Overcoming Darkness: The Black Cauldron

            There are a few times I’ve been genuinely frightened during an animated film. The first time occurred during Maleficent’s entrance in Sleeping Beauty. She’s always frightened me, and it is because of her that it took me so many years to finally watch the full film. I was rightfully frightened of Scar as he plots and executes said plot for Mufasa’s death in The Lion King. I say ‘rightfully’ because Scar kills Mufasa, and murder is quite scary to me. The villain from The Princess and the Frog is frightening because his evil was simply too real for me—making deals with the devil is beyond frightening. Now, thanks to The Black Cauldron, I have another villain to give me nightmares: the Horned King (who quite frankly resembles the devil, which must have been intentional).
Why yes, I do find this villain TERRIFYING.
            I had heard that this film is the darkest in Disney’s canon, and I have to say I agree. At one point, when the princess and Taran are escaping and you’re expecting the princess to round to corner and instead it’s a castle guard, I jumped. It’s also Disney’s first PG rating for animated films. The other six films were all released in the 2000’s and 2010’s, when the MPAA decided arbitrarily (like they always do) that animated films are PG. How is it, then, that films like Tarzan with bloody paw prints, dead bodies, strangling, and animal violence are rated G, while Lilo & Stitch and Tangled are PG? (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range, and Bolt are the other PG ratings). There’s protecting innocence and then there’s ludicrous over-protection. I think the MPAA has officially passed into the ludicrous spectrum. They’re that parent who buys a plastic bubble, attaches a backpack-leash to it, and puts their kid inside it. Except they affect, to some degree, the entire U.S. with their censorship—I mean, decision making.
            Don’t get me wrong, I think a system that fairly evaluates films based on a set of regulated and published standards would be incredibly helpful. However, the MPAA refuses to give the reasoning behind their ratings, nor do they have a rubric that states what’s allowable for each film. And that’s my rant against the MPAA.
            I was completely absorbed into The Black Cauldron, even if I did find a prophesizing piglet a bit hard to swallow (prophesizing pigs trouble me but singing lions don’t—I can explain my logic, so please don’t ask that of me!). I was genuinely concerned for Hen’s safety at numerous points, because of the darkness of the film. In previous Disney films, favored characters often escaped the axe because of the possible traumatic effect it may have on children. But The Black Cauldron is an entirely new type of animated film. I mean, it has zombies! No other animated film I have seen thus far in my life (and as an animation connoisseur I’ve seen a LOT of animated films) has included zombies.
            The last few films had been musicals, but Black Cauldron stands apart in that respect as well. The score is lovely and fitting and just about perfect with the plot, but characters don’t randomly break out into song. Of course, they are kind of running for their lives, or trying to save the world, at just about every point in the film, so I could see how they might not spontaneously combust musically.
            BC is different from the rest of Disney animation. That isn’t a bad thing; as I’ve touched on before, ‘different’ and ‘bad’ are not synonymous for me. Once again, the story is adapted from a book. I’m not sure how much the book is aimed towards children, or if it was meant for adults. The style of language and plot are much more adult, but Walt always emphasized that children at not to be talked down to nor should material be dumbed down. Every moment can be a learning moment. What differentiates this particular film is the prevalence and prevailing force of evil. Evil is winning almost the entire film. Except for a few rare moments, like when Taran leads the escape, the Horned King is succeeding.
Prophetic piggy
            The Horned King, with his army of brutes and evil powers, has been winning for some time. He only needs to Black Cauldron to cinch his victory and make overthrowing him impossible. For that, he needs little pig Hen to show him where the cauldron is. Taran, always trying to be a hero, loses little Hen when he’s supposed to be leading her to safety. That’s when he meets Gurgi, the little furry friend who is neither human nor animal. He can’t be solely an animal, because he can talk and no other animals can talk, yet he can’t be human because he doesn’t look or act it. He’s adorable, if a little annoying at times—especially to Taran.
            The message of the film concerns, partially, not letting images of honor and glory cloud your eyes and cause you to lose focus and purpose—and your pig, too. It also touches on the consumptive nature that is evil, as the Horned King, his minions and brutes, are all consumed by the evil purposes at hand and take part in every available vice. We see them drinking, partying and even see a dancer’s panties (that was a jaw dropper for me). Other than Esmeralda’s not-so-subdued sexuality, this glimpse—also a woman dressed as a gypsy—is the first (chronological) mention of sexuality. Sure, characters fall in love all the time. But this evocative dance and the whole plot of Hunchback are the only times we see temptation and women viewed as sexual objects.
