‘The Thief and the Cobbler’: The greatest animated movie that never was

Bilge Ebiri

Bilge Ebiri on the incomplete Richard Williams masterpiece that took decades to make

23 November 2018 17:08

It looked like people died making this film.’ That’s how an animator once described Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler, a movie that was effectively in production for three decades before it was effectively abandoned, just inches from the finish line, in 1992. But even in its incomplete form, it may be the greatest animated film ever made. It’s certainly mind-blowing, a visually arresting and innovative spectacle of magnificent intricacy. And it will be screening – unfinished, yet unparalleled – today at the BFI Southbank Theater, along with a Q&A with Williams himself, who previously refused to talk about his maudit masterpiece for many years.

Williams will also be present for a screening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the 1988 Robert Zemeckis classic for which he directed the brilliant, Oscar-winning animation sequences. At first glance, and maybe even at second and third glace, the two films couldn’t be more different from one another. Thief was an independent, ever-shifting labor of love that a small group of artists slaved over for decades. Roger Rabbit was a frantic, Spielberg-and-Disney-produced homage to Hollywood lore with brand-approved crossover appearances from the likes of such non-Disney characters as Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, and Betty Boop. Thief helped sink multiple companies and financial partnerships. Roger Rabbit effectively saved Disney animation and set the stage for the company’s great revival, AKA the Disney Renaissance; The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker) would premiere the following year. (Ironically, it was that very renaissance that helped kill The Thief and the Cobbler, but more on that in a bit.)

Watching the two films together, however, you can also see some surprising similarities. Williams’s justly celebrated style has a weight and fluidity that gives an edge to the physical comedy of Roger Rabbit. There’s a reason he was chosen for the job of creating animation to integrate with the live action of Zemeckis’s blockbuster: Williams is a student of movement and behavior, and even at their most stylized, his characters move with a physical logic that just feels right – every joint, every muscle, every shadow seems to have been thought through. In the case of Roger Rabbit’s insanely elaborate slapstick set-pieces, this allows our eye to quickly follow and process the bewilderingly fast action onscreen, no matter how wild it may be. This quality also lends the surreal humor and striking, Rube Goldbergian set-pieces of The Thief and the Cobbler real weight and a strange kind of urgency. For all the film’s graphic whimsy, the action never feels two-dimensional.

Here’s one more odd similarity. (Or is it a difference?) Set in an imaginary Hollywood, Roger Rabbit is itself a fake meta-fiction that playfully shows us the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of our favorite cartoon characters – we get to find out which of them are jerks, which ones have bad marriages, which ones are tough to work with, which ones can’t hit their cues. In other words, it purports to reveal how animated movies are made. The Thief and the Cobbler, because it remains incomplete, demonstrates through its very form – and, indeed, its very existence – how such films are actually made.

Richard Williams and Vincent Price

For many animation buffs, the long, troubled journey of The Thief and the Cobbler is as familiar (and brutal) as the Stations of the Cross, but here’s a synopsis anyway: Sometime around 1965, Williams, a Canadian-born artist and award-winning animator, began working on an ambitious hand-drawn feature set in a Middle Eastern kingdom. His vision for the film expanded and changed over the years, but it was always steeped in the influence of Persian and Ottoman miniature painting and the abstract designs of the Islamic world, albeit shot through with the director’s own irreverent sense of visual humor. It was originally to have been based on the fables of Nasreddin Hoja, or Mullah Nasreddin, a 13th century Sufi cleric of the Seljuk Empire and avuncular folk hero, whose witticisms and occasionally daffy wisdom have been passed down for centuries across a number of Middle Eastern cultures.

But a falling out with his producing partners (who had the rights to the stories Williams was adapting) led him to change the narrative in 1972, even though he had already spent years animating it. Ultimately, the story would focus on a persistent Thief and an innocent Cobbler, both of them mostly silent figures, who run afoul of a scheming grand vizier named ZigZag in an imaginary Middle Eastern kingdom. The Cobbler falls for a beautiful Princess, and together they save the kingdom when ZigZag tries to engineer its invasion by an army of heavily armed, one-eyed ogres.

All along the way, Williams and his company made shorts, TV commercials, and opening titles for various features to help finance his dream project. Williams even won an Oscar for Best Animated Short for his eerily moving 1970 adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. (That, too, will screen at BFI, as part of a series of Christmas shorts in early December, again with Williams in attendance.)

Financiers came and went. In 1978, a Saudi Arabian Prince became interested in helping bankroll the production, but backed away after Williams ran wildly over-budget and behind schedule completing a 10-minute sequence to show prospective partners. In the mid-1980s, Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz became involved, and Williams met Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, who were looking for an animator to help them with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Williams signed on to do Roger Rabbit, which became a massive hit in 1988 and won him two more Oscars. At this point, the movie now known as The Thief and the Cobbler had already spent nearly a quarter century in production and become one of the industry’s most speculated-upon projects. Warner Bros. agreed to release it on a negative pick-up deal – which meant that they would pay Williams upon completion and delivery – and the animators then began rushing to make a 1992 deadline.

