2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程

Dark Disney: the flops that almost destroyed Walt's empire

Satanic animation, surrealist sci-fi, Bette Davis horror… Thanks to Disney+ you can finally watch the films Mickey Mouse would rather forget

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Satanic: Disney's The Black Cauldron
The work of the Devil: Disney's The Black Cauldron Credit: alamy

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程This was a trip to Disneyland like no other. As dry-ice bubbled and swirled a menacing figure loomed, twin horns bristling. 

“Oh Satan’s Kiln… awaken and resurrect the soldiers of death,” it bellowed in tones unlikely to be mistaken for the helium chirruping of Mickey Mouse. “Rebuild an army without rivals – the Devil’s Servants… the Black Cauldron wants more bodies.” 

It was 1986 and deep beneath a 51 metre-high replica of Walt Disney’s iconic Cinderella Castle, Disneyland Tokyo was welcoming the first visitors to its new Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour. A full-throttle fright-fest, it featured the Magic Mirror from Snow White, glowing skeletons hiding in a lake and uber-villainess Maleficent. 

And then, in the final room, a chilling face-off with his Satanic majesty, the Horned King – the baddie from the 1985 Disney megaflop The Black Cauldron. 

So terrifying was the tour Western visitors with children were informally advised against proceeding and directed somewhere more congenial. Of course, as soon as they discovered it was partly based on the Black Cauldron – one of Disney’s biggest ever box office disasters – they may have jogged on anyway. 

By the time Disneyland Tokyo’s Mystery Tour opened, The Black Cauldron and the Horned King were on their way to semi-mythic status as Disney’s ultimate cautionary tale. More than that, the Black Cauldron represented the apex of one of the strangest chapters in the history of Disney. 

Later, the period would be christened “Dark Disney” – a decade-long push by the Magic Kingdom to appeal to more mature audiences. And to distance itself from the saccharine, family-friendly values on which Uncle Walt had built his empire. 

Dark Disney is rarely mentioned today even though it spawned a number of memorable movies, along with some unspeakable clunkers. Several films from that epoch can be streamed via the new Disney+ service just rolled out in the UK. There are omissions, however, such as such as the 1983 adaption of the Ray Bradbury creepshow Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

Yet Disney isn’t exactly banging a drum for these films. If you would rather watch Frozen or Moana instead, it is more than fine with that. It’s as if company and its fanbase have collectively agreed to pretend Dark Disney never happened. 

But it did, and those who were there remember it only to well. In the mid-Seventies, a decade after the death of Walt, it became clear Disney was losing focus. In the years immediately following the founder’s passing, the studio had fast-tracked projects developed by Disney during his lifetime.

Walt Disney (right) and his animators working on Fantasia Credit: Los Angeles Public Library/BBC

Alas, the law of diminishing returns was soon kicking in. Forgettable fare such as Robin Hood (1973), the Rescuers (1977), and the Fox and the Hound (1981) confirmed Mickey’s minions were losing their spark. 

It didn’t escape the attention of those at the top that, instead of queuing to see Robin Hood portrayed as a smarmy fox, kids were lining down the street for (and, when they could sneak in, Jaws and The Exorcist). Why, it began to be asked, wasn’t Disney going where the action – and the money– was?

The sense of opportunities being lost was accentuated by the fact George Lucas had taken Star Wars to Disney only to be rejected. That despite his assertion that campy space opera and the House of Mouse were the perfect fit. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程“This is a Disney movie,” Lucas said at the time. “All Disney movies make $16 million, so this movie is going to make $16 million. It cost $10 million, so we’re going to lose money on the release, but I hope to make some of it back on the toys.”

Within Disney, Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller, who worked in the film division, was the loudest voice for change. Every day Disney dithered, the further it moved away from its potential audience, he warned.

“I’ll tell you, candidly,” Miller told Starlog in the late Seventies. “that there appears to be a lid on our product. The age group we typically appeal to just won’t give us the big attendance numbers that some other studios get.”

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Miller, who would become president of Walt Disney Productions in 1980, lobbied to abandon the Disney stipulation that its films carry a family-friendly rating. And so, in 1979, Disney unveiled its first PG-rated release, sci-fi thriller the Black Hole.

The Black Hole Credit: alamy

Disney was apparently determined to reference every popular sci-fi flick going. The plot was a baffling mashup of Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Alien. Which was impressive, considering Ridley Scott’s interstellar shocker hadn’t even been released yet. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程The Black Hole came with a relatively heavyweight cast, including such Seventies-reliables as Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins and future Breaking Bad semi-regular Robert Forster. They play members of a deep space exploration vessel that stumbles upon an apparently abandoned ghost ship on the outskirts of a black hole.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程The cast was also to include an upcoming actress named Sigourney Weaver. However, director Gary Nelson vetoed her, saying “Oh my god, with a name like Sigourney Weaver, we don’t want her”.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Our heroes foolishly board the ship and are greeted by the clearly deranged Dr Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). His ultimate plan is to pull off an Interstellar-type manoeuvre and zip straight into the super-massive gravity well on their doorstep.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程This is a deeply weird movie. It gets even stranger as the gang finally pass through the black hole and into a surrealistic vista that makes the final 15 minutes of Kubrick’s 2001 feel like a rerun of Minder. And the Black Hole’s mere existence was controversial, with Disney diehards campaigning against it from the outset. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程“We’ve gotten a lot of letters, and we’re going to get a lot more,” Miller would lament to Starlog “I got one from a woman doctor – and a couple of days later her husband or her son – saying that they hope the picture flops.”

With a budget of $20 million it was the most expensive Disney film yet. Much of the money was lavished on killer robot Maximilian, an angular monstrosity that looked like Darth Vader after a long weekend trapped in a trouser-press. 

