Tales From Earthsea vs The Black Cauldron
So, when I started having to do more of these retrospective pieces, I was looking a lot into Disney and I talked a lot about Studio Ghibli as well at the same time. So, I thought, since cinemas might be coming back soon, this was a time really to start comparing the two studios. And I decided for this one, I was going to going to compare two of their biggest bombs, both critically and financially. So, for this week, we’re going to have The Black Cauldron face off against Tales From Earthsea. You might think the fantasy setting is the only thing that connects these two films, but they both were based on Western fantasy novels, combined several books within their respective series, both received backlash both critically and financially, and are generally considered by many individuals to be the worst films of their respective studios. Let’s look at them.
The Black Cauldron released in 1985, though the rights were procured in 1973. This film had a terrible production history; it went through so many scripts, so many storyboards, and by the time it came out, Disney did such a bad job of marketing it and selling it, it lost big time. It’s still one of Disney’s biggest financial flops to this day. In fact, it was so bad it lost to The Care Bears in its opening weekend. Yikes, that’s bad. So as a result, Disney practically buried this movie – it didn’t even receive a home-release until a decade after the film came out. They had that much lack of confidence in it.
Tales from Earthsea, on the other hand, came out in Japan in 2006, but it came to the West much later. It was directed not by Hayao Miyazaki but his son Goro, taking the stories of British writer Ursula Gwynn’s Earthsea series, and combined several of the books to tell their own story. Gwynn was famously rather protective of the Earthsea novels and didn’t allow them to be adapted very often, but she was very impressed by Ghibli’s previous work that she had some faith in them to get something done. Earthsea, while not a major financial flop to the extent that The Black Cauldron was, definitely was still a critical fail; it did not move critics all that much. I have not heard too many people really go nuts for it. In fact, it actually on Metacritic has a lower score than The Black Cauldron, though that might be the fact that there were simply more reviewers at that time working in various different kinds of publications, which probably affected the average pool for it. So, for the purposes of this one, I’m going to talk about the animation, how the story works as an adaptation of their book, and how the story works in and of itself. And whoever wins the most wins overall. Let’s begin!
Now, I know it’s not entirely fair to compare a film from 2006 to a film from 1985, so instead of comparing them against each other, I’m going to put them as a composite against what films were doing slightly before, slightly after and around the time. Now, The Black Cauldron was an ambitious film in terms of its animation; they were desperately trying to get new animation techniques in the films. Too bad it didn’t work out too well. CGI was definitely getting more and more used in animation, but The Black Cauldron was not really an example of it. There were definitely some character designs and world-building that’s excellent – I actually really like the design of The Horn King who acts as the main villain of this film. More on him a bit later, but he has a really ghoulish design that I liked. In terms of its art style, its rather similar to what a lot of Disney films were around that time. It certainly hasn’t got much of the look of many of the films that were going on around that time. This was around the time Disney was transitioning into the style that would make up the Disney Renaissance, and this one was still resembling older films. In fact, several of the characters look like they could easily fit into productions like The Aristocats and 100 Dalmatians. I think the failure of this film definitely gave Disney a bit of a kick in the pants to think that maybe it was time to look for a different art direction.
Now, Tales From Earthsea also has a bit of an issue with CGI. In fact, some of it looks really ropey. But world design is also rather interesting. While we’re not thinking about the fact that this film is an adaptation, it does seem interesting that one of the biggest defining factors of the Earthsea setting—the fact it was not a lot of land and more ocean—being discarded was just a rather bizarre choice. I think Ghibli’s talent could definitely have brought that to life. Character designs are rather interesting though. I once again have to look at the villain design for Cob. His design is freakish; they did an excellent job with this one. I actually think other character designs are also great – I think I like the design for characters like Sparrowhawk or Fayru. It’s just a really excellent combination of brilliant character designs and brilliant world designs. And, in all honesty, where the animation kind of flubs is very minimal. I’ve heard a lot of people bring up the big dragon that was the selling point doesn’t look that great, and I’d have to agree. But man, Black Cauldron did not look good. It was trying to move to a lot of animation techniques that were going to become more standard, but it didn’t really know how to introduce them.
If you want a prime example of how good computer generation mixed with traditional animation went, you really need to look at the Be Our Guest sequence in The Beauty and The Beast and the magic carpet in Aladdin – both of those ones have excellent use of computer generation but they blend well in to the traditional 2D animation that’s being used. While Black Cauldron is not a terrible animated film, its biggest issue is the fact that it’s lighted terribly. I don’t know what but the colour often feel washed out in a lot of environments. Earthsea, while it’s not one of the better animated Ghibli films and the world design feels a little more generic than most Ghibli films, it still has some of that charm there.
Point goes to Tales from Earthsea.