‘The Thief and the Cobbler’ (Richard Williams)

Needless to say, they didn’t make it. Not only was the film itself bewilderingly ambitious, but Williams himself was a perfectionist who would slave over seemingly minor shots for months. He had also gone through scores of employees, with many having moved to rival companies. And now, a new specter emerged: The Walt Disney Company was working on a movie called Aladdin (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1992), which not only bore a disturbing similarity to the tale of The Thief and the Cobbler, but also seemed to have, um, borrowed some of Williams’s character designs.

Warners, realizing that Williams was not going to make his release date, and that their delayed film was likely going to come out looking like a knock-off in the wake of Aladdin’s box-office juggernaut, withdrew from the deal. The Completion Bond Company stepped in, fired pretty much everyone (including Williams), and brought in other animators to finish a compromised, cheapened version of the movie. They added songs, changed key story elements, and released a hacked-together cut called The Princess and the Cobbler, in 1994. Then, in 1995, Miramax (owned by Disney!) bought the film, added even more songs and wall-to-wall voices – the previously silent characters of the Cobbler and the Thief were now voiced by Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Winters – excised even more footage, and released a mostly horrific bowdlerization called Arabian Knight (which later came out on DVD under the title The Thief and the Cobbler, in case things hadn’t gotten confusing enough.) None of these releases came close to approximating Williams’s intentions, and all died at the box office.

But Williams’s workprint of the film, captured in the state it was in 1992 when he was forced off the project, survives, and has been preserved. Subtitled The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time, it screens theatrically on rare, special occasions, today’s event being one of them. (It’s only the second time that the film has been shown in the U.K.) Meanwhile, a slightly different attempt to capture the majesty of his vision, The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut, was created in 2006 by Garrett Gilchrist, a devout fan of the director’s work, using the workprint and additional footage from various sources. Every few years, Gilchrist revises his fan-edit, as more sections become available in better quality versions. Numerous filmmakers who worked on The Thief and the Cobbler have contributed materials to it. Meanwhile, director Kevin Schreck has made a fascinating documentary called Persistence of Vision (2012), which charts the long and agonizing journey of Williams’s magnum opus.

‘The Thief and the Cobbler’ (Richard Williams)

Both the Moment in Time and Recobbled Cut iterations of The Thief and the Cobbler are staggering to behold. And believe it or not, Williams’s seemingly thwarted artistic ambitions for the film remain intact. The Thief and the Cobbler, even in incomplete form, forsakes traditional Western notions of perspective – in which everything is arranged according to a unified line heading towards the horizon – and instead employs Eastern notions of points-of-view – in which one continuous plane of action can contain multiple perspectives. It merges the elaborate, repetitive ornamentations one might find in Turkish and Persian tiles and carpets with the playful design paradoxes of M.C. Escher, as evidenced in a delightful early scene where the Cobbler chases the Thief through a dense world of checkerboard arches and accelerating, arrow-patterned backgrounds, each of which ends in a new optical illusion.

And then there’s the film’s breathtaking, revolutionary climax, in which the Thief finds himself inside the invading villains’ infernal war machine, guilelessly slinking and dodging his way among hails of arrows, flaming cannon-fire, cascading piles of soldiers, and a baroque system of ever-churning gears, claws, and pulleys. He tiptoes up steps that disintegrate before him, and is tossed and yanked and catapulted by collapsing machinery. It’s almost impossible to imagine actual humans drawing all this. And it all feels so convincing: Because Williams was always so careful about the way he animated movement, everything has a heft and grace that gives credence to the mind-boggling action onscreen.

As tragic as it is that Williams never completed his film, there’s something strikingly beautiful about the unfinished nature of it all. Some sequences are close to finalised, some exist merely as pencil sketches or storyboards. Occasionally, a scene will cut in and out of various levels of completion. Sometimes, an illustrator’s note or screen direction will flit across the frame. These interruptions are jarring at first, but eventually they become part of the overall experience.

The Thief and the Cobbler was always going to be a multi-layered picture, its simple story giving way to moments of trippy abstraction, like a bedtime story that turns into a hallucinatory nightmare. That it’s unfinished simply adds another layer. It also provides a tremendously valuable glimpse into the animation, and indeed the filmmaking, process, showing scenes in various stages of completion and giving us insight into how a director constructs a feature film. Had Williams ever finished The Thief and the Cobbler, the results may well have felt anti-climactic. It’s unlikely that it would have been a huge box office hit, and it may not even have been a critical success. Now, it exists as the dream it always was – an awesome, unanswered question.