It wasn’t a flop, garnering $35. 8 million. And it certainly didn’t dissuade Miller, who took Dark Disney to the next level with 1980’s the Watcher in the Woods– or, as it might plausibly have been titled, the Exorcist for Teenagers.

A gothic horror on rocket jets, Watcher was adapted from the Florence Engel Randall chiller and starred 72 year-old Bette Davis as a menacing old woman in creepy rural England. As a spookfest, it was stacked with pedigree.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Robert Hough, the director, had overseen 1973 chiller the Legend of Hell House. Hammer Horror veteran Brian Clemens wrote the script. Alongside Davis, the cast included Italian “giallo” horror pin-up Carroll Baker. The Watcher in the Woods was even filmed in the same residence where Robert Wise had shot 1963’s The Haunting. What could possibly go wrong? 

Lots, it turned out. The Watcher in the Woods was a disaster out of the gate, beginning with a farcical screening for critics in New York. 

Bette Davis in The Watcher In the Woods Credit: alamy

It all went wrong in the final 10-minutes as the terrifying alien at the centre of the mystery is revealed to be… a giant rubber bat on a string (more or less). Just like that all the carefully stoked tension evaporated and giggles rippled around the room. Seated at the back, Miller realised evasive action was called for. 

He was told it was too late to pull the film which went on general release in New York that week. Miller pulled it anyway and had the ending re-shot with a spectral pillar of light replacing the rubber bat.

Still, the situation was too far gone. The Watcher in the Woods made back less than half its budget. Yet somehow Miller had by now been promoted to Disney president. One of his first actions was to bring a taste of Dark Disney to the struggling animation division. He did so by approving an adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s bestselling children’s fantasy saga, the Chronicles of Prydain. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Here, at least, Disney was forewarned. The company had acquired the rights to the novels in the early Seventies. Unfortunately it had struggled to find a way of bringing Alexander’s dense fantasy world to the screen.

It didn't help that the animation division was in disarray. Walt’s original team of animators – the “Nine Old Men” –were largely retired. Disney had groomed replacements, with Don Bluth regarded as possessing the talent and vision to lead the company into its next chapter. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程But then in 1979, on his 42nd birthday, Bluth left to form his own studio. He took with him many of the most talented animators. Suddenly in the lurch, Disney drafted untested graduates from the California Institute of the Arts (including a wet-behind-the ears Tim Burton). The new recruits were keen. But they didn’t really know what they were doing. 

And then word reached Disney that Bluth’s first project was to be a dark fairytale titled The Secret of N.I.M.H.. Determined to beat the turncoat at his own game, plans for the Black Cauldron were fast-tracked. 

Alas, in their haste, Disney’s animators and the film’s producer, Joe Hale, lost sight of what made the original novels so special. A sprawling five-volume coming-of-age saga was bludgeoned to an 80-minute movie. And a minor villain, the Horned King, was bumped up to Darth Vader-esque antagonist, seemingly on the basis that he looked impressive on screen. 

An original poster for The Black Cauldron Credit: disney wiki

"We thought [that the Horned King] would make a good animation character mainly because he had horns sticking out of his head,” Bluth had said before departure. With him gone, the Black Cauldron grew even more truncated. 

Even as the new animators laboured over the film, however, outside events were conspiring against them. By 1984 it was clear Disney couldn’t continue as it had.

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程It needed to adapt or die. That September former Paramount Pictures boss Michael Eisner was appointed chief executive. One of his first steps was to hire up-and-coming executive Jeffrey Katzenberg  – who in 1979 had helped steer Paramount’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture away from disaster – to oversee Disney’s film division. 

This meant he had seniority over Roy E Disney, nephew of Walt and head of the animation division. In his first week on the job, Katzenberg asked to see what animations were in development. A screening of the Black Cauldron was arranged. Five minutes in a dragon swoops in and seizes a child in its claws. There is blood. Katzenberg couldn’t believe what he was watching. Nor that the budget was ballooning past $40 million. It would have been even higher had Hale proceeded with his original plan to have the Horned King manifest via hologram in cinemas. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程“This has to be edited,” Katzenberg told producer Hale. Hale response was that you couldn’t “recut” an animation. There was no additional footage. That simply isn’t how it worked with cartoons. 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程“That’s ridiculous,” Katzenberg shot back. “You can edit anything.” 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程He stormed into the editing room and started recutting a $40 million film that could not be recut. Hale called Roy Disney who, though he himself had misgivings about the Black Cauldron, contacted Eisner in a panic. Eisner patched a call straight through to the editing suite.

“What are you doing?” the CEO asked Katzenberg. “Everyone’s upset.” 

Katzenberg was finally talked into leaving, according to James B Stewart’s Disney War: the Battle for the Magic Kingdom. But not before firing a parting shot at Hale. “It’s bad. Fix it.” 

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程In the end, several minutes were trimmed from the Black Cauldron, though this didn’t prevent it becoming the first (and last) Disney animation to receive a PG rating. It flopped anyway. By the end of 1985 it had earned less than the Care Bears Movie which, with a budget of $2 million was $43 million cheaper to produce.

Only Disneyland Tokyo and its Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour showed it any love (the Horned King would continue his satanic incantations until the tour closed in 2006).  

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程The Black Cauldron was a line in the sand for Disney. As the shambles played out, Eisner and Katzenberg seriously considered shuttering the animation division entirely. 

Instead, they completely overhauled it. In the process they brought Disney back to its kid-friendly roots with The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994).

2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程By the time Baby Simba looked out over the supplicant herds in the Lion King, Disney’s circle of life had become a lucrative positive feedback loop – and Dark Disney a bad dream everyone involved vowed to never speak of again.