Richard Williams is an animator best known as the animation director for Disney/Amblin’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit and his unfinished film The Thief and the Cobbler, widely considered the greatest animated film never made. I’m not going to cover Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though I might in the future. Williams was only a part of two feature films, mostly focusing on shorts or being an animator. I’m counting him as the “production company” so to speak for this first film, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. The 1977 film had no animation company behind it, instead employing random animators to finish it. Williams started as animation director for the film, but when the original director, Abe Levitow, grew sick and eventually died, Williams reluctantly became the director, too. Williams clashed with the producers throughout production and was eventually dropped at the end, though his name stayed on the production. All of Williams’s problems with the film, including the inclusion of too many musical numbers, were brought up by critics and the film ended up making nowhere near its $4 million budget. Seeing as this wasn’t his production company, I’m sure Williams wasn’t too broken up about the whole ordeal.
His only other film, The Thief and the Cobbler, actually started production in 1964 and a finished version wouldn’t be released until 1995, making it the longest production for a movie at 31 years. The movie came from the books of Idries Shah, which collected the tales of Mulla Nasruddin. Williams had done illustrations for Shah’s books and he decided that they would make a great animated movie. Backed by Shah, he started production on what would have been called Nasrudin. Williams still needed to work on other projects to help pay for this one, so production slowed quite a bit. He started hiring animators to help with production and even gained attention from some film studios for distribution rights. In the early 70’s he cast Vincent Price as the villain ZigZag, one of the few voices that would stay consistent throughout the film’s production. By 1972, Williams had three hours of footage and just needed to work it into a cohesive story. This was interrupted by his belief that the Shah family bookkeeper was embezzling funds from the film. This led to a falling out with the Shah family who took ownership of Williams’s illustrations, thus ending production for Nasrudin. They did, however, let him keep characters that he had designed for the film, including the thief character. Because of the loss of the Shah family, Paramount backed out of a distribution deal for the film.
Williams had Howard Blake write a new treatment called Tin Tack in 1973 which introduced the eventual main character, Tack. The thief character, along with a sleepy king and an evil vizier were transplanted from Nasrudin and put into the Tin Tack story. In 1974, a recession forced the studio to focus attention once again on TV specials and commercials. Tin Tack became a side project rather than the main focus of the company. Due to Williams wanting the film to be a sprawling epic, it caused the production to go on far longer than any normal animated production. Williams didn’t want something just like Disney was putting out. He wanted something special. At this stage they were just doing rough drawings for everything, which saved money at the time, claiming that they’d come back and finish them later. The film continued to become more ambitious, with Williams desiring to make every frame as complex as possible, eventually creating the greatest animated film of all time. In 1978, the studio gained the attention of a Saudi prince, who agreed to finance a 10 minute sequence at $100,000. Williams decided to make this the penultimate scene with the Thief in the War Machine. Production missed two deadlines and went over budget by $150,000. Despite being impressed by the screening, the Saudi prince backed out due to the missed deadlines and over-budget production. It wouldn’t be until 1986 that they would get a backer for the film, namely Allied Filmmakers. They agreed to finance $10 million of the film’s $28 million budget. Allied Filmmakers in turn wanted Williams to change things about the story and effectively erased a couple of characters and sequences from the film. Steven Spielberg saw footage of the movie and together with director Robert Zemeckis, asked Williams to be the lead animator for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film ended up being a smash hit and Williams won two Oscars for the animation. With this, Williams proved that he could work in a major studio structure and stay within budget and time constraints. Spielberg and Disney had initially agreed to help distribute what eventually became The Thief and the Cobbler, but it was not to be. Disney quickly started focusing on their own animation, which was on the verge of a renaissance, and Spielberg went to start his own animation studio, Amblimation. Though his wife suggested going with European investors for the rest of the project, he ultimately cut a deal with Warner Bros. His production was also buoyed by Japanese investors.
