In olden days (the 70s) if you wanted to see Disney movies, you had two choices. One was to tune into ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney in the hope that one would show up, no matter that it was likely to be a second-tier live action feature broken into two commercial-filled parts. The other was to wait for a favorite to rotate back into theaters—back then, before home video, Disney classics were like certain kinds of insects, on a seven-year cycle of theatrical re-release.
It was in the mid-70s that kids across America hit the jackpot, when a slew of Disney pictures went out one summer, some double-billed as I recall. Details are hazy, but I know that my family camped out at the K Cinema in Randolph, NJ (so named for the adjacent Kmart, the ultimate in suburban shopping sophistication back then) to see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mary Poppins, That Darn Cat!, The Love Bug, and several others.
Disneypalooza came at the right time for me, when I could still be entranced by Disney magic, just before I hit my teens and went over to the dark side of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. (We’ve patched things up since then, and I look forward to introducing my family to Disney’s greatest hits.) It was also the last good time for Disney, which, tarnished by indifferent animated features and lousy live-action flops in the post-Walt era, needed to display its crown jewels to remind audiences of what it was no longer providing. With rare exceptions like Tron (1982) inspiration faded until Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg restored magic to the kingdom.
The Black Cauldron (1985) was a last gasp for pre-Eisner/Katzenberg animation, and one of Disney’s redheaded stepchildren. I skipped it then, as did kids of the Transformers cartoons generation; Katzenberg thought so little of it he snipped three minutes off its brief (80 minute) running time, angering the old guard that had spent a dozen years and $25 million inking it to the screen. It’s grown somewhat in reputation since then, so I thought that watching the 25th anniversary DVD might be panning for gold.
And I did find a little, in the backgrounds, where stunningly dark and malevolent imagery lurks, enough to make The Black Cauldron the first Disney animated feature to earn a PG rating. The toil of the animators to make the world of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain take on a life of its own onscreen pays off handsomely. The foreground, however, is a problem, as it is for the lesser Disney pictures. The creepy castle lair of the Horned King, who schemes to gain possession of the title object and summon undead warriors, is intimidating enough to make the movie off limits for the smaller fry. (For the first time the animators used CGI for some of the hocus pocus.) Even without the cuts Katzenberg imposed, though, the rest is safely juvenile, with an assistant pigkeeper and princess uniting to save a soothsaying porker from the skeletal baddie—and also uninspired, including a blah Elmer Bernstein score. The storytelling trumps the story being told.
That said, while in no way begrudging John Huston’s prologue narration and John Hurt’s standout rendering of the Horned King, I respect an old school Disney movie that uses professional voiceover actors and not the boldface names of the moment to bring its characters to life, notably the great John Byner as Gurgi, a Gollum-like troublemaker. This would-be epic has its small virtues, and the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer preserves them more satisfyingly than a prior edition.
But there’s the rub. The disc extras extol the benefits of Blu-ray, which are lost on The Black Cauldron, which hasn’t made the leap. It hasn’t made the jump to a valid special edition, either, with two measly kids’ games, a couple of promos that aren’t related to the film, and an admittedly charming Halloween-themed Donald Duck cartoon from 1952 the sum total of the supplements. Disney, disappointingly, hasn’t brought any silver to its anniversary.
While The Black Cauldron never bubbles over, it does simmer at a low boil. The same cannot be said of the Disney of today’s stab at ancient era sword-and-sorcery, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I bet producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who must have fancied himself Uncle Walt resurrected with the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure adventures, wishes he could get his hands on the magical cauldron (I mean, dagger) of the story and turn back the sands of time on the ill-fated production of this and his subsequent summer bellyflop The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Like everything the robo-producer gets his hands on, Prince of Persia has been scoured and aerated of anything remotely interesting, reduced to a glossy nothingness. Bruckheimer has mass-produced a lot of comfort food for undemanding audiences over the years, but he usually leaves a little sugar or spice, like Johnny Depp’s wild card performances in the otherwise terrible Pirates movies. Here a capable and earnest actor, Jake Gyllenhaal, has been Brucked over—given a six pack, sword training, a middle-of-the-Atlantic Ocean accent, and dialogue like ”this is no ordinary dagger!” Having completed this rite of passage, and been found wanting—none of this really suits him, or veteran director Mike Newell for that matter, and that’s not a bad thing—I welcome his next Donnie Darko or Brokeback Mountain.
Based on a video game (cue weeping over cultural diminishment) the film casts Gyllenhaal as the low-born Prince Dastan, falsely accused of dastardly crimes and avenging himself on wicked uncle Ben Kingsley, who has invaded a sacred Persian city on the pretext of rooting out WMD (cue eye-rolling at this ”relevant” plot). The dagger comes in handy to reverse every crooked act, which is rather unsporting, and pretty dull. When everything can be set right at the twist of a blade (whose use is explained at least five times, so the slowest-witted can absorb its function) there’s nothing at stake if you’re in a theater and not in front of an Xbox.
You bet your sweet ass that Prince of Persia is on Blu-ray, and DVD, and as a combo package that I received which includes a digital copy. That and the Blu-ray and coasters for me, and with all the fancy bells-and-whistles reserved for the Blu-ray (does anyone really use this stuff?) I had to make do with a rote ”making-of” on the DVD, which has that machine-tooled sheen to it. Apparently the great David Belle of the District B13 movies coached the star in his parkour moves, not that you can tell. CGI, a mere wisp in The Black Cauldron, blankets our fantasies, including this one, in a thick haze. I imagine home viewers will use the fast-forward button on their remotes like time-shifting daggers to get through the scorched earth of The Sands of Time, a movie made for breaking into two parts if The Wonderful World of Disney still aired.
Postscript: After the Disney marathon ended the K Cinema became a porn house, showing movies with family-ish titles like The Jade Pussycat and Sugar Britches. Needless to say mom didn’t take me to any of those movies, which were tailored for different fantasies.