Thursday, September 19, 2019

Richard Williams Troubled Masterpiece

The sad news of Richard Williams passing on Aug. 16th 2019 rocked the animation world.  It caused many to reflect on his brilliant career and contributions to animation as a teacher and master animator.

Part of his legend was the attempt to make the greatest animated film in history. The Thief and the Cobbler was going to be his masterpiece.  With a long troubled history spanning 3 decades the film  never accomplished Williams’s vision having been wrestled away by Warner Brothers.

The film existed in three different versions; the first was distributed in South Africa and in Australia as The Princess and the Cobbler on 23 September 1993. Then in December 1995, Miramax Films, released the second version entitled Arabian Knight featuring newly written dialogue, songs, and a celebrity voice cast that was added months before the film's release.  And the third most faithful version known as The Recobbled Cut is Garrett Gilchrist's fan restorations which follows the Williams work print very closely.

You can read the films checkered history in full here:

So why was this masterpiece so problematic, and why hasn’t it been seen by more people?  Mr. Williams did not like to discuss its because the failure hurt him deeply, but we can look at it today with our highly politicized social warrior eyes and see what spectacular things he was able to accomplish and also get away with, things that would never fly today.

 The film is an amazing feat of animation done before computer assistance and never intended only for children.  There are truly astonishing visuals and adult themes that may have more meaning than a casual viewing might yield.  What motivated Williams and why he shaped this story as he did may never be fully know.  But as glorious and amazing as the animation is, the film does have its flaws.

The story-line is paper thin, and the ending foretold right in the opening narration.  An unseen Narrator spills the beans by saying a threat can be stopped by the simplest of things while his disembodied hands conjure the Golden City and then frame it with a border shaped like a ‘tack’.  Later the king’s advisor Zigzag steps on a tack and accuses the cobbler, who just happens to be named Tack, of all things, had attacked him.  The whole film is built on this rather obvious wordplay of a tack and attack.  
The Narrators hands forming the tack clue

In the cast we have King Nod who seems oblivious to all that's happening in his kingdom, because he is, well, asleep.  The kings daughter is saddled with the horrible name Princess Yum Yum and, as her name implies, she looks yummy.  She is the love interest, and desire of the wicked Zigzag advisor to the king, who is voiced wonderfully by Vincent Price with the right degree of humor and oiliness.  Zigzag, probably the most developed character in the film, has six fingers on each hand, and wants to get them all over the princess by buttering up the king. Then, there’s the Thief, a silent figure, (unless you watch the Arabian Knight version with Jonathan Winters providing a nonstop internal dialogue that becomes annoying pretty fast).  This shifty guy has no character ark whatsoever and remains the same throughout the film never having learned a thing.  Last is the Cobbler, another mute figure who only speaks at the very end, the unlikely hero. He is kind to animals and clever with his hands.

 The film has wildly politically incorrect moments by todays standards, that were problematic even during production then and are the chief reasons for modifying the film with its different releases.  Garrett Gilchrist's Recobbled version is the closest we have to Williams original vision. We find inappropriate behavior, which may have actually been acceptable for the culture and time period the story is set in, like the feminized, castrated eunuchs who announce the arrival of Zigzag in their high pitched women voices.  Then there’s Zigzags gift to King Nod of a woman in a curtained structure, (a cage?), named Mombassa, who we never see except for one eye peeking coyly out of the curtains.  Now concubines and courtesans were historical rolls for women but this is particularly disturbing because as her name implies, she may be a black woman kept naked and caged only as a plaything! The scene is even creepier as the king puts his hand into the curtains and we hear her giggling inside while his daughter Yum Yum is standing there watching it all.  He even takes the cage with him to watch a public Polo match while sitting next to Yum Yum with his arm still in the cage! Then there are the gymnastic slave women of the evil king of the One Eyes who tumble and contort to form a throne for him to sit on! He is literally sitting on a chair made of women! These adult gags shine a light on Williams sense of humor, and one wonders if there is symbolism to the One Eyes. Were they a representation of the All Seeing Eye, the evil secret controlling power that exploit women in sex trafficking?  Perhaps that’s going too far. 
Eunuchs announcing the coming of Zigzag

Zigzags gift to King Nod as Yum Yun looks on
Mombassa peeks out of her cage
Yum Yum watching in disgust
King Nod, Mombassa, and Yum Yum at a Polo match
King of the One Eyes sitting on his throne of women
The Witch who has an obvious prophesy
The Thief and the Cobbler maybe exhausting in it’s totality with its long complex moving perspective shots and thin character development. It may take a long way to tell the story with incidental figures like the witch who reveals an obvious clue by uttering “A tack, attack!” in a vision that we knew about from the beginning.  But even with its flaws, it’s worth seeing over and over again for its wonders.