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(From fps magazine, 1995)

The Theft of the Thief

By Harry McCracken

Not many artists have the vision--or the endurance--to labor on a dream project for the better part of three decades. So imagine how it must feel to have such your life's work yanked away from you for financial reasons, then put before the public in a form radically different from that you intended.

As most fps readers know, that's the sad story behind Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler, the Persian fairy-tale epic which the Canadian-English director began production on in 1968. After the Williams-animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit became a blockbuster hit, he was able to get the financing he needed to complete The Thief--but when he failed to finish the project on schedule, his investors took control and hired another studio to complete it.

Under the name Arabian Knight, the movie finally hit theaters in the Fall of 1995, complete with ersatz Disney-style songs, large amounts of new dialog, and an ad campaign that tries very hard to make it look like a rip-off of Walt Disney's Aladdin. While moments of Williams' brilliant draftsmanship remain, the finished project is was a far cry from the innovative, completely un-Disneyesque epic that he had toiled for so long to create.

Sad to say, animation has always been an uncomfortable blend of artform and industry, and Williams' disaster is only the most recent example of what can go wrong. The financiers' commandeering of The Thief and the Cobbler follows in the tradition of Charles Mintz's wresting of Oswald the Rabbit away from Walt Disney, Paramount's removal of Max and Dave Fleischer from their own studio, and Nickelodeon's termination of John Kricfalusi at the height of Ren and Stimpy's success.

The specifics of these cases vary, and most are still matters of controversy--but all make clear that when artists and businesspeople clash, it's the businesspeople who call the shots. And businesspeople, even those with a sincere interest in producing quality films, quite naturally are ultimately more concerned with monetary matters than artistic ones.

What's an animator to do? As in so many matters, we can learn from the example set by Walt Disney. After he lost Oswald, he began a drive to become as self-sufficient as possible, beginning by retaining the copyrights on his characters from then on. When Disney's studio reaped windfall profits from merchandising profits in the 1930s and early 1940s, it used them to fund such risky projects as Snow White and Fantasia. Eventually, it even distributed its own films, ridding itself of the need to please outside distributors.

As a result, Disney established a level of artistic independence that no other major American animation studio has ever equalled. Even other large studios operated by artists have usually been hamstrung by outside forces; as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera have testified, the networks who buy Hanna-Barbera's TV series have always exercised near total control over their content--much to their detriment.

Ironically, the current renaissance in animation's popularity--due in considerable part to Richard Williams' Roger Rabbit work--hasn't necessarily made artists like Williams more powerful. In fact, it's what led to the downfall of the Thief and the Cobbler project.

For years, Williams had worked primarily as a highly productive producer of TV commercials, plowing profits into gradual, independent progress on The Thief. But once Roger Rabbit proved that animation could be big business and he was able to get outside funding to complete The Thief, he gave up the ability to make the film on his own terms--and ended up losing control of it altogether.

Would this film have been a masterpiece if Williams had finished it? Maybe, maybe not; we'll never know for sure. But let's hope that he finds another way to try again. Of all the unfortunate things about the Arabian Knight debacle, the most terrible of all would be if it signalled the end of Richard Williams' quest to express his unique vision in the form of an animated feature all his own.

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