Why Test Screenings For Disney's The Black Cauldron Had Parents Fleeing From Theaters

For years after its theatrical release in 1985, Disney essentially shunned "The Black Cauldron" and pretended it didn't exist. In this case, though, it wasn't because the Mouse House saw it as an embarrassing mistake like "Song of the South." It was just that the studio has spent nearly 15 years and $44 million making it (a then-record amount for one of Disney's animated films), only for the adaptation of Lloyd Alexander's beloved "Chronicles of Prydain" novels to earn a tepid critical reception and flop at the box office.

Part of the reason "The Black Cauldron" cost so much was because it evolved dramatically during pre-production, going from a movie that tried adapting all five of Alexander's fantasy books to drawing mainly from the first two ("The Book of Three" and "The Black Cauldron"). It was also the first Disney animated feature film to include computer-generated elements, which only added to its expenses. 

On top of that, the studio had to spend even more money re-writing and re-animating scenes after its then-chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg — yes, the same one who founded Quibi — had 12 minutes cut, bringing the movie's runtime down to 80 minutes. As the legend goes (via Shared.com), a test screening of "The Black Cauldron" sent parents literally running out with their children when the film got too dark, especially in the third act when the evil Horned King unleashed the undead Cauldron Born from the Black Cauldron. This was also a key factor in what prompted Katzenberg's re-edits.

Release the Cauldron Born Cut?

Due to the amount of footage Katzenberg edited out, it was long theorized the early cut of "The Black Cauldron" was far darker than the version which saw the light of day. Adding fuel to the fire, leaked deleted frames depict one of the Horned King's still-living henchmen being dissolved by the green mist released from the Black Cauldron during the Cauldron Born scene, melting their skin and flesh off their bones. It's a gruesome demise by any movie's standards and may well have been the moment that spurred parents to pick up their kids and run.

However, before anyone starts campaigning Disney to "Release The Cauldron Born Cut," it's worth noting this seems to be the exception and not the rule when it came to the material Katzenberg deleted. As detailed in Yesterworld's video on "The Black Cauldron," much of the film's lost footage featured either characters getting from one place to another or the comical sidekick Fflewddur Fflam jabbering on and on. Even the changes to the Cauldron Born's "birth" (which created some ungainly jump cuts) mostly served to make the scene less intense without removing anything too grisly beyond that henchman's death.

Curiously, though, one of the ghastliest scenes in "The Black Cauldron," the Horned King's death, stayed mostly intact, as far as its nastiest visuals go. Then again, re-animating this pivotal moment to make it less graphic would've been extra costly, which may explain why Katzenberg didn't tweak it too much.

The Black Cauldron Isn't a Total Misfire

Over the years since "The Black Cauldron" finally hit the home market (starting with its release on VHS in the late 1990s), the film has attracted a larger fanbase without, per se, achieving cult status. Coupled with the stories about parents fleeing test screenings online, this has only fueled claims that Katzenberg's edits prevented the movie from realizing its true potential.

Truth is, "The Black Cauldron" had strayed far from Alexander's source novels long before Disney began showing it to anyone. Having seen the film for the first time this year on Disney+, I would describe it as a handsomely animated fantasy adventure that largely unfolds as a bland hero's journey whose protagonist, Taran, is about as thinly written as whiny, day-dreaming Luke Skywalker types come. At the same time, there are whimsical concepts and characters (like a pig that can conjure magical visions in pools of water) that speak to the richer, Welsh folklore-inspired mythology of Alexander's books and give the movie some much-needed flavor.

Looking back, it's kind of funny that "The Black Cauldron" gets remembered as the 1980s animated Disney film that was too scary for families. It's not that much more risqué or violent than the other movies the studio made during that period, like "Return to Oz" and "The Great Mouse Detective." If anything, its biggest crime is that it's less interesting than its reputation as a "total misfire" (which it isn't) would suggest.