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By the mid nineteen eighties, something had gone very wrong at the Disney animation studios.
To an outsider, this might not have been immediately apparent. Sure, the movies weren’t as good as they had been, but Rescuers had been a huge hit, and The Fox and the Hound had been a decent success financially. But inside the studio, things were starting to go sour. The last of the Nine Old Men were retiring, and the animation staff had dwindled to a mere two hundred or so, a situation made worse when Don Bluth essentially said “screw this noise” and left with a fifth of the studio’s animators.
The animation department, once the heart and soul of Disney, was increasingly being seen as more of an appendix, and an inflamed, extremely expensive appendix at that. Some members of the board were openly asking if the Disney company should even be making animated films, and instead suggested focusing on the theme parks and merchandise.
Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and a senior executive of the company, fought tooth and nail to keep the animation wing open, saying that without new characters being created, the theme parks were essentially museums, commemorating something wonderful that was now dead.
At the heart of this dispute was the Black Cauldron. Twelve years in production, massively over budget, the Black Cauldron was supposed to be the movie that put Walt Disney animation back on the map, charting a new course away from the traditional children’s movies the studio was famous for and moving into darker, edgier territory. But it was quickly reaching the point where even if it was a massive hit, it would be hard pressed to earn back the money that had already been spent on it. The movie’s two directors Ted Berman…
and Richard Rich…
…were not hugely experienced, and Disney management was starting to have serious misgivings about what was going on over in the animation building.
Jeffrey Katzenberg (yes, that one) had been brought in by new Chief Operating Officer Michael Eisner to run the motion picture division, which included turning around the animation unit. On arriving at the animation unit’s new facilities (a crappy little industrial estate where they had been sent after being unceremoniously evicted from the main Disney lot) Katzenberg asked to see the partially completed film. Production Manager Don Hahn described what happened next:
“Katzenberg entered the screening room and closed the door behind him. We waited, not a man among us dared to speak so much as a word. Occasionally, from behind the door would emerge strange sounds, a low growling like some strange beast from the tropics, or a whine of pain and horror. At last, Katzenberg emerged from the darkened room and I think I may have cried aloud in horror, such was the change that had come over him! His hair had turned purest white and his fingers now shook as he raised a cigarette to his trembling lips and desperately drew upon it. His eyes stood stark and white in his face, now gaunt and greenish. He seemed too weak to stand and slumped into a chair, muttering darkly to himself, his gaze oscillating about the room but not meeting the eyes of any man there. And then, with a terrible fury that seemed conjured from the aether he leapt to his feet and cried “You fools! You monomaniacs! Have you no care for this abominable thing you have unleashed?! This thing will be the death of us all, I say!”
For you see, in their desperation to replace the magic and inspiration of Walt Disney, the animators had turned to a false power. A most powerful and ancient evil. A being known…as the Horned King.
And he’s standing in my living room right now.
Yeah…see. I really don’t want to watch this film.
YOU ARE THE GREATEST DISNEY VILLAIN OF ALL TIME can I please go now?
You mean, if I can watch this movie from start to finish and review it I might survive?
Alright. It’s fine. I can do this. I mean…it’s a Disney movie for God’s sake! How scary can it really be?
The movie begins with the following narration:
“Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain. There was once a king so cruel, and so evil, that even the gods feared him. Since no prison could hold him, he was thrown alive into a crucible of molten iron. There his demonic spirit was captured, in the form of a great black cauldron. For uncounted centuries The Black Cauldron lay hidden, waiting, while evil men searched for it. Knowing whoever possessed it, would have the power to resurrect an army of deathless warriors. And with them, rule the world.”
Surprised I didn’t go with a Lord of the Rings joke? Trust me, my supply is limited and must be used sparingly.