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Perpetually Persistent: Richard Williams and His Vision

Back in 1980, the animator Joe Oriolo (producer of the TV Felix the Cat cartoons and subsequent owner of the character) vented to historian Will Friedwald about how he lost the option to produce Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure to Richard Williams a few years earlier.

Said Oriolo:

“The budget was [$1.75 million] when they gave it to me, Oriolo Films. After Williams got done it cost four million bucks! The guy is the biggest phony, and the picture stinks! The worst garbage. You see, Dick Williams can’t animate. He’ll lock himself in a room, take the drawings that were animated and go over them. He ruined that picture. The picture wasn’t worth fifty thousand. You see, Dick Williams can’t animate. He’ll lock himself in a room, take the drawings that were animated and go over them. He ruined that picture.”

… Among other things…  Oriolo’s own track record in television doesn’t convince me his version of Raggedy Ann would have been any better (or more watchable) than Williams’s, but Oriolo’s skepticism (to put it mildly) of Williams’s craft does echo a lot of what is said, implied, and dissected in Kevin Schreck’s documentary Persistence of Vision.

A bite-sized bastardization of the events chronicled: Richard Williams began work on The Cobbler and the Thief, his magnum opus of a feature film, in London. For what ended up being a grand total of 24 years the production inched along, solely financed by his studio’s commercial work. (The aforementioned Raggedy Ann, the one flop of Williams’s everyone remembers, is never mentioned in the documentary; Schreck tells me it’d have been too tangential to include it and that his interviewees didn’t work on it.)

Along the way he brought in legendary animators from Hollywood’s Golden Age to mentor those who would go onto be the next crop of star animators. This was to be the greatest animated film of all-time with the most powerful animators behind it – so it would seem.

Williams’s pet project finally got the break it deserved after he received universal praise for his animation direction on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Warner Bros. agreed to finance the production of Thief, but Williams failed to deliver the film on time. Warner Bros., within their full legal rights, decided to collect the completion insurance, placing the ownership of the film in the hands of the Completion Bond Company. After nursing it for more than two decades, Williams no longer owned the film – and he refuses to speak on record about it to this day.

The bond company overhauled the film that wouldn’t go away, sanitizing most of Williams’s original intentions and gangbanging out a travesty of 1990s animated feature clichés. Dumped into theaters as Arabian Knight, it predictably bombed and that was that.

Williams, now 80 years old, is the eldest of a group I’d term as an Unholy Quartet of animated filmmakers, followed chronologically by Don Bluth, Ralph Bakshi, and John Kricfalusi.  In each case, delusions of heroic fantasy cloud their histories, with legions whining how the overlord never got the opportunity he deserved and was shafted by others who let him down – when in actuality, any sane person’s examination should conclude that while they may have gone through the time-honored Hollywood wringer, the fact that they’re responsible for their own misfortunes more than any executive or shylock is incontrovertible.

Take one tidbit Schreck presents in his documentary in a casual, almost to the point of perverse, manner: Williams was still creating storyboards for Thief when Warner Bros. was financing the film, and only as a contractual obligation.

That means the film was not even completely written after being in production for twenty years. In this regard, Williams parallels Kricfalusi most closely, both of them directors in love with the process of eternal refinement and educating their crews rather than actually getting something done.

I can’t voice much praise for the “Recobbled” cut Garrett Gilchrist created to restore as much of Williams’s original vision as possible, but I would have to say that I’d unquestionably rather have seen Williams’s version completed than what the Bond Company wrought.

And unlike the rest of that Quartet, Williams ultimately channeled his energy and lifetime of work in the realm of animation education into something positive: the essential Animator’s Survival Kit. It’s a required text for anyone with even the slightest interest in the medium, but I would recommend it as “advanced reading” rather than the “beginners’ course” it’s always touted as by various animation schools.

As far as Kevin Schreck’s documentary goes, there’s ultimately nothing to slight against it. There’s of course a million other little anecdotes that went untold, which is a given with any historic work, but it ultimately does not give the viewer the impression that there’s more to the story than what was presented, and certainly does not feel empty due to Williams’s lack of involvement.

I’m fairly certain it will never get exposure beyond the festival circuit; being inherently visual, it utilizes extensive footage of copyrighted works from various entities – any distributor would view it as poison. Schreck tours with it often, so if it comes to your area, and if you care about animation, you should see it. A book on the fascinating and frenetic world of Richard Williams will one day be written, but until then, this’ll give you more than a gleam of insight into it.

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