After all those years of toiling to find a distributor, Williams had one and full production began in 1989. At this point he had many drawings for the film but had not story-boarded anything, as he found it too constraining. Vincent Price came back in 1990 to record more lines, but due to his age and illness some lines were never finished. Williams began experimenting with shots animated by hand to move in three dimensions with characters. This sort of animation can be seen in the opening sequence of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Williams needed everything to be perfect and it was causing issues with Warner Bros. and his animators. Warner Bros. signed a deal with The Completion Bond Company to make sure they received a finished product. If Williams couldn’t deliver, The Completion Bond Company would take over production. Animators worked overtime, often 60-hours a week, to deliver a finished film. Williams was also very strict with his animators and many were fired over the new production’s timeline. Williams missed Warner Bros. first deadline in 1991 with 10-15 minutes left of screen time to complete. It was also at this time that production on Aladdin at Disney had begun, a movie which bore many similarities to The Thief and the Cobbler, most notably between Zigzag and Jafar. Things culminated in a rough version being shown to Warner Bros. in 1992 and it didn’t go well. The penultimate reel of the film was missing and Warner Bros. was not impressed. Warner Bros. lost faith in Williams and backed out of their deal, putting The Completion Bond Company in charge and ousting Williams. Fred Calvert was tasked with finishing the film, something that the Bond Company wanted done as fast and cheap as possible. Animation duties were scattered to different companies, including Sullivan Bluth Studios, Kroyer Films, Wang Film Productions, Varga Studio, and Rough Draft Studios. Approximately 18 minutes of Williams’s footage had to be cut due to their repetitive nature. Calvert hated to cut any original material, but it didn’t serve the story well.
After the movie was finally completed, Allied Filmmakers and Majestic Films re-acquired the distribution rights from Completion Bond and Calvert’s version of the film was distributed in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler in 1993. Miramax agreed to distribute the film in the U.S., though they were a subsidiary of Disney at the time and had just got done releasing Aladdin. Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, decided that the film needed to be cut even further and then added additional dialogue and a celebrity voice cast including Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals, and Jonathan Winters. Jake Eberts, who had served as Executive Producer before Williams was ousted, went on record stating that he liked the Miramax version better than Williams’s version, considering it a superior product. This indicates, more than anything, that just about everyone was tired of Williams at that point. The movie was quietly released as Arabian Knight in August of 1995 and grossed $319,723 against a $24 million budget. Yeah, that’s not great. Critical reception of the Miramax version was generally negative, though it mostly focused on animation from Fred Calvert’s tenure and the added on celebrity voice cast. The original Williams footage was praised for being “among the most glorious and lively every created”. The film once again had its name changed to The Thief and the Cobbler when it was released on VHS in 1997. From then on, the movie has been released with little to no added features as a DVD through 2012. If you really want a copy, you’ll have to pay up, since the only one I could find new on Amazon was for almost $70.
To date, Richard Williams has never seen the Miramax version of the film, though his son, Alex Williams has, and considers it to be unwatchable. Since the Miramax version came out, attempts have been made to restore as much of Williams’s original story as possible. His workprint was bootlegged soon after the movie was released and copies were shared among animation fans and professionals for years after. The biggest hurdle in restoring the movie was the fact that the Completion Bond Company had basically thrown any deleted scenes to the wind, most falling into the hands of private parties. Before he lost control, Williams had been keeping all artwork in a fireproof safe. Legal problems with Miramax have also made attempts difficult. The best version that is currently available to watch is called The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut. In 2006, a filmmaker, artist, and fan of williams’s work named Garrett Gilchrist created the project as a way of getting as close as humanly possible to Williams’s original work. With the support of many people who had worked on the film, excluding Williams, he took the heavily compressed file of Williams’s workprint and the better-quality footage from the Japanese DVD of Arabian Knight to stitch together a finished film. Animators on the project lent Gilchrist rare materials to help him finish the project, though minor tweaks had to be made to the film to make it feel finished. Certain scenes, like the wedding ending, had to be redrawn frame by frame by Gilchrist due to flaws in the footage. The Recobbled Cut has been revised Three times in 2006, 2008, and 2013. Each version incorporates more and more higher-quality materials donated by animators from the film. The movie can be viewed on Youtube, along with interviews, extra footage from the Nasrudin production, and any video pertaining to The Thief and the Cobbler he could find. I have not actually seen this version yet, but I have seen the Miramax version.
In 2013, Williams announced that his workprint of the film, subtitled “A Moment in Time”, would be screened in LA. Afterwards he revealed that his workprint has been archived and digitally duplicated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A documentary was also made detailing the troubled production of the film, titled Persistence of Vision. Williams did not take place in the production of the documentary, so it is instead from the perspective of the animators and artists who worked on the film. We may never know what Williams’s final version would have looked like had he not been stopped by studio interference. His own desire for perfection and innovative animation can also be blamed for his eventual ousting. If you haven’t seen either versions of the movie, I would recommend checking them out, if only to see Williams’s original animation, which is breath-taking to behold.