`Black Cauldron' pours on the visual wizardry

It took $25 million and more than 10 years for Walt Disney Pictures to film ``The Black Cauldron,'' its new feature-length cartoon. That makes this the most ambitious animation since ``Pinocchio,'' in terms of the time and resources lavished on it. I'm happy to report that it's also one of the best -- not in the league of ``Dumbo'' and ``Pinocchio'' itself, but trailing not far behind. True, the story gets off to a slow start, with hackneyed high jinks and tired jokes. But it gathers steam before long, and soon there's enough action and suspense to keep young adventure fans hopping.

More important yet, the Disney animators have created their most endearing characters in years to accompany the young hero on his quest, and surrounded them with an eye-boggling array of visual effects. In all, it's a resounding bounce-back for Disney in the wake of disappointing response to its other new movie, ``Return to Oz.'' Family films may be back in style, after all -- although parents should be aware that both Disney summer attractions carry PG ratings and may be too intense for the youngest ch ildren.

The tale begins on a farm, where young Taran passes his days tending swine and dreaming of glory. His heroic fantasies seem likely to remain just that, and he is kind of depressed until a message comes from one of his piggy pals -- a clairvoyant porker named Hen Wen, whose sixth sense announces that a wicked Horned King is in the neighborhood. This villain is searching for the Black Cauldron, a cast-iron version of the ``lost ark'' which offers evil powers to any scoundrel who gets hold of it.

With advice from his mentor, an old man named Dallben, our hero sets forth to stop the Horned King in his tracks. Along the way he picks up new friends and assistants, as heroes always seem to do. The most charming is a furry something-or-other named Gurgi, whose cowardly appearance hides a courageous heart. Others include a broken-down minstrel called Fflewddur Fflam and a spunky princess named Eilonwy, as well as a trio of witches who help without really meaning to. Equally vivid are the bad guys, who

range from the slimy Creeper to a whole army of ``living dead'' that could have stepped out of a George A. Romero nightmare.

Much of the story is very familiar: It would take a lot of effort not to guess that Gurgi will come through in a pinch, or that kidnapped Hen Wen will be found. Some of the action is corny even by cartoon standards, as when a dead character springs happily but inexplicably back to life. And the beginning is a drag, full of pastoral twaddle that would have looked stale decades ago.

The characters are mostly delightful, though -- we could be in for a rash of Gurgi dolls -- and when it's time for the action to get spectacular, the Disney folks really pour it on. More than 200 people (including 68 animators and assistant animators) worked full-time on the picture, which has the rich ``full animation'' look that has all but disappeared from today's movie and TV screens. The studio also went an extra mile in the facilities it employed: ``The Black Cauldron'' is the first animation to b e shot in a 70-mm process since ``Sleeping Beauty'' back in 1959, and it is one of the few pictures ever recorded in ``stereo surround sound.''

Solid contributions also come from the cast, which includes such distinguished voices as John Hurt and Freddie Jones as the Horned King and Dallben, respectively. Based on a book series by Lloyd Alexander, the story is credited to no fewer than 11 writers. Ted Berman and Richard Rich were the directors, and Elmer Bernstein composed the score.

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