When Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis needed a team to provide animation for their ambitious hybrid “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” they didn’t turn to their own team at Disney Feature Animation who, with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” singlehandedly invented the animated feature (and was responsible for the medium’s continued popularity). Instead, Spielberg and company turned to Richard Williams, an eccentric, Canadian-born animator who ran an animation studio and ad agency in London and who, quite recently, had been responsible for developing a technology to shade animated characters that were inserted into live action plates. The collaboration was a rousing success, netting Williams a pair of Oscars, but his directorial debut, “The Thief and the Cobbler,” wasn’t so lucky. “Persistence of Vision” explores the monomania of a man determined to push the envelope of the medium, until the envelope explodes.
It should be noted that “Persistence of Vision” was wholly completed without Richard Williams’ involvement. He doesn’t like to talk about “The Thief and the Cobbler” and what happened to it, and his presence of the movie is neatly compiled from footage of the auteur throughout the process of making the film. In a weird way it’s more fascinating than if they had actually gotten Williams to talk, because you get to watch his optimism start to erode and his confidence start to falter. He always thought he was going to finish it, throughout the process, but you can see his enthusiasm wan. It’s like hearing the voice mail of a plane crash victim hours before the flight goes down.
But let’s go back to the beginning – Richard Williams was seen as something of a wunderkind. And when he went to England to pursue his artistic dreams, it was deemed another eccentric flourish (something people who knew the man were quite used to). While he made his living doing commercials and title sequences (for things like “What’s New Pussycat?” and the Pink Panther films), Williams dreamed of tackling a feature film – and not just a feature film, but a bold, breakthrough, cutting-edge epic, the kind of thing that would make David Lean take a step back from the screen. It became an obsession.
After Williams had completed illustrations for a new translation of “The Nasruddin,” a collection of Middle Eastern folklore (usually involving some kind of brief story with a moral), he decided that it should be the basis for a feature. However, a complicated legal battle over the rights of the character left Williams with a pair of marginal, mute figures at the center of the feature – the thief, a smelly lowlife with a perpetual swam of flies hovering over his head; and the cobbler, a young, wide-eyed waif.
It was untraditional from the start, and as the production stretched from doodles in between commercial projects to massive chunks of time spanning decades, a concrete story failed to ever coalesce. Even with some staggering talent behind the scenes (including an elderly Ken Harris, one of the original animators for Warner Bros., and a fresh-faced Joe Ranft, who would later become a creative juggernaut at Pixar), the project floundered under the mercurial, temperamental leadership of Williams, who would instruct an animator to redo an entire sequence because he disliked the color of a minor prop or refuse to let one of his employees visit his sick wife who was in the hospital with meningitis.
The work that Williams and company did produce was staggeringly brilliant and some genuinely next-level shit; so outrageously experimental and intricate that it made “Fantasia” look like “Madagascar.” There was a finished sequence that involved the thief being catapulted through a huge war machine that one animator notes in the documentary, “looks like people died making it.” And it really is something to marvel at. Your jaw hinges open, whether you like it or not. But even that piece of finished footage wasn’t enough to secure backing from anyone.
After the success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” though, Williams got some big offers. He was initially offered Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” but, claiming the endless development of “The Thief and the Cobbler,” suggested another British animator (whose version ultimately proved too difficult). Warner Bros., at a time when they were actually serious about restarting their animation division, stepped in with an offer to provide funding, provided Williams finish on schedule and on budget. If he didn’t, then the bond company would take the film away from him, and the movie he had been working on for, at this point, 25 years, would be cruelly ripped from his ink-stained hands.
At one point in the documentary, there’s footage of Williams calling “The Thief and the Cobbler,” the “epic ego trip of Richard Williams,” and it’s hard not to linger on these words. Williams had an exacting, Kubrickian sense of perfectionism, one that is particularly suited for animation, since it can be endlessly redone with pencil, ink, and fresh sheets of paper. Predictably, Williams falls behind and the bond company takes the film away from him, and it’s easy to wonder what would have happened if the had actually finished the movie (by all accounts he was kind of a lousy storyteller and had 95 minutes of footage for a 79-minute movie) but as one animator says, “Who knows if he would even be finished with it today?”
In one of the most gripping sequences of the film, director Kevin Schreck (whose Herculean accomplishment in compiling this film is a feat in and of itself), compares footage from Disney’s “Aladdin,” which started and finished production more than a decade into the development of “The Thief and the Cobbler,” with footage from Williams’ film. It’s hard not to say that things were lifted wholesale from Williams’ film, although the amount of animators that went through Williams’ studio and the amount of stories that went with them, it’s just as easy to blame Williams for his sluggish production pace. (When the film was eventually released in the mid-nineties, most accused “The Thief and the Cobbler,” released domestically by Disney shingle Miramax, as “Arabian Knights,” of ripping off “Aladdin.”)
Most heartbreakingly, director Schreck shows off footage from the “completed” ‘Thief and the Cobbler,’ which negates Williams’ playful experimentalism with corny Broadway-style tunes, flat, featureless animation and additional vocal performances (the cobbler was no longer mute). He creates an atmosphere of tantalizing possibility, but is always quick to remind that Williams was more than a little unhinged and was the ultimate reason for the movie’s failure. In a weird way, by never finishing the film, Williams guarded himself from the ultimate disappointment because, after decades of work and teams of talented people coming and going, “The Thief and the Cobbler” could have been a masterpiece. Or it could have been a mess. Either way, no one will ever know. At least now, thanks to “Persistence of Vision,” there’s a pretty good idea. [A]