By Scott Ross
“I’ve never understood why some people in animation are so desperate to save work. If you want to save work, what on earth are you doing in animation? It’s nothing but work!” — Richard Williams
The animator Richard Williams died earlier this year, and this past week I finally sat down with the re-constructed edition of his despoiled life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, cleverly subtitled “The Recobbled Cut” and made available online by the filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist. Gilchrist completed the picture, to the pre-recorded soundtrack, occasionally using pencil-tests or otherwise incomplete animation to fill in the 15 minutes that remained unfinished when the picture was taken out of Williams’ hands in 1992.
To call the movie astounding is to do it scant justice. It’s one of the most technologically dazzling, glorious-looking animated movies I’ve ever seen.
I’ve written elsewhere about the picture’s troubled history and how, after a reel of footage from it won Williams the job of preparing the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit Disney suddenly decided an Arabian Nights tale would be its next animated feature following Beauty and the Beast. That the 20-plus year pet project of a three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker was first undermined and forcibly wrested from him is a tragedy. But, as “Stevem” in his excellent video analysis of The Thief and the Cobbler observes, Williams didn’t know when to stop, or when too much was too much. The movie’s climax serves an example. It’s gorgeously designed, superbly executed, and absolutely astounding, especially for entirely hand-drawn animation. But it goes on for 15 minutes. That’s three times longer at least than it needed to be, and a good producer would have insisted it be trimmed down considerably. (Williams, alas, was his own.) Yet even while we’re wearying of this over-extended sequence involving a monstrous War Machine we can’t help appreciating how ingeniously it’s being done. It’s brilliantly conceived and animated — violent death as a Rube Goldberg construct.
The Thief and the Cobbler isn’t remotely like a Disney cartoon; it’s its own genre. It doesn’t have the heart or well-defined characters of a Disney cartoon, and it doesn’t try to. (The King’s daughter Yum-Yum is especially poorly defined.) If it had gotten completed, and released as Williams planned it, it probably wouldn’t have pleased many people other than animation mavens. One thing you have to concede about the Disney animators and story men (and they were almost always men) is that they were masters at developing character in a two-dimensional medium, and Williams’ characters — perhaps because he did so many short films and animated movie titles? — are, with the magnificent exception of his Grand Vizier, thin; he introduces them, and once you’ve grasped their essential qualities you realize they aren’t going to change much, or deepen beyond your first glimpse of them. But who says every animated feature has to be like a Disney? The Thief and the Cobbler creates its own, unique world, based on the rich, colorful tradition of Muslim design and while it is odd that neither titular character speaks (at least until the very end) the picture is wonderful to watch, and has its own weird rhythms, which the Disney artists would certainly have deemed confounding… although you can see exactly where they stole from it.
The most obvious “borrowing” is from Williams’ most well-defined character: Zigzag, the Grand Vizier voiced by Vincent Price. Although the figure is itself a borrowing — he was clearly inspired by Conrad Veidt in The Thief of Bagdad (1940) as is some of the movie’s action — he’s entirely fresh, whereas the corresponding character in Aladdin is really just an animated Veidt. Zigzag is wonderfully designed, and animated: He has five fingers and a thumb on each hand, when he walks his feet cross, and his huge, bulky shoulders are hunched like those of a bird of prey (he has a vulture called Phido for a pet).* And Price caresses the character’s dialogue, all of it in rhyme, as only he could; he has such a high time of it he’s still rhyming even as he’s about to be devoured by crocodiles.†
The Cobbler, called “Tack,” is a large-eyed, pale-faced figure who lives to cobble; he knits shoes in his sleep, and nothing seems to faze him. What’s most distinctive about him is the way the tacks he holds in his unseen lips indicate his moods. We seldom see his mouth, but he don’t need to. “Stevem” calls Tack “Chaplinesque,” and I suppose he is, but he lacks dimensions. He’s charming, and fearless, but there’s no real reason for Yum-Yum to fall in love with him except that he isn’t the Vizier.
The Thief is equally one-dimensional, but he’s a great deal funnier. Tack is a believable human figure; the Thief is entirely a cartoon, with a small swarm of flies perpetually hovering over his malodorous head; when the Thief falls into a moat they fly above the water and calmly wait for him to resurface. The character has his best sequence while attempting to steal the three golden balls atop the city’s highest minaret, as he tries to vault his way to the top, each time with a longer pole, eventually flying entirely over it. He sees everything in life in terms of whether or not it’s worth stealing. When it is, he forgets everything else but the object he’s in pursuit of — he represents the Id in extremis. He’s the Wile E. Coyote of elaborately planned larceny yet his luck nearly always holds; he’s almost never hurt, as Wile E. is, and when he loses one object he instantly becomes enamored of another. He’s one of the few genuinely happy characters in the movie aside from Tack. Diametric opposites, they complement each other. The only other comic character of note is the Holy Old Witch, who is marvelously designed and animated but, as voiced by Joan Sims (who also provided the voice for Yum-Yum’s Nurse) is annoying rather than amusing.
The Thief and the Cobbler is so beautifully done one’s mouth waters to see it projected in a theatre. And since it was made in widescreen, seeing it that way would have been a truly spectacular experience. But even though the movie, and Williams’ struggle with it, has been made the subject of a documentary (Kevin Schreck’s 2012 Persistence of Vision) it seems doubtful anyone will provide the funding necessary for the picture’s proper completion and distribution.
What happened to Richard Williams with The Thief and the Cobbler makes my stomach lurch, the same way I get physically ill whenever I think of how The Magnificent Ambersons was taken from Orson Welles and destroyed by RKO. And when I consider Williams’ story, I cannot help comparing him to Welles, and to the true iconoclasts in all fields of art: Those whose vision is unlike other men’s, and women’s, and who are punished for that persistence. As the writer and publisher Eliot M. Camarena recently said on the subject, “The biggest sin is leaving the herd.”
Here’s to the clever sheep who slip away.
*The great Ken Harris, whose work graced hundreds of Looney Tunes and Merry Meolodies as well as the main title sequences Williams designed for two Pink Panther movies, is given prominent billing in the credits as “Master Animator,” and Zigzag’s movements bear his hallmark elegance.
†Several other noted actors performed voice-overs for the picture including Felix Aylmer (opening narration), Anthony Quayle (King Nod), Donald Pleasence (Phido) and Joss Ackland (the chief Brigand) as well as Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross