Tuesday, April 5, 2016

In Defense of Boring Movies - The Thief and the Cobbler (Recobbled Cut)

I'm not gonna sell what I have stolen
It's something that belongs to me
--"Thief About to Break In," Teitur

This post is part of a series about slow, strange, difficult, and otherwise boring movies.

This installation of the Boring Movies series is brought to you by the late, great film criticism site, the Dissolve, which describes our film thus:
The Thief And The Cobbler should have been the capstone achievement of one of Great Britain’s finest animators. It was the last great hand-drawn animated film, and the final film of many of the greatest animators of the golden age: men whose careers stretched back to Fantasia and Betty Boop. As it went through iteration after iteration over its three decades of development (by my count, it had 10 different working titles over the years, some repeated), it served as a palimpsest and training ground for a new generation of animators. By the time a butchered version of the film finally limped into theaters, it was famous mostly as a financial and artistic debacle. In the years since, it’s become legendary. It’s been the subject of a remarkable documentary by Kevin Schreck, Persistence Of Vision—and an even more remarkable fan restoration project by Garret Gilchrist. Behind this legendary lost film was [Robert] Williams, a key figure in British animation best known for his groundbreaking work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit... For nearly 30 years, his obsession with creating the greatest animated film of all time kept him at the center of a maelstrom.
In short, The Thief and the Cobbler was the obsessive project of animator Robert Williams, who spent so much time and energy working on it that he never actually managed to finish the thing. Instead, it was finally taken away from him and finished, quite badly, by someone else, and released just in time to look like a pale imitation of Disney's Aladdin.

Fortunately for us, the aforementioned fan restoration project, The Recobbled Cut, is highly available and highly watchable. It attempts to restore Williams' original vision for the film, by supplying the highest quality visuals available of the shots that make up the movie, from high-definition animation all the way down to still images of storyboards. Here's the opening segment of the film, which splices together line drawings, grainy old film stock, and high-definition visuals to give us an approximation of Williams' intended final product:

This wide variation is part of what makes the film fascinating, especially since the high-quality stuff is among the most elaborate hand-drawn animation ever created:
The film was animated at 24 frames per second (12 is more common), and every image was hand-drawn. The amount of work that went into a single sequence, the grand Vizier fanning a deck of cards, was astronomical—each card was individually painted. As one of the animators Kevin Schreck interviewed for Persistence Of Vision put it, “It looked like people died making this film.”
Like many movies in this series, the plot of The Thief and the Cobbler is simple to the point of almost not being worth talking about: thanks to the actions of a simple thief, a great city is threatened by a terrible evil, and a mysterious, silent cobbler teams up with the city's princess to save the day. It's all very The Hero's Journey. The characters are broad and even quite boring as people, and the dialog is merely a vehicle for the plot (except for the vizier, Zigzag, whose dialog is merely a rhyming vehicle for the plot). Also like other films in this series, the pacing of The Recobbled Cut is very strange, with plot-advancing dialog scenes occurring infrequently, sporadically, and usually quite briefly, while great lengths of time are spent on Looney Tunes-style gags:

...or other elaborate visual setpieces, like this chase scene through MC Escher's dream palace:

I've defined boring movies as movies with a subversive purpose: instead of aiming for pure entertainment, a boring movie presents the viewer with a viewing experience that is in some way a serious challenge, and then asks the viewer to deal with it. A boring movie poses serious questions to the viewer, and creates space for the viewer to come up with answers.

While most movies I've reviewed in this series are intentionally boring in this sense, The Recobbled Cut is not, because its boring qualities are partially a product of the director's frustrated and never-completed vision. (It does share this quality with at least one other movie in the series, The Dark Crystal "Director's Cut".) Richard Williams did not set out to intentionally challenge audiences by inserting storyboards instead of animation, or varying the quality of the visuals over a broad range of color saturations, degrees of sharpness, and levels of completion. And he was probably not aware that he was sacrificing quality dialog and plot for obsessively detailed animation.

But these difficulties do present any viewer with a significant question: how much do plot, or dialog, or characters matter if one's goal is the pinnacle of visual craftsmanship? This is an especially pressing question in hand-drawn animation, where the amount of work required to produce something that looks great is increased tenfold or more over the comparatively simple process of filming live action. In other words, is anything else really important if you're able to produce visual spectacle with this level of vividness and detail:

I've watched this movie twice now, and I'm still not sure I have the answer.

Fair warning to viewers: there are a number of questionable decisions made when it comes to depicting the characters. Women and people of color are poorly represented. If that's the kind of thing you notice or think about when consuming media, this movie will make you shake your head. (Watching it reminded me of The Tragedy of Man, another passion project film, which took decades to animate, has highly inventive and well-executed visuals, and maintains a pretty poor view of women as people.)

If you can look past the movie's many flaws, though, you'll find a diamond in the rough. Robert Williams is an animation master, notably heading up the animation for the astonishing Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and anything he's done is worth looking into if you're at all interested in the history of great animation. You can find the full version of The Recobbled Cut here, and links to more of his work in the full write-up over at The Dissolve.