The Black Cauldron- Ted Berman, Richard Rich
Despite the many varied projects that come out of Walt Disney Animation Studios, I think we can say there are least a few things we've come to expect from them: technical prowess, sweeping music, and strong stories. The Black Cauldron does two of those in spades, but the third... not so well. The story is about a boy named Taran, who learns that the evil Horned King is going to use the magic of the Black Cauldron to raise an army of the dead and take over the world. He sets out to prove himself a hero by stopping him, and along the way meets several other characters who aid him in his quest.
Admittedly the animation itself is nothing special, but the backgrounds themselves are rather rich and visually attractive. The voice work is fantastic, with the standout performance being John Hurt as the voice of the Horned King, and the music works by engaging all the emotions for fear and terror to love and loss. But I guess when your movie is being scored by Elmer Bernstein getting a grand musical score is pretty much a given.
But, unfortunately, this can all come to naught if the elements are wrapped in a story that doesn't work, and The Black Cauldron is the quintessential example of a movie undone by a bad script. With almost all the plot points driven by contrivances the movie because an incredibly silly one to follow. I understand that the movie was an adaption of a book series (The Chronicles of Prydain), and I can't help but wonder if that's the reason why there are so many contrivances. Things that got explained in the book had to inevitably be cut to fit an 80 minute film, and as a result nothing gets any background. This extends to the characters as well, at least one of which is given literally no role in the films's plot and pretty much just tags along for... reasons. The other protagonist characters aren't quite worth writing home about either. There was potential between a developing relationship between the protagonist Taran and a sidekick named Gurgi, but it was sidelined in favor of attempting to develop a relationship between Taran and the love interest, Eilonwy. But even that gets hardly any attention that isn't a cliche, and the result is a lot of boring characters. Ironically, the evil Horned King is the saving grace in this problem, but he hardly has any screentime.
It's worth pointing out that Jeffrey Katzenberg, when he was Disney studio chairman at the time, edited 12 minutes out of the film to reduce the dark nature of the film. While what was cut would have definitely drive up the already dark and intense film (there are three cels which show flesh melting off a person in graphic manner), it would not have saved it. So even though I do want to see the complete version one day, I don't think anything short of a complete remake, or least adding a lot of new material, can save the script.
Meet the Robinsons- Stephen Anderson
Meet the Robinsons is an important film in the WDAS canon. It follows Home on the Range and Chicken Little which are, as of August 2014, two of the most maligned films in the canon. The latter film made money, sure, but they both left a sour taste in the mouths of many.
Enter Meet the Robinsons. I don’t know much about the film’s production history, only that it was the first WDAS film to have John Lasster’s influence. What I do know is that it almost seems like a response to the last two films in the sheer amount of Disney tributes that appear in the film. Even the central theme, “keep moving forward” is from a quote by Walt Disney (helpfully shown at the end of the movie). I don’t know if its intentional or coincidental, but it really felt like this was WDAS saying “we’re going to get back on track and do better.” But in order for that message to be relevant, the film needs to actually deliver.
Meet the Robinsons is about an orphan named Lewis who likes to invent thing. Inspired by the idea that he might be able to remember his mother’s face, he invents a machine to help read his thoughts. After this project is sabotaged by the mysterious Bowler Hat Guy, he gets caught up in a time traveling adventure to try and thwart the villain’s plan.
It sounds complicated, and it is. And ultimately that is the film’s downfall. The screenplay, appropriately, doesn’t allow itself to be bogged down by the mechanics, rules, and paradoxes of time travel, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to follow any rules that make for a helpful roadmap for the viewer, and I often found myself asking “how is that supposed to work?” instead of just allowing myself to be caught up in the story. Additionally many of the sets look rather artificial, though I’m not sure if that’s more attributed to the directors choice or the limitations of CGI animation of the time.
In spite of all this, though, more often than not I did find myself caught up in the story. It’s messy, but it’s always sweetly sentimental and inspiring when it needs to be, and flat out hilarious almost every other time. The humor, fortunately, is derived from the many memorable and distinctive personalities of the Robinson family as opposed to the bathroom humor and slapstick that dominated Home on the Range. And despite the large shift in the mood spectrum throughout the film, there is no awkward mood whiplash. Is it a solid film? No, but after Home on the Range it’s the kind of fresh start that the company needed.
Next up: The Lady and the Tramp. I can barely contain myself from singing Bella Notte...