lost their unique essence in the transformation.  In the end, the creatures in the film ended up looking like typical fantasy dragons, dwarfs, and witches.



There was another major problem with these final character designs, they were too complicated and realistic for the inexperienced animators who were used to more cartoony designs. Many of them struggled to reach their drawing quotas while still keeping the characters on-model.  The new animators also had very little experience with making their characters act realistically and emotionally in their drawings. Many fell back onto using cliché and unexciting acting patterns for their characters. The end result was a bunch of characters that fell flat, seemed unmotivated, and failed to connect with their audiences, one of the biggest problems an animated film can have.




Just as the film was nearing the end of production Ron Miller was replaced as head of the Walt Disney Company by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. They in turn appointed Jeffrey Katzenberg as head of the Studio, a man who knew literally nothing about animation.  Upon beginning their new positions, the three screened what had been completed of the film. They hated it, and so did the audiences of parents and children that came to the early test screenings of the film. Despite the efforts to “Disneyfy” the look of the film, the film’s content had actually become quite dark, scary, and violent. Katzenberg, not quite understanding how animated films were made, asked for 10 minutes of the film to be cut immediately. It is incredibly expensive to cut scenes out of an animated film, because it means hundreds of drawings being thrown out. Most cuts are made before animation is begun in the storyboard phase, and if finished animation is cut, the editing rarely turns out looking as seamless as it would in a live-action film. Still, Katzenberg demanded that scenes of the film were cut, and since everyone else refused to do it, he himself cut out a total of 12 minutes of completed animation. Although he cut some of the scariest sequences from the film, the editing is sloppily done. Large plot-holes are left open due to missing scenes, and the final battle between Taran and the Horned King is truncated to the point of not making sense. At one particularly noticeable point, a symbol crash in the musical score is cut in half thanks to the sloppy editing used to cut a particularly scary scene. The scene in question showed two of the Horned King’s henchman getting their flesh melted off by the magic of the black cauldron. Below are a few cells from this deleted sequence, and honestly they are incredibly gruesome, so you may not want to look. It’s not hard to understand why they were removed, but the decision ought to have been made much earlier in the production.




Thanks to these and many other complications and mistakes, The Black Cauldron ended up fulfilling none of its early potential. It was not the new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs so many had hoped for, but a very expensive failure.  Upon release, the film’s reviews were terrible, with most critics picking apart its confusing story and flat characters, as well as warning parents that the film was much too dark and scary for their children. As a result, very few people went to see it, and in the end it only made about 21 million dollars. Considering the film cost 25 million dollars to make, it was a complete disaster. To add insult to injury, the film was beat out in its opening weekend by the childish and poorly animated Care Bear Movie.

The Black Cauldron could have been a great film with an exciting story, beautiful animation, and cutting-edge effects. It was created by an unusual and promising combination of excited new recruits and experienced Disney veterans. Yet, every step of the way something seemed to go wrong. Constant tension between various members of the studio lead to a lack of communication and sometimes even outright disagreements. Changes were made, not for the good of the film, but for the sake of change. The film’s story moved far away from the original books, and became dark, scary, and unnecessarily confusing. The unique concept art and character designs created by many of the brilliant studio artists were praised by the producer, but ultimately rejected in favour of safe, repetitive designs. The inexperienced new animators left behind after Don Bluth’s exit were assigned characters that were much too complicated for many of them, and the characters suffered in their realism as a result. Finally, when the film was nearly ready for release, the studio was taken over by new executives who hated it, so much so that they were willing to cut 12 minutes of footage, an unheard of move for an animated film. The result of all this was one of the darkest films in the Disney canon and a failure that did so badly in theatres it caused serious financial trouble. But The Black Cauldron was not a complete disaster for Walt Disney Animation, it ended up being an important learning experience for all those involved with many of the people who worked on the film going on to be incredibly successful animators and directors. Though it failed to be the masterpiece envisioned in the concept art made by Mel Shaw, it became an important stepping stone on the road towards the classics made in the Disney Renaissance just a few years later.



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Image Credit


Image 1: Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules
Image 2: ‘Disney is Looking’
Images 3, 21, and 26: ‘” The Black Cauldron” : What Went Wrong’
Images 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 20, 23, 24, and 25: ‘The Black Cauldron (1985) – Concept & Production Art’
Images 6 and 7:
Image 10: ‘The Witches of Morva.’
Image 11: ‘Flying Hands’
Image 13: ‘Cauldron of Chaos, Part 2’
Image 14: ‘”Mouse in Transition”: Cauldron of Confusion (Chapter 10)’
Image 15, 17, and 18: ‘Milt Kahl’s Black Cauldron’
Image 16: ‘Trying Too Hard’
Image 19: ‘A Blast from the Past’
Image 21:

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