The Greatest Animated Film Never Made

Studio 360

In the animation field, Richard Williams is a legend for the wrong reasons. His three-decade-long attempt to make a groundbreaking animated film called The Thief and The Cobbler is up there with Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby-Dick. Williams’ debacle is now the subject of a documentary by Kevin Schreck, Persistence of Vision.

A Canadian living in London, Williams made his living, a very successful one, producing animation for films and commercials. He was best known for bringing Roger Rabbit and the characters of Toontown to life. But from the mid-’60s to the early ’90s, he poured most of his spare time into a film of his own, The Thief and the Cobbler, employing former Disney animators like Art Babbitt. The story was based on Arabian fairy tales, and it featured two silent characters: a devious thief and a heroic cobbler named Tack.

Tack the Cobbler was modeled after Charlie Chaplin

What made the film remarkable were the incredible psychedelic camera movements, which would be impressive if rendered by computers today. Characters chase each other through an MC Escher-esque staircase that flows into an impossible roller coaster. Even a character shuffling a deck of cards becomes eye-poppingly fluid, with every card hand-painted. Williams and his team created all these illusions by hand; the word “painstaking” doesn’t begin to describe it.

But Williams’ perfectionism was also the downfall of his film. He worked on it so long, many of the animators passed away. Finally he sold it to Warner Brothers with the stipulation that he would finish it within a specified period of time, which he failed to do. By the early ’90s, The Thief and the Cobbler ran into another hurdle: Disney’s Aladdin bore a striking — and to many eyes, quite suspicious — resemblance to the unproduced masterpiece.

Grand Vizier Zigzag, voiced by Vincent Price, resembles the villain Jafar from 'Aladdin.'

The producer who bought Williams’ film chopped up the footage, added voices to the silent characters, and made it an Aladdin knock-off called Arabian Knight, which bombed. Williams was heartbroken, and has refused to speak about it publicly.

Kevin Schreck made his documentary without Williams, using news footage, archival tape, and interviews with Williams’ collaborators. For a sense of what The Thief and The Cobbler could have been, check out the “recobbled” restorationby Garrett Gilchrist.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.