The much discussed but less seen and certainly least successful of Disney’s pre renaissance films. This is a movie that certainly was not the G rated family film that parents might take small children to. It was a more adult fantasy with violence enough to get a PG rating, and dark imagery that might lead to the kind of nightmares kids had after Snow White encounters the Queen as an apple peddler. The loss of that audience of toddlers to a movie like “Care Bears” is one of the reasons the animation wing of Disney was retooled and charted a different course for several years after.
Having never read the series of books that this film is derived from, I can’t say how faithful it is to the plot of those stories. I can say for the most part it is a typical heroes quest with some interesting addendums along the way. For example, the hero, Taran, is trying to rescue a pig, not a princess. Although a princess does appear, she was not the subject of the journey and becomes mostly superfluous after she helps Taran escape from imprisonment. There is magic in the story, it comes from the evil cauldron, the sword that Taron aquires, and three witches that the heroes group encounters on their adventure. Oh yeah, the pig is a fortune teller as well.
Regardless of the story, there is certainly one thing that the film cannot be faulted for, that is the layout and animation. This is a beautifully drawn world with lush forests, bucolic cottages and looming dark castles. The world in which the characters play out their parts is one that all the artists working on the project can be proud of.
This movie was not done on the cheap, and that may be part of it’s lost reputation, it cost twice as much to make as it brought in at the box office. It has only been since home video that the studio finally saw some money from the project. At one point there were four directors and that clearly suggests that there were inconsistent visions of how the film and story needed to be put together.
Taran is bland as a hero, but not nearly as dull as the Princess Eilonwy. The more comic characters are maybe more interesting but they either overdo the personality or underutilize the character in the story. Gurgi, the furry companion of Taron is cloyingly voiced by John Byner, and a little bit goes a long way. Fflewddur Fflam is an unnecessary character that could be more interesting but was cut back substantially by the studio execs who took over as the film was being finalized. hen Wen the Pig was cute and as an important part of the story, could have used a little more on screen time.
There is a jarring difference between the cartoony fairies that the group interacts with and the Cauldron Born army of dead warriors that the villain, the Horned King produces.
Both are beautifully rendered, but they feel like they are from completely different films. For much of the movie, there is a Lord of the Rings feel, but the light hearted moments and characters are so distinct from the other things in the movie, I felt taken out of the experience by them.
Famously, the climax featuring the undead was trimmed because some of the images felt too gruesome for kids. I doubt that had they left them in it would have made the film more successful. This is a film that is song free also, it was not a musical after all, but there is no theme song, no moment of character development using song, and that was also a change that Disney was making that could have effected the films popularity.
I think this is a terrific collection of animation, undermined a bit by conventional story telling, and containing characters that needed to be more compelling. I liked the film quite well when Dee and I saw it at the Alhambra Place Theater, the five screen complex just a few blocks north of where we lived. We had no kids when this came out, but when it was finally released on VHS, it did get played a few times by my children, unfortunately at their age, they preffered Pete’s Dragon.