I didn’t work on Disney’s “The Black Cauldron so you’ll gain no film making insights from me this time around. Oddly enough, this was a very important film for the Walt Disney Company and although it didn’t exactly burn up the box office charts when it opened it served an even greater purpose. However, we’ll get to that later.
What I did find interesting back in the early eighties was a change in attitude at Disney’s animation department. Curious about the film, I thought I might stop in for a chat with animation boss, Ed Hanson. I had known Ed for years while working at the studio. Ed had been director, Wolfgang Reitherman’s assistant for many years before taking on the position of animation manager. What I found odd was the fact that Ed acted as though he hardly knew me and seemed reluctant to let me on the Disney lot for an interview. He told me to check back later because Disney CEO, Ron Miller hadn’t seen the movie.
Eventually, I was granted an interview and I found myself back inside Walt’s magic kingdom. I confess the Disney studio felt weird because young artists now filled the animation building and most had been recently hired. The young staffers displayed an odd arrogance and behaved as though they were “old Disney veterans.” Some even preceded to lecture me concerning, “how we make pictures.” Were they clueless, I wondered? I was working at Disney when most of them were still in middle school.
“The Black Cauldron” continued to garner a fair amount of media attention even though the movie struggled in development. The studio knew it needed a refresh after a number of lackluster films failed to attract much box office attention. The lure of pixie dust and Disney feature film making was compelling enough to warrant a return visit to the mouse house. I knew Disney was touting their new production and they hoped their animated experiment would be a breakthrough motion picture. I eagerly headed upstairs to the second floor for a look at what I hoped would be awesome artwork.
Having made my way to Animation’s second floor I wandered about looking for what I knew would be a treasure trove of cool layouts and backgrounds. Much to my surprise there wasn’t a thing in sight. I entered one of the second floor wings only to find the inner door locked. Where was I, I wondered? Was this the Walt Disney studio or Washington DC’s Pentagon? Eventually, I asked a passing artist about the film’s backgrounds. “We don’t want the artwork in view,” he replied. It’s much too valuable. “Too valuable to have on display?” I considered. I couldn’t help but remember when the awe inspiring Sleeping Beauty backgrounds of Eyvind Earle were on view everywhere. Now, this Disney art was too precious to even have on display? Excuse me, but I couldn’t help thinking, “Give me a break!”
I was never accepted for a position on “The Black Cauldron’s” fledgling animation team so I returned to my television gig making bad Saturday Morning Cartoons. However, a few years later, I was asked to joined Disney’s publishing department as an editor, and that turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever had.
Animation was still in my blood and my new office on the third floor of the Roy O. Disney Building was only a short walk across the narrow street to the animation facility. I remained in touch with many of the animators and listened to their complaints and their dissatisfaction with the film and the way they were treated. The stories they told were more than familiar. Top animators were “cherry picking” the good scenes and leaving the more lackluster stuff to others. And, of course, politics ran hot and heavy. I had heard these same stories more than a decade earlier and I was reminded that things seldom change in the animation business. The situation began to grow even worse as the film continued to struggle. Director, Art Stevens would eventually leave the movie and the Disney studio as well. I had assisted Art in my younger days, and I was sad to see such a talented animator end his Disney career on such a sour note.
Being back in the Disney family meant I could attend screenings of the ill fated animated feature and each new screening grew successively worse. The directors began shifting the order of sequences as if that would garner a more compelling narrative. Sadly, nothing appeared to help and the arrival of new Disney management in 1984 only drove the nail deeper. The studio finally released the film with little fanfare and audiences had zero interest in the dark, dreary Disney motion picture.
Cheer up, because this sad, animated story has a silver lining. Remember all those green, young animation artists I mentioned early on? Many of them had never worked on a Disney feature film before. “The Black Cauldron” provided an excellent training vehicle and scores of young animators and assistants developed their chops while working on the movie. Of course, you already know what happened next. An animation renaissance was on the horizon and Disney’s revitalized animation department would never look back.