Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Thief and the Cobbler (Richard Williams, 1993)

(In tribute to Richard Williams, 1933 - 2019)

(The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut Mark 4 can be streamed or downloaded on this site)


there was an animator, Richard Williams, who built a name 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 twenty 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, hired Williams as animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Rabbit 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 sixty hours a week, the filmmaker often firing animators right and left (harsh, but to be fair no one worked harder than Williams; said animator Roger Visard: "He was the first person in the morning and the last one out at night"). 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 fifteen minutes, he claimed, 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 felt like a losing proposition (different scenario if Williams had finished on time, and Warner was able to pre-emptively release the film). In 1992, Williams' dream project of some twenty-four years was taken from him by a completion bond company, which cut footage out and put in (cheap-looking) animation involving musical numbers (because, y'know, Disney). 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--bought Thief from the bond company, mutilated it some more, added celebrity voices to the silent thief and cobbler, released the film as Arabian Knight...which also did poorly with the critics and not much better at the box office. 

And so matters remained.

Until one Garrett Gilchrist in 2006 created a nonprofit fan edit of Williams' 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; different elements donated by different animators who had worked on the film. With a tenacity not unlike Williams' and a period of some seven years, Gilchrist has managed to assemble a hundred-minute version that may represent the closest thing we have to date of Williams' original. 

What's the film like? It opens on a black screen and out of the dark emerges a crystal orb clutched by a pair of wizened hands; a voice (Felix Aylmer) intones: 

"it is written
"among the limitless constellations of the celestial heavens
"and in the depths of the emerald sea
"and upon every grain of sand in the vast deserts
"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 the knobby fingers 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 a Renaissance map, the sequence suggestive of ancient mysteries about to be revealed.

We first see the cobbler lying on a mat; he rolls over in his sleep, picks up a thread, passes it through a needle's eye.

A few matters of note: how graceful the cobbler's gestures (most studios animate on twos--twelve inbetween drawings (drawings that change or shift from one position to the next, suggesting the illusion of movement) per second--sometimes more; Williams animates on ones, meaning he had 24 inbetween drawings done per second) even when performing as simple an act as rolling on a mat; how humble the cobbler's circumstances (he can't even afford a bed); and how firmly his skills are fixed in muscle memory as he dozingly passes the thread through the eye. 

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) complain of the pancake-flat characterization--but critics probably focused on the added monologues as opposed to the characters' pantomime. Later we'll notice that the cobbler (named Tack) doesn't have a mouth; his emotions are often suggested by the shoenails hanging from his lips--when Tack is feeling bright they stand at an alert angle, when depressed sink to a lower slant, when thinking things over do a ruminative revolution round the jaw. If as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said 'action is character' the film is full of character; dialogue would distract from the delicacy of their performance as effectively as if everyone had been yelling. 

Likewise for the thief--Tack may be the ostensible story's hero but much of the film's screen time and (I suspect) heart belongs to the eponymous if nameless thief. Jonathan Winter's on-the-spot improvs were amusing but violate the character's concept: Williams' thief 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 the three golden balls perched atop the city's highest minaret, said to protect the city from all harm.

We keep track of the thief through the halo of flies swarming about his head; others sense him by smell ("Maybe something died" speculates Princess Yum Yum (Tack's love interest, played by Sara Crowe), her nose wrinkling). Both traits come into play early on when the thief attempts to penetrate the royal palace the back way, up a drainage pipe. The pipe is of thin metal that warps under weight; Williams turns the thief's climb into an extended gag where the pipe acts like a large intestine, the thief an oversized piece of ordure bulging its way up the wrong direction, accompanied by buzzing flies--all for the sake of the three balls that had filled his eyes with longing. Action, character--simple, effective, funny. 

The thief recalls one particular silent comic: Harry Langdon. If Chaplin was The Tramp--romantic vagrant who wins through cunning and agility--and Keaton was The Great Stone Face--inventive hero impassive against impossible odds--Langdon (as his director Frank Capra would put it) operated on The Principle of the Brick: "Langdon may be saved by the brick falling on a cop but it was verboten that he in any way motivate the brick's fall." The thief is the film's ultimate innocent, constantly drawn to bright objects like a pack rat or magpie (Perhaps the funniest joke in the film involves the thief being caught with his arm stuck in a jar. Escape is simple--he just has to let go--but the idea of abandoning his glittering haul never occurs to him). Williams may have based Tack on Chaplin but the thief is surely Langdon, this film possibly their one onscreen team-up.

