My last feature film at the Giraf festival was this documentary directed by Kevin Schreck on Richard Williams’ would be masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler.
The documentary is very well done, covering the inspirations and production of the film from in inception in the 60’s to its crash and burn ending in the 90’s. It uses interviews of Williams’ old staff and archival footage to tell the story of a masterpiece gone awry.
The Thief and the Cobbler was a film over twenty five years in the making and seeing the love, sweat, and craftsmanship that went into it is amazing. Legendary animators worked on this including Ken Harris and Art Babbitt. Williams made several trips to Disney to learn their animation techniques, which were later brought together in a wonderful book The Animator’s Survival Kit. Quality voice talent was used, the backgrounds are lush and there are environments that use 3D and it’s all done by hand. Hell considering it was released in 1993 it was probably one of the last if not the last major film to use hand painted cels. The film really is the apex of the art form of animation, it’s gorgeous and brilliant and it could have been ground breaking.
The fact that the film is so full of wonderful things is also its major weakness though. In this documentary Williams talks about how you can always tweak things in animation and indeed you can. If you want to make a scene longer or extend an action you add more frames, and since this film was done on ones the timing wouldn’t be messed up from doing that. Because it’s your own project you always want to make it better, and you don’t have deadlines to worry about until an outside force like a financial backer shoves one at you. To do just a little bit more was the film’s downfall I think. Williams had never even fully storyboarded the project and people do say the scenes that should have been only a couple seconds long were going for a minute or more, because Williams just wanted to keep adding to it. Also since the film was in production for so long animators turned over and the new weren’t as experienced which only slowed down things further and caused friction between Williams and the staff. This documentary doesn’t hide the fact that Williams certainly wasn’t a perfect man and seemed to be a real dick at times as a boss, to quote him from one of the older documentary’s they used here “if I was an employee here I’d quit.” But the vision he had for this film was a grand one and seeing it fail is heart wrenching.
The documentary film shows one of the trailers for the final version of The Thief and the Cobbler released under the completion bond company and honestly it’s like watching something beautiful just die. The finally product has voice overs, and pop culture references, and stupid songs. It was meant to be anything but the standard animated musical. While Disney techniques were incorporated the Disney formula was not. It was supposed to be an art house film, and silent harking back to the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and other silent film stars. The animation was supposed to carry the film not simply the voice work.
Ultimately The Thief and the Cobbler is an indulgence for its creator so I don’t know if Williams every would have finished it on his own, because it’s really about showing off the animation and all the great ways it can used not about telling a story. Still I think had it been finished entirely by him and his team it would have been a wonderful inspiration to the people in animation and shown that yes this can be beautiful work, not just in fine and proper movement like Disney, or memorable character design like Fleischer’s, or great personality’s like Warner Brother’s, but that could move beyond all of that. To have a totally fine art almost silent film it would probably have had a major impact on the kind of animation that came after it. I don’t think the film would have been commercially successful but it surly would have been a cult classic. Sadly it wasn’t to be and having it all be reduced to bargain bin bad film is just depressing.
To conclude I think everyone should see this documentary. It shows the audience a great milestone in the history of animation. Seeing the work, the talent, and the time that went into this was wonderful. Hearing the old animators talk about what a wonderful project they were working on. It was indeed the greatest animated film never made and at the very least this documentary does an excellent job exploring it and leaving me wishing for what might have been; instead of the reality that all that hard work and dedication was reduced to a prize in a cereal box.