Film Review – The Black Cauldron (1985)


The Black Cauldron
Directors: Ted Berman, Richard Rich
Writers: Lloyd Alexander (novel), David Jonas (story)
Starring: Grant Bardsley, Freddie Jones, Susan Sheridan

Runtime: 80 min

Reviewer: Kyle Rees

In an era where Dungeons & Dragons was depriving girls of their boyfriends and corrupting the minds of our children with the Devil, Disney made the lucrative decision to animate a film of the Medieval, High Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery genre, and corner the pale-skinned basement-dwelling niche. Having already borrowed from Arthurian legend in The Sword in the Stone (Reitherman, 1963), they opted instead for an adaptation of the novel series The Chronicles of Prydain, a monomythical epic by authorial genius Lloyd Alexander, also betraying Welsh & Norse mythology, under the title The Black Cauldron (Berman, Rich, 1985). The film is remembered, or rather not remembered, as the box office disaster that plunged Disney into an even deeper financial crisis, lynched by critics for its sketchy animation, superficial characterisation and tenuously contrived narrative, and consequently swept under the rug to be forgotten. But with all deserted media follows a cult, and while it remains the unseemly Black Sheep of the Disney family, The Black Cauldron remains highly venerated by a small but passionate fandom, who perceive the film as, perhaps, misunderstood.

As far as Sword & Sorcery goes, The Black Cauldron ticks pretty much every emblematic box, while also contributing an original, imaginative take on the genre; an orphaned assistant pig-keeper dreaming of gallantry, a clairvoyant pig, an imprisoned Princess accompanied by a magical orb, a whimsical bard equipped with a lie detecting harp, an Excaliburesque Enchanted Sword, a subterranean civilisation of fairies, a trio of Wicked Witches, and a sepulchral, satyr-like satanic sovereign with diabolical designs to transfigure the world to as charnel and grim a form as his own, a veritable lovechild of Maleficent and Skeletor. There is one particular archetypal figure this analysis is to focus upon however: the fairy tale creature found by the hero along the road, the ally, the sidekick, the menacing trickster, embodied in The Black Cauldron by Gurgi, the furry, rhyming, craven thief whose destiny is tied to that of the protagonist Taran’s, and to the occult Black Cauldron itself. 

GurgiGurgi is reminiscent of many figures from historic folklore and modern fiction, including Gollum, the two-faced guide speaking in 3rd person, and Jar Jar Binks, the clumsy cowardly caricature, thus revealing the ambivalence in his reception by audiences; for many the epitome of why the film is poor, but for others, the cuddliest and most colourful feature. He is a peculiar creature of fiction, an anthropomorphic animal of some strange simian or canine species, or something between an imp and a troll. His role in the film initially functions to introduce Taran, and the audience, to the fantastical world of Prydain beyond the comfort of the ordinary home, an incarnation of all things strange and unfamiliar out there in the “Special World. He also serves as the principle agent of comic relief, maintaining the brighter side of the increasingly dark world. But more than a mere plot device, Gurgi embodies the Guardian Angel assigned to Taran by celestial and cosmic forces unknown, the two colliding in the forest, and thereafter becoming intertwined in their journeys. Of course, Gurgi begins as anything but a Guardian –  he is a rotten, selfish scoundrel to his core, manifesting in his actions as a most pitiful cowardice and infidelity, betraying Taran and his pig Henwen to their demise to save his own hide. However, the internal conflict of this little devil is revealed as a plaguing loneliness, the solitary woodland beast forced to steal from wanderers to survive, thus preventing him from ever knowing companionship. When Taran offers his friendship, Gurgi’s conscience begins to fluctuate, and his desire for Taran’s friendship begins to outweigh the narcissistic greed that binds him, and Gurgi begins his metamorphosis.

To fully understand the significance of Gurgi’s role, we must first consider the main character, the protagonist, or the archetypal “Hero”, Taran, whose role is challenged by Gurgi. Critical audiences view Taran also as exemplary of the film’s weakness, for isn’t a film only as strong and complex as the psychology of its protagonist? Upon the surface he seems a complete cliché – a humble Skywalker, lacking parents, discontent with his farming duties, dreaming of greatness and awaiting the day destiny comes knocking on his door, to ascend beyond his tedious existence, experience the thrill of adventure, vanquish an evil threatening the order of the world, and attain the glory of a great warrior hero. Whether laziness of writing and lack of imagination, or accurate and effective execution of primal storytelling ritual, is a subjective matter, but to cult fans, he is also perceived as misinterpreted, for even Taran himself knows not what it is he truly seeks, until his young mind is forced to comprehend a terrible truth.