The rest of the film is one breathtaking setpiece after another interrupted by crude pencil sketches or still photographs--the story flows, if the images don't always. The Escher-like chase through the palace, the assault of the War Machine--one thinks of Shah Jahan's gorgeous mausoleum taking eleven years twenty thousand artisans and 827 million in inflation-adjusted dollars to build, a monumental memorial to love (in Shah Jahan's case for his late wife; in Williams' case for the transitory beauty of animation). Shah Jahan was reportedly about to double his folly with a second palace every bit as extravagant as the first, in black as opposed to white marble, dedicated to himself; his equivalent of the Warner Brothers/Miramax was his son, who deposed then imprisoned the ruler across the river in view of the giant tomb (instead of a second Taj, Shah Jahan in death had to settle for a stone coffin next to his beloved--marring, incidentally, the structure's perfect symmetry). 

For the palace chase Williams takes the Islamic 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; as he revs in place trying to gain the necessary traction the designs seem to spin the opposite way, slowing his progress--a simple enough gag of only a few seconds but imagine the time and effort!

As for the War Machine: one thinks of Griffith's Intolerance, of the months and money (not to mention manpower) poured into a single shot, of a vast Babylonian celebration where the camera swoops past carved lifesized elephants and half-naked dancing girls and tiny crowds waving from dizzying precipices. In Williams film it's as if Babylon were crammed into a suitcase squatting before a million-man army and begun unfolding in all its terrible manifold-spiked splendor.

In the face of such power you may just want to give up lie down and die. Tack does the opposite: he thinks about it (nail turning slowly in mouth) and, realizing the pun in a prophecy once told about him, attacks. 

The Thief and the Cobbler is in the tradition of maimed failures that have obsessed filmmakers for much of their lives--Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and Stroheim's Greed being a few of the more famous examples. But there's also Jacques Tati's Playtime, with Paris itself a Rube Goldberg contraption drawing us with its whirring cogs and spinning gears, and--in the realm of animation--Paul Grimault's The King and the Bird, where yet another tyrant chases yet another pair of lovers through yet another toy city. Grimault's tale is more bittersweet than tragic--he at least managed to gradually buy back control and finish his film, in a state more or less acceptable to him (though you see the difference between the original animation and the fixit done in the '70s); Williams walked away, unable to look back at the hack job they had done on his child.

One asks: is the film more than just the sum total of its bravura design? One thinks of the confrontation that climaxes the film (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan on watching!), when the cobbler hugs the three precious balls and the thief has him cornered. After all that elaboration Williams resorts to the simplest of devices, intercutting between the thief and cobbler's eyes in giant closeup: we see the cobbler's, all determination and not a little fear (behind him is a drop, sharpened blades waiting below); we see the thief's, twin pools of immeasurable avarice. Can the thief do it? Kill the cobbler--who after all is trying to save his princess and the city--for those globes? The thief's eyes soften; he assumes a sour-grapes expression and waves the cobbler away, the braggadocio hiding the fact that he cannot bring himself to harm a fellow human being. Williams in effect casts a vote--despite years of mistreatment in the hands of fellow men--in favor of humanity, in favor of Chaplinesque decency and compassion. Odd when you think of all those dismissed animators, but... 

But but but but but--years later the film's odyssey has apparently managed to pull off a kind of Langdon-ish finale. The bond company that shut Williams down has reportedly gone bankrupt; Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein has suffered a fate if not worse than death is at least richly deserved; the film itself--thanks in part to Gilchrist--enjoys a makeshift resurrection. 

There's even barbaric art to the film in its present form (Mark 4, in mostly high definition): sequences of stunning imagery interrupted by crude pencil sketches or static photo stills--like an experimental film that captivates with fluid animation, suddenly confronting you with cruder manifestations of its making. Or a beautiful woman who draws you close, startling you with glimpses of bone and muscle, of underlying reality.

And if the Taj is a monument to love, surely Williams' unfinished masterpiece is a monument to the impulse to build as skillfully and imaginatively as one can, and damn all time and budget constraints. A majestic foolishness perhaps, but part of its majesty arises from the fact that it is foolishness--something that was never meant to be finished or perfected but, like a mirage, hover over that side of reality, a persistent lure for artists and animators (and combinations thereof) alike. 

What more to say? Mutilation scars tragic history and all, still one of the greatest animated films I've ever seen.  

First published in Businessworld 8.23.19


Unknown said...

Thank you for this beautiful review. You nailed it completely. Best review ever.

Noel Vera said...

thanks for the kind words.