Technically brilliant though short on narrative, "The Black Cauldron" is a painless, old-fashioned way to take out the kids, and a triumph for the animation department at the Disney studio, where it has been in development for almost a dozen years.
Based on Lloyd Alexander's series of children's books, "The Chronicles of Prydain," the movie centers on a black cauldron that imprisons a spirit of true evil. If the Horned King can get his hands on it, he can raise an army of the dead; so Taran, the youthful hero, is going to make sure he doesn't. Taran is the appointed protector of Hen Wen, a visionary pig who bears the cauldron's secret. Along the way, he picks up a cohort of colorful losers, including Fflewddur, a musician whose harp pops a string whenever he fibs; Gurgi, a squirrelly mop top with a voice full of helium; and, of course, a girl, Eilonwy, every bit as bland as himself.
"The Black Cauldron" is a sort of "Conan the Destroyer Jr.": collect your gang, infiltrate forbidding castle on island, recover grail, watch castle collapse. The story could use more twists, and the good kids could use some characteristics besides good kidness -- they're like Zeppo without his brothers. Like many of the Disney tales, "The Black Cauldron" only really gets going when it delves into evil, into the world of the Horned King and his toady, the appropriately toadlike Creeper.
The Horned King is the Surly Green Giant, a corpse-like figure with laser eyes and a nasty temper; directors Ted Berman and Richard Rich make him scary by keeping him in the shadows, shooting him from low angles. British actor John Hurt provides the voice, wrapping his resonant, cultivated tones around lines like, "I presume, my boy, that you are the keeper of this oracular pig." The Creeper, for his part, plays Peter Lorre to the King's Humphrey Bogart.
And it is in the evil world that the animation can dazzle you. The compositions can be adventurous, emphatic closeups of beer steins foaming like Mount St. Helens and 90-degree vertical pans. "The Black Cauldron" has an incredibly spooky sequence in which the dead come to life and start marching -- shambling and diaphanous, they seem to pass through each other. And the movie's action centerpiece, in which airborne dragons capture the pig, is composed with a dizzying e'lan, with the creatures swooping head-on into the screen while the six-track Dolby booms and whizzes around you.
The exteriors are painted in the colors of a summer sunset, vibrant salmons and deep, squall-line blues; the deep reds, greens and grays of the interiors have the velvety richness of a murderer's suffocating pillow. The precision of the animation, and the sound track, is best served by a 70 mm presentation (it's Disney's first animated feature in 70 mm); unfortunately, the 70 mm will be shown exclusively at the Jenifer, hardly the prime venue in the District.
At times, "The Black Cauldron" has a fun, Halloween spirit. When a witch goes to chomp on an arm, and misses, she breaks all her teeth; a man is turned into a frog, and appears in the witch's ample cleavage. The film's prettiest scene features some winged, miniature fairies, including an out-of-it king bathed in lambent white light.
Still, "The Black Cauldron" is hamstrung throughout by the thinness of its concerns. "You're somebody," Eilonwy tells Taran, "you have to believe in yourself." But neither one of these oatmeal heads has anything to believe in. She's just the pot calling the, er, cauldron black.