In the manner of protagonists, Taran’s conscious desires are at odds with the unconscious, and throughout the narrative these two separate psychic energies clash, before melding, and trading places. The idea of the Hero is more than simply the fairy tale knight in shining armour slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess, but the Jungian Hero, the raw, divine transformative legend, which Taran is not ready to fathom. We see this in his understanding of heroism, which takes a dark transformation from the fantasy he envisions while gazing at his reflection in a stream, a knight in shining golden armour. The stream is an illusion, and shows not his true reflection, for the real mirror he beholds, the oracular looking-glass depicting his destiny, takes the form of the antagonist, the villain, the archetypal “Shadow” of the story: The Horned King.The Horned King This most abhorrent, daemonic, self-declared monarch manifests himself as a cadaverous creature, a wight revenant, perhaps an embodiment of death itself. While his nature is most nebulous and eldritch, his goals are made plainly clear, “How long I have thirsted to be a God, among mortal men.” a megalomania paradoxical to Taran’s goals. To this end, he seeks the Black Cauldron, a womb of rebirth, plotting to use its necromancy powers to resurrect an army of “deathless warriors”, loathsome and fell like himself, the “Cauldron Born.” Beyond the draconian Gwythaints, barbarous Viking henchman, and goblin sycophant Creeper, these are his true servants. For they too hold a mirror to Taran’s visions, and reveal to him the true nature of war and gallantry. His ideals of battle-born glory and greatness show their true colours, for the deadliness of war, and metaphysically, the martyrdom that every hero in storytelling, either physically or spiritually, must endure to become complete as a character, are manifested in this apocalyptic army of the dead.
The act of self-sacrifice, followed by resurrection, is Taran’s path. When trading his Magic Sword with the Witches of Morva for the Black Cauldron, a scenario Joseph Campbell would call “The Meeting With The Goddess”, as the three maternal Matrixes who elucidate his fate, (reminiscent of the Moirai of Greek Mythology, the Norns of Norse Folklore and The Three Witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth) Taran is confronted with a grim reality, as the magnificent trophy that is The Black Cauldron, turns out to be less an Arthurian Holy Grail, and more a daemon vessel, a chalice of malice. Taran’s boyhood dream is unveiled as something of a nightmare, and The Horned King is an augur of his inexorable future, a paternal Darth Vader to the Luke Skywalker, the doom he must resist, or embrace.

However, the tale of Taran is partly tragic, for like the Aristotelian Anti-Hero, he indeed fails in his quest, and never attains this divine goal, his Apotheosis, denied from committing the saviour’s sacrifice. In allusion to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit Frodo arrives at the precipice, gazing down into the fires of Mount Doom, the jaws of Death, what Campbell would consider the “World Navel”, a well containing all the divine abyssal waters of life, waiting for the hero to release them. Frodo has delivered the One Ring, ready to cast this cosmic fulcrum into the Tartarean guts of the Earth, the primordial fires of creation and destruction. But Frodo’s resilience finally succumbs to the corruption of the Ring, to the demon inside him, and he refuses to surrender the One Ring. However, the consequences of this tragedy are foiled by another, his cunning, treacherous guide Gollum, who returns to steal back the Ring, but inevitably plummets into the infernal Lake, swallowed along with the Ring, and bringing an end to the evils of the Dark Lord.

This infamous scene is echoed, and subverted, by the climactic “Ordeal” of The Black Cauldron. Taran stands upon the precipice before the Black Cauldron, the same abyssal World Navel into which he must hurl his mortal soul to circumvent the spreading deathly scourge of unstoppable revenant soldiers. Unlike Frodo, he has wilfully accepted his fate, ready to pay the ultimate price, but he too is foiled by a destiny thieving guide, spared damnation by his Guardian Angel, Gurgi. Gurgi’s need for redemption, his desire for martyrdom, outweighs that of Taran’s, as the selfish coward betraying his friends to their deaths, now returning to redeem his soul and acquire Taran’s trust. He stops Taran, and plunges into the Black Cauldron in his place, casting his own soul into the fires of Hell, fulfilling Taran’s Destiny for him, cozening his hitherto irrevocable fate, and thus his Messianic status. The Ally steals the Mask of the Hero, and hijacks the entire story.

Indeed, for Taran, it is a bittersweet tragedy. When the Horned King, in a most shocking and gruesome fashion, is consumed by the Black Cauldron, he escapes with his life, a life that surely should no longer be of corporeal Prydain. Denied the divine ether that should be rightfully his, with naught but a hollow black trophy, Taran is distraught, not just for the life of his friend, but for his own impotent failure. In a Coming of Age narrative, having reached the vast ocean of eternity, Taran remains a boy, an emasculated husk, crestfallen and despairing as the glory of gallantry will never be his. With the return of the Morva Witches, Taran trades The Black Cauldron for Gurgi, thus fulfilling the final phase of the Hero’s Journey, his resurrection. Gurgi is restored, symbolic of the restoration of the life-blood of Prydain, Taran returning with the elixir of fellowship, while chiming a dominant theme of the film, still seems almost a consolation prize compared with the Hallowing of the Monomyth. A happily ever after is presented with the return home, the renewing of the Equilibrium, but one might speculate, as Frodo’s tragedy led to him becoming compelled to leave Middle Earth for the Undying Lands, would Taran’s failure compel him to leave Prydain? The Black Cauldron thus plays with the concept of the Hero and his Journey, where the Deuteragonist snatches the sanctity from the Protagonist at the very brink.


Joseph Campbell (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Christopher Vogler (2007) The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Chris Huntley, Dramatica,