Right, let’s look at these things as stories in and of themselves. We can look at adaptations later, but I think these things need to stand on their own, so let’s take a look at how they stood on their own. Well, Earthsea’s story revolves around Prince Arren responsible for his father’s murder after a curse, and then goes on a run to atone for what he has done. He meets up with Sparrowhawk and they start working at a range run by one of Sparrowhawks’s older friends who is looking after a small, mysterious mute girl named Fayru. And there’s a big story of choosing one’s own destiny and what it means to be a true hero. There are some interesting themes going on from Earthsea, though the film doesn’t entirely capture it. There’s a really great movie trying to get out here. The Black Cauldron story, on the other hand, is all over the place. It is basically about a young pig farmer named Taran who’s tasked with transporting a pig that can read the future when it drinks, to stop the evil Horn King, but he wants to be a great hero, and then he comes across a princess named Eilonwy who wants to restore her kingdom, and then they do so many side plots in trying to get this black cauldron that can revive an army from the dead and- I have no idea what’s going on! And God, this film dances around! This film can never stick with a plot. True, Earthsea has a similar issue but Earthsea at least feels like it is more concentrated on its central plot. The Black Cauldron is all over the place. It’s definitely a lot clearer from The Black Cauldron that it was a result of combining multiple novels in order to tell a more complete story.
Earthsea has the different novel aspects blend into one another. What’s more, I really like the character arcs in Earthsea. They feel a little underdeveloped in certain ways, especially with Arren confronting his past, which the film decides they don’t really want to focus on after a certain point and then just randomly transports back to it, but he’s certainly more interested in Tarran who is completely all over the place. Then, comparing the villains—which incidentally are some of the best parts of both of these respective films—you’ve got Cob and The Fawn King. The Fawn King is really awesome because he gets some really badass monologues. Again, he’s a slight change from the book but he does a decent job bringing him up to his position. But Cob feels really devious. While both of these guys seem like they’re big planners, Cob feels like he has mapped out everything, and what he turns into when he doesn’t get his way is amazing. I think the casting of Willem DaFoe in the English language version of this really proved that. Willem DaFoe puts on actually a very interesting voice for this character. Honestly, I kind of forget at one point that he was playing that role. Also, if we compare the female leads, yeah, Eilonwy is nowhere near as interesting as Theru, and a lot of people complain that Theru is underdeveloped.
Also, we can look at a lot of other things. Soundtrack: Earthsea beats The Black Cauldron hands down. Side characters: While Earthsea doesn’t have that many, it has characters like Sparrowhawk who is voiced brilliantly by Timothy Dalton. The Black Cauldron has Gurgi, one of the most annoying characters in film history. Seriously, just listen to five seconds of this little idiot speak. You thought Jaja Binks’s voice was annoying? It’s got nothing on him. And he’s the worst character of the film by far; his active presence actually drags the movie down. When you look at it overall, Earthsea did way better.
Point goes to Earthsea.
Okay, so Earthsea’s got the win, but let’s see if it fails in this department. Which one was the better adaptation? Well, both of these were trying to combine multiple books in fantasy series. In the case of The Black Cauldron, it also combined the first book in The Chronicles of Prydain as well. Tales From Earthsea doesn’t really have any one book it borrows from; it borrows from quite a few, and really it’s kind of its own thing. There’s not too much of a structure in that sense. There were several changes made from the Earthsea books, but fans would still recognizably be able to piece a few elements together. The problem is that it’s not really trying to be an adaptation of the Earthsea series, but it still contains the title, which means it feels like it is kind of failing as an adaptation in that sense; it’s not attempting too much to be the book in any sense of the work.
Here’s the thing, The Black Cauldron has a much darker tone than many other Disney films around the time, but the thing is that The Chronicles of Prydain were not dark books. They were children’s novels, yeah, but dark? Wouldn’t describe them like that. From what I’ve read and heard of them, they were pretty well-done kids’ fantasy novels. And Disney had no real direction for the film. As a result, they had no idea really how to adapt the book. This went through a lot of different scripts, and they made a lot of changes. In fact, the minimal change is probably adapted more than the massive changes that Earthsea did. But as a structure? As a story structure, it is way more in line with The Chronicles of Prydain than Tales From Earthsea was with its respective book series. However, some of those changes that Black Cauldron made are awful – I already explained how Gurgi is one of the most annoying characters in film history, but compared to his book counterparts, he is very different. He was purely turned this way so they have a mascot character for the film, and it shows. The same as with a lot of other events.
The fact of the matter is though that they didn’t really adapt this to a film script very well. As a result, it does kind of bounce around like a book can do. A book like this can have all these different subplots that just suddenly interrupt the main plot because, again, it’s part of a series; you’ve made a lot of books to get a lot of story out of it. In a film environment it feels like a jumbled mess. This is most notable when we get to locations like the witches’ houses where we have this big magic battle which is completely just another excuse to do what Disney had already done in Sword In The Stone. Man, it’s weird.
Really, the best way I’d sum this up is that it depends on your opinion: Do you go with the film that tried to adapt the book but didn’t do it very well, but give it the point because it at least tried to adapt the book, or the thing that was kind of always meant to be its own thing but only took elements from the book? While normally I would say The Black Cauldron would take this, since it did put more of an effort to bring those books to the screen, all the little changes felt like they took away from the story, not added to it. Okay, for example, some good changes that worked: The Horn King is promoted to being the main villain, whereas in the book he was actually a sub-villain for a later one that would show up. But then you’ve got all these other little changes like with Gurgi and the fact that the dwarf characters were taken out to be replaced by fairies, and none of the tone really matches. It’s just kind of all over the place as a result. Earthsea might not be as much of an adaptation of their books, but it at least feels like, in a sense, they had a bit more respect for the book than The Black Cauldron did. The Black Cauldron just doesn’t work in that sense.
Point goes to Tales From Earthsea, and it wins hands down again.
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