A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law happened upon a DVD while in the checkout line at a discount store, a Miramax kid-flick sampler that housed a dozen or so animated features for the low price of $3.99. How could she resist? My son, still too young to concern himself with matters of taste or quality (current favorite movie: King Kong Escapes), had been watching each of the movies, but soon became obsessed with one in particular, something called The Thief and the Cobbler. I knew nothing about it, but when your child starts looping a flick over and over again, eventually you sit down and check it out.
Featuring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Winters and Vincent Price, The Thief and the Cobbler was about as terrible as I had imagined. That said, I quickly realized something was up. In between the clumsily drawn stock moments and terrible songs were these amazing sequences, like Walt Disney and M.C. Escher had collaborated on some long-lost Middle Eastern-themed Fantasia. What was going on here? I started Googling. Four hours later my jaw was still on the floor.
The amazing story behind The Thief and the Cobbler is at the center of Persistence of Vision, a charming documentary from director Kevin Schreck that pulls the curtain back on one of the most fascinating untold stories in film history. Vision refers to Thief as “The Greatest Animated Movie Never Made.” That’s pretty much dead-on.
The Thief and the Cobbler is the work of Richard Williams, a simultaneously towering and largely unknown figure whose work bridges the gap between the end of the original golden age of animation and the advent of the computer era. Williams’ studio was behind an early-1970s animated version of A Christmas Carol that you may recall, and did the title sequences for What’s New, Pussycat? and a few of the Pink Panther movies. The company also produced thousands of TV commercials during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, including a Fanta ad from the early 1980s that showed the Disney characters playing soccer with a bunch of kids that was one of the most successful early combinations of live action and animation. That spot landed Williams the job of animation supervisor on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, for which he nabbed two Oscars.
None of that mattered to Williams, at least not the way The Thief and the Cobbler did. The ultimate passion project, Williams worked on Thief for more than 25 years before ultimately losing control of his baby to Warner Bros., which seized the film when the animator couldn’t deliver it on schedule and budget. Subsequently completed in slap-dash fashion, Thief was retitled Arabian Knight and released into theaters in 1996, where it failed spectacularly. Warner Bros. had sunk more than $25 million into Thief — that on top of the millions Williams had spent — and by the turn of the century they were giving it away free in boxes of cereal.
Persistence uses archival clips of Williams and his work (though still alive, the animator doesn’t speak publicly about Thief), mixed with interviews with people who toiled on the film (sometimes for years) to tell the story. Williams is revealed as a Steve Jobs-like figure, a genius animator who was also a master motivator that demanded and got a fanatical devotion from his staff. That he also often mistreated his employees — the hours were ungodly, Williams would sometimes make animators start over after trashing months of hand-draw work, and that was if he didn’t just fire them outright — only adds to the fascination.
Fortunately for us, a large chunk of the Williams’ version of Thief still exists — some of it completed, much of it early, incomplete sketches — and the clips shown in Persistence are mesmerizing. Williams and his animators achieved visuals unlike anything ever attempted in an animated feature, and if Persistence consisted only of these sequences it would be worth the price of admission. That you also get a detailed and complex portrait of an artist who never found a happy medium between his muse and the need for commercial success is an unexpected bonus.
The difference between Steve Jobs and Williams, of course, is that Jobs could actually finish what he started. Persistence makes it clear that if Warner hadn’t seized Thief and wrapped it themselves, Williams would probably still be working on it to this day.
Now that’s a movie I’d have loved to see.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Kevin Schreck.
Screens one night only, Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. at the [email protected], 620 1st Ave. S. St. Petersburg. 727-895-6620; studio620.org. A Skype-enabled Q&A with Schreck directly follows the screening.