When you have produced as many features as Disney, there are going to end up being greater works in the pantheon and lesser ones. Today, Disney is releasing to DVD in a "25th Anniversary" edition, a film that is somewhere on the lesser side though by no means near the bottom, The Black Cauldron.
Based on a series of books by Lloyd Alexander, while the tale may fit within the mold of classic Disney storytelling, the dark look is anything but Disney. The film actually carries a PG rating and is unquestionably not for the youngest of viewers.
The story revolves around Taran, an assistant pig keeper who quickly finds himself on a quest to protect the Black Cauldron from the evil Horned King who wishes to use it to raise an army of undead soldiers to rule the world (as evil people do). Taran is incredibly outmanned and lacks any sort of experience, but meets an odd little creature named Gurgi, a princess named Eilonwy, and a minstrel named Fflewddur Fflam and together they manage to put a crimp into the Horned King's plans.
The Black Cauldron contains lessons about sacrifice, doing the right thing, and the power of friendship. It also has a cute, lovable, little creature in the form of Gurgi; bad guys; dragons; witches; magic; and adventure. The basic problem with it however is that all of those elements just kind of appear, there is nothing beyond the most cursory explanation of what's going on and why. There is, in short, quite obviously, a whole lot of backstory we don't get told. The screenplay (a quick look at IMDb indicates that it was a team effort) must get a lot of the blame for that, but part of the problem also lies in the selection of the source material.
Alexander wrote a series of novels that dealt with this world and some of these characters (and other characters as well), and the film is most definitely not simply the second novel, The Black Cauldron, or a filmic adaptation of that second novel. The credits for the film even state that the animated work is based on the "series." Trying to cram in all the necessary elements to tell a single cohesive animated story geared mostly (though with a PG rating not entirely) for children is not the easiest of tasks. All too often while watching The Black Cauldron one will get the sense of wanting to know more, to see more, to find out more, and that more is never given. The best, most simple, example of this is seen in Taran's picking up a magic sword in the film, a sword that is highly prized by the three witches they later encounter. The sword and its former owner have a story of their own, but no information on either is given – they simply exist, and why the witches want the sword so badly is never explained (beyond the fact that the sword looks pretty and is clearly magic). The tale of the sword and its owner just don't fit into the tale being told here, but they are still relevant and their not being included is disappointing.