            Although it’s reported that the author of the book series, Lloyd Alexander, didn’t intentionally weave Christian allegory into his series, it is present in some capacity. Gurgi, the woodland animal that Taran meets repeatedly, sacrifices himself to the Black Cauldron to save the world and stop the Horned King’s zombie army, purely out of love for the people he’s come to know recently. The Horned King (who bears a strong resemblance to the devil) is then consumed by the cauldron (a fairly frightening sequence by Disney standards—heck, by my standards! Oh, wait, I’m a scaredy cat and you know it. Hmm, by pre-gory-movie standards). Not only does Gurgi sacrifice himself whole heartedly, but he’s resurrected by the love of Taran, the princess and the minstrel. When the witches want the now-defunct cauldron back, they bargain for it. They first offer the sword they took from Taran, but he says he’d rather have Gurgi back. Then, miraculously, Gurgi comes back.
Gurgi, immediately prior to being resurrected.
            Gurgi, Taran, Hen and the minstrel are all interesting characters. But my favorite would have to be the princess, whose name I can’t hope to pronounce nor spell, so I will simply call her the princess (though the Horned King does refer to her as a scullery maid during the film’s climax, which I found a bit confusing). She is a strong character, and rescues Taran from the dungeon. It is she who leads him to the catacombs, wherein he finds the magic sword (which is why I’ve always confused this film with The Sword in the Stone—they both have swords!) that saves them multiple times and which he trades for the Black Cauldron. She doesn’t ever really need rescuing, she does so herself. Yes, the magic sword came in handy, but she played a large hand in that. She also stands up for herself when Taran starts being a big meanie face, which I like. I like the message that young girls should stand tall in their beliefs and use logic and reasoning to win their word wars.
            The unique and well developed characters couple with the well thought out plot to make the film enjoyable for all ages (though I don’t know at what age my kids will be able to watch it—I suppose it depends on if they’re afraid, like me, or brave, like James). At first, while saying I liked it, I also stated that it wasn’t one I thought I’d find myself watching again. But the more I ponder it, the more drawn back to it I am. There are many layers to the film, and I think I’ll discover something new each time I watch it.
            It’s now a dreary, rainy day in early-summer Alaska. When we first moved here in late winter of 2011, we experienced a very mild winter (yes, snow on St. Patrick’s Day is mild up here) and an exceptionally amazing summer. If this past winter (record breaking snow) is any indication of this summer, our weather will be cooler and wetter than usual. I think if anyone has earned a really terrific summer, it’s the Alaskans who just dealt with this year’s overwhelming winter.
            Yet it’s the Lower 48 summers that I miss: running through the sprinklers; weekends spend on a beach towel, sprawled on a deck or lawn or driveway, soaking up the sun while someone cooks hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill; afternoons spent sitting, sundress-clad, under trees in sun-dappled shade; holidays spent on a pool float, one hand trailing lazily in the water; fireworks lighting up the night sky on Independence Day while the whole family, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, stop what they’re doing and stand amazed. Basically, any scene from The Sandlot details what I think of as perfect summers. In South-Central Alaska, the water that comes out of the hose is glacier cold making sprinkler runs more like pneumonia runs, spaghetti-strapped sundresses have to be worn with leggings and jackets due to the cool air, there are no outdoor pools, and the midnight sun (it is light all night, but not sunshine-y light, cloudy-day light) prevent those spectacular fireworks from being so spectacular.

            There are many special things about Alaskan summers, like the wildlife and camping and the midnight sun. But I didn’t grow up with those things, they don’t hold that special place in my heart. When it’s summer and I’m back in the South, every cookout and pool day sends my heart a flutter with that, “Ah, it’s summer!” feeling. But regardless of how amazing our summer in Alaska is, I don’t get that feeling. It may be summer here, but it just isn’t my kind of summer. There are no thunderstorms that send you running, dripping wet, from the pool to the house, where you shiver in the air conditioning and watch all that water you ‘accidentally’ splashed on your sister (who wasn’t even in the pool) suddenly be refilled with warm rainwater. Most houses in Alaska don’t have air conditioning. In fact, we still have our heat on. Even on the warm days when we can crack the windows for a few hours, we have to close them when clouds cover the sun, and crank the heat back up. Alaskan summers are different. Not bad, just different. This different may not suit me, but I’ll enjoy it while I’m here, even though I’ll always look forward to summers in the south, complete with (outdoor) pools and thunderstorms.

Alaska in the summer–  beautiful, but there’s still snow on the mountains (that means it’s cold– notice the long sleeves and pants of the person in the photo)

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