"The Black Cauldron" (1985) is known as the movie that almost killed Disney animation.

In the wake of such action-filled fantasies as "Star Wars" and "Conan the Barbarian," this 1985 animated feature was envisioned as Disney's response to a new era of movie science fiction and sword and sorcery. After years of cute, kid-friendly animation, the studio saw "Cauldron" as a way of reaching a new audience.

Inspired by Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" series and set in the Dark Ages, the story concerns the Welsh lad Taran who goes on a quest to destroy the Black Cauldron, a magic crucible that can unleash an army of dead warriors. Also after the cauldron is the skull-faced Horned King, bent on world conquest.

With a production cost of $25 million, "The Black Cauldron" was the most expensive animated feature up to that time.

It bombed at the box office, grossing only $21 million in North America.

Knocked back on its heels by this disaster, Disney animation was thought by many to be doomed. But it was saved four years later by the arrival of "The Little Mermaid," which kicked off a winning streak of first-class family titles that included "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."

"Cauldron" rarely has been seen in the ensuing years, so the release at last of a DVD version on the film's 25th anniversary provides an opportunity to revisit a controversial title.

Was the movie a mess that deserved to tank? Was it a misunderstood masterpiece?

Well, it looks good. While the characters have an old-fashioned flat look with none of the shading of later Disney releases, the animation is generally quite good. The background paintings are genuinely beautiful. And the film employs computer animation (the first ever in a Disney movie) to creative smoke and dramatic lighting effects.

Where "Cauldron" falls short is in the storytelling. The movie lacks a compelling narrative or characters that matter.

Our hero, Taran, comes right out of central casting. The film's leading lady, Princess Eilonwy, is equally bland. Though voiced by John Hurt, the Horned King is a standard-issue villain.

And Taran has been given as a (allegedly) comic companion a sort of talking dog-creature named Gurgi whose whiny voice is enough to cut glass. Gurgi is so irritating that he makes Jar Jar Binks look like the ideal sidekick.

At the time of its release, many feared "The Black Cauldron" was too dark for kids. If only. Today you see worse on Saturday morning TV.

But the film's real downfall is its total lack of a coherent or interesting story. It plays like a handful of too-familiar genre cliches thrown together without edge or comic inspiration.

Sorry to say, but this one should have stayed in the vault.

'The Black Cauldron: 25th Anniversary Special Edition'


(Walt Disney Studios Home Entertianment)