In dark times past, a legend grew of a black cauldron which contained the banished spirit of the most evil king who ever lived, and it was said that they who owned the cauldron could use it for great and terrible power. Now, pig keeper's assistant Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley) is looking after his charge at the home of his mentor Dallben (Freddie Jones), for this pig, called Hen Wen, has the talent for showing visions in water. Young Taran dreams of being a warrior renowned across the land, but he will have a proper quest in which to prove his mettle - keep Hen Wen from the clutches of the wicked Horned King (John Hurt)...
It's easy to forget The Black Cauldron, Disney's twenty-fifth animated feature, ever existed as it even flew under the public's radar when it was first released. Over a decade in the making, it opened to respectful reviews but did very little business at the box office, and looked like a House of Mouse version of a Ralph Bakshi fantasy adventure. In fact, it was based on the Tolkien-esque works of novelist Lloyd Alexander but had little to distinguish it amongst a rash of media that came in the wake of the Dungeons and Dragons craze.
Speaking of which, this film also resembled a big budget rendering of the eighties Dungeons and Dragons television cartoon with its themes of sticking together through hardship and trappings of magic and sorcery. When Taran embarks on his adventure, initially to take Hen Wen to a safe cottage on the far edge of the forest, he is bigheaded and full of the heroic ambitions in his mind, which the filmmakers are careful not to make too unsympathetic, so it's clear to us he does not know any better. He is continually brought down to earth anyway, as we see when the pig wanders off on its own while Taran is daydreaming.
You cannot have a moral about friendship if the main character does not have any companions, so after a while Taran has acquired a mishchievous furball called Gurgi (John Byner) to follow him around - Gurgi, obviously present for the younger viewers to coo over, is lonely and needs to understand how he can keep his pals. When Hen Wen is kidnapped and taken to the Horned King's castle, Taran goes after him and manages to save him; but then he is imprisoned himself. The bright side of that being he gets to be freed by a passing princess, Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan, voice of Trillian in the original Hitchhiker's Guide radio series).
Where she came from is a mystery, but she provides assistance, innocence and a blossoming love interest for our protagonist. Yet what The Black Cauldron was best known for, if it was known for anything at all, was something afflicting the struggling Disney live action films of the early eighties: was it too scary for kids? There's undoubtedly more violence than in a traditional cartoon from this studio, and that Horned King is the stuff of nightmares even if he does have his own diminutive comedy sidekick, so it's no surprise to learn that this film was cut before release to garner a lower age restriction rating. However, if you're a grown up, you may be disappointed at the animation of the King's undead army, which appears as if the cash ran out as they began to create them. Overall, this is serviceable enough for sword and sorcery fans, but a little limp for everyone else. Music by Elmer Bernstein.