Critic After Dark

ONCE upon a time, there was an animator named Richard Williams who built a reputation out of fashioning animated shorts.

In 1964, Williams illustrated short stories about the mythical comic figure of Nasrudin which, in 1968, he turned into a film project. When support fell apart (in 1973), he took characters and stories he worked on — particularly his favorite, a thief — and repurposed them into a new production he would end up calling The Thief and the Cobbler.

Williams and his people continued developing the film on and off for some 20 years, using money earned from commercials, television specials, and film credit assignments. He would describe Thief as a “100 minute Panavision animated epic feature with a hand-drawn cast of thousands” that is “not following the Disney route… It has no sentiment and the two main characters (the thief and cobbler) don’t speak. It’s like a silent movie with a lot of sound.” He adds “the idea is to make the best animated film that has ever been made.” It was his child, his dream project that he hoped — somehow, someday — to complete. The film’s legend grew accordingly.

Steven Spielberg saw footage of Thief and hired Williams as animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which turned out to be an award-winning monster hit — and Williams’ golden opportunity. When Warner Brothers offered $25 million to help finish Thief, Williams accepted but the film had to be finished by 1991.

Williams and his crew labored mightily, sometimes up to 60 hours a week. The filmmaker often fired animators when they didn’t meet his standards. When the deadline came and went, Williams was forced to present what he had: a workprint with 85 minutes of footage, with pencil tests and storyboards to cover over gaps in the story. He needed six more months to draw the remaining 15 minutes, and the film would be complete.

Warner backed out of their deal. Disney was about to open Aladdin — which, viewed closely, included characters and animated sequences that resembled those in Thief (some of its animators were people Williams had fired) and the idea of competing directly against the mighty Mouse seemed like a losing proposition (it would have been a different scenario if Williams had finished on time, and Warner was able to preemptively release the film). In 1992, Williams’s dream project of some twenty-four years was taken from him by a completion bond company, which cut footage out and put (cheap-looking) footage involving musical numbers (because, y’know, Disney) in; the result was released as The Princess and the Cobbler, and promptly failed at the box-office ($669,276 in receipts against a $28 million budget).

Miramax Films — a company notorious for buying up and mutilating independent pictures before releasing them in the American market — buys Thief from the bond company, mutilates it some more, adds celebrity voices to the silent thief and cobbler, releases the film as Arabian Knight… which does poorly with the critics and not much better at the box office.

(Side note in the “poetic justice” department: the bond company has since reportedly gone out of business; as for Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein — well — he’s been charged with rape, among other things.)

And so matters remained.

Until one Garrett Gilchrist, in 2006, created a nonprofit fan cut of Williams’s fabled workprint, painstakingly piecing it together from what material was out there: 35-mm workprints of The Princess and the Cobbler; a Japanese DVD of Arabian Knight; and different elements donated by different animators who worked on the film. With a tenacity not unlike Williams’s and a period of some seven years, Gilchrist has managed to assemble a 100-minute version that may represent the closest thing we have to date of Williams’s original vision.

What’s the film like? It opens on a black screen and out of the black emerges a crystal orb clutched by a pair of wizened hands; a voice (Felix Aylmer) intones: “it is written… that the world which we see is an outward and visible dream of an inward and invisible reality.”

Truism of the Saint-Exupery variety. But the solemnity is impressive, and the knobby fingers look like spider’s appendages holding their prey captive. Inside the orb whirl purple clouds that give way to a galactic spiral, an ocean whirlpool, a dust devil, a fabulous city — the rendering lovingly detailed, like from a Renaissance era map, the whole opening striking the tone of ancient mysteries about to be revealed.

We first see the cobbler (single line of dialogue credited to Sean Connery, but was probably spoken by Williams’s wife’s friend — which wife I’m not sure; he went through four marriages, and the production spanned decades) lying on a mat; he rolls over and, in his sleep, picks up a thread, passes it through a needle’s eye.

A few things to note: how graceful the flow of motion (Williams animates on ones, meaning he had 24 in-between drawings done per second, the rate at which the eye appreciates a full second of film; most studios animate on twos — or 12 in-between drawings per second — sometimes more) even in as simple an act as rolling in sleep; how humble the cobbler’s circumstances are (he can’t even afford a bed); and how ingrained his skills are in muscle memory as he threads a needle in his sleep.

Early reviews of the film — particularly those of Arabian Knight, with Matthew Broderick muttering commentary as the cobbler, and Jonathan Winters improvising witticisms as the thief — note the pancake-flat characterization, but critics probably focused on the added monologues as opposed to the delicate pantomime of the original characters. If as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “action is character| then the film is full of moments illuminating each character; dialogue would distract from the delicacy of their performance as effectively as if they had been yelling.

Likewise for the thief — Tack may be the story’s ostensible hero but much of the film’s screen time, and I suspect, the film’s very heart, is given over to the eponymous if nameless thief. Jonathan Winters’s on-the-spot improvs were amusing but violate the character’s concept: Williams’s thief never speaks, has no room in his head for speech; his mind is dominated by a raging kleptomania, a desire — no, lust — to acquire anything and everything shiny and beautiful.

The rest of the film is one breathtaking setpiece after another interrupted by crude pencil sketches or still photographs — but the story flows, if the images don’t always. In the case of some sequences — the Escher-like chase through the palace, the assault of the War Machine — the result is a series of grand follies, much like Shah Jahan’s gorgeous mausoleum taking 11 years, 20,000 artisans, and $827 million to build, a monumental memorial to love (in Shah Jahan’s case to his late wife; in Williams’s case to the transitory beauty of animation).

In the case of the palace chase Williams takes the Arabic fondness for geometric patterns and — literally — runs with it: perspectives are treacherous, and one crosses a marbled floor at one’s peril. At one point, Tack skids to a stop against an intricately spiraled and whorled wall, and as he revs in place trying to accumulate the necessary momentum the wall designs seem to spin in the opposite direction, impeding his progress — a simple sequence of only a few seconds but you can imagine the time and effort that was spent on realizing the gag.

As for the War Machine: one thinks of Griffith’s Intolerance, and of the months and money (not to mention manpower) poured on a single shot, of a gargantuan victory celebration in Babylon, while the camera swoops down past carved elephants and half-naked dancing girls and distant crowds waving from dizzying precipices. In Williams’s film, it’s as if the city of Babylon were crammed into a compact case squatting in front of a million-man army, and began unfolding in all its terrible manifold-spiked splendor.

In the face of such power, one may be tempted to just lie down and die. Tack does the opposite: he thinks about it (nail turning slowly in his mouth), and realizing the pun inside a prophecy told about him, attacks.

What more can I say? Mutilation scars and all, The Thief and the Cobbler is one of the greatest animated films I’ve ever seen.