Movie Palaces – A Guide to Finding the Right Theater for Your Movie Experience

For as long as we have had cinema as an art-form, we have had the experience of watching movies.  It’s very existence calls for us the audience to make ourselves comfortable and observe that art for an extended period of time, and most commonly, with other people.  Cinema is a communal experience like few others, and that experience calls for the right kind of amenities to compliment it.  While the mechanics of making movies has evolved over the years, so has the business of presenting film as well.  After production is completed, the business of presentation takes over and within it comes a whole other field of innovations and changes.  The movie theater business has a fascinating history all it’s own, and it’s one that I myself am familiar with personally.  I worked for 4 1/5 years in a movie theater while putting myself through college, and it gave me a great insight into the daily functions of how a movie theater does business.  The theater was Cinemark 17 in Springfield, Oregon and in those several years I worked there, I found myself working in every possible department, apart from management.  I worked concessions, I cleaned up each theater as an usher, sold tickets at the box office, greeted people in the lobby as I tore their tickets, and even ran the projectors in the booth upstairs.  It was a multi-faceted job that opened me up to many different skills, but what I took away most from my experience there was the insight into what made the movie-going experience special.  Our job was to ensure that the audience had the best viewing experience possible and that it would ensure their repeat business in the future; a not uncommon goal for most businesses, but with the industry of film-making and presentation, it is all about ensuring that a day at the movies is the best option available to the audience.

When you look back at the history of the movie theater business, you see an industry that is constantly in change due to the changing forces of the market.  In the early days, movie theaters were as essential to cinema as anything else.  The only way you could watch a movie in the first couple decades was by going to your town’s local movie theater and paying for a ticket.  Movies were celebrated as much as live events back in those days, and the theater business likewise treated it as such.  The first theaters created specifically for film were elaborate auditoriums that mimicked the aesthetic of the great music halls of the era.  These were meant to be monuments to the artistry of film, and that’s why they were often given the name, “movie palaces.”  Even small town theaters aped the majesty of these early theaters, and some of those are what you still find today.  Competition from television forced a change in cinema though, and thus we saw the era of gimmicks in the movie theater business.  This was the era of 3-D, Widescreen, and Smell-O-Vision, as theaters were trying anything to appeal to audiences, reminding them that there were experiences still that they would only find in a movie theater. The era of the blockbuster changed cinema once again, as it became clear that single screen “movie palaces” were not enough to contain the growing business of Hollywood.  So, the multiplex came into existence; one singular building containing multiple screens which could show several movies all at one time.  For a while, multiplexes were able to sustain audience interest in a televised world, but as technology changed, so would the theater business.  Now, in our digital internet driven world, cinema faces a new challenge; streaming services.  The rise of Netfilx, Amazon, and Hulu has changed Hollywood once again, and we find cinema in a new quandary about what they should do next.

It’s not a problem so much for Hollywood, since they have new avenues opened up to show more of their product.  But, for the theater business, it’s becoming a serious issue.  Home entertainment has become more and more sophisticated in recent years, and now poses a serious threat to the survival of the cineplex theater model in the process.  When a movie has a day one release in both theaters and on streaming services simultaneously, which do you think most people would choose?  Movie theaters charge you an arm and a leg for snacks at their concessions, while at home, you are only footsteps away from your fridge.  You can pause the film while you take a break to use the restroom and not miss anything important. High Definition projectors are also becoming more affordable for home theaters, and can give the viewer even more of the cinematic experience right from the comfort of their own living room.  Which raises the question even more now; why go out to the movies at all?  For a long time, movie theaters could deal with that question by emphasizing the grandeur of their amenities, the exclusivity of their presentations, and the value of what you were getting.  But now, the streaming market has put more of the choice into the hands of the viewer and they are backing up their appeal with exclusives of their own.  Some filmmakers are embracing streaming, because it gives them more creative freedom to create the films that they want to make, feeling less pressure to deliver a product that appeals to a broader theater going public.  Netflix and Amazon in particular are trying to outdo one another in their big name exclusives, with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers all bringing their next projects exclusively to streaming.  There are purists for the theater experience, like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino, but even with their best efforts, they still aren’t able to redirect the tide.

Even still, they do make a good point.  There really is no substitute to the movie theater experience.  Home viewing has it’s benefits, and is understandably the preferred choice for some.  But, I personally feel that watching a movie in a theater with an auditorium full of other viewers is still the optimal way to watch a movie.  There is just something about the communal experience of it that makes going to the movies worth it in the end.  Maybe I’m biased because of my many years working in a movie theater, but even several years removed from that job now, I still prefer going out and watching a movie in a theater over watching it first on television.  There’s just something about experiencing the same movie with a room full of complete strangers and witnessing their own varied emotions as they react to the same thing that I’m watching with them.   In many ways, it does leave a different reaction on me as I leave after watching a movie.  Seeing a crowd laugh hysterically all at once to a hilarious bit, or jump out of their seat at a well timed jump scare has it’s own level of entertainment that can’t be underestimated.  Even overhearing an audience’s opinion of a movie, whether positive or negative, offers an extra level to the experience.  I remember staying through the credits of 2015’s awful Fantastic Four reboot and remembering 20 random people in the audience all booing the screen at once.  That’s something that you won’t get at home, unless you can make yourself yell as loud as 20 people.  For me, the audience experience is what makes going to the movie theater special, but even without an audience, the thrill of seeing a movie projected on the biggest screen possible is still an ideal as well.  But, it’s not enough for some people who just want to relax and have the comforts of home available to them, as well as the ability to have entertainment available at their own convenience.

As a person who understands a little bit about the business of showcasing film and operating a theater, I believe that it is worth sharing some pointers about how to find the theater experience that is right for you.  First, you have to take into account the options within your area.  Growing up in a small Oregon college town, I had more limited options than say a big city would.  During my childhood, there were three medium sized theaters and a classic movie palace in my hometown.  That number has decreased down to the two available today, but both modern theaters are equipped with more screens in total.  There was also a rise in art cinemas over those years, which brought the option of independent, alternative cinema to my hometown.  So with all these choices, my decisions of where to watch a movie were based on location, availability and variety.  The theater in my part of town unfortunately closed in the year 2000, as well as the last remaining movie palace, but the multiplexes made up for the loss with their updated amenities.  Over time, I valued the more advanced amenities than anything else, because I wanted the best possible presentation for my movie-going experience.  The Cinemark 17 theater had the biggest screens, stadium seating, and state-of-the-art sound and projection, making it my preferred theater, and just by chance, it would end up being my workplace as well.  Living in a bigger city, you might have multiple theaters that offer the same amenities, so at that point, your choices might be limited to how close it is to your home.  Some smaller towns might only have one single theater, which limits the choices even further, and makes streaming services a more viable option for those who want more variety.  I was fortunate to live in a place that had variety but also clear cut choices, which made it easier to find my ideal theater; but not all places are going to make that choice easy, so then you have to take other things into consideration.

One thing to look at is what your local theater provides.  For someone who wants to watch a blockbuster on the biggest screen possible, seeking out a large multiplex becomes the ideal option.  Thanks to the recent successes of The Dark Knight (2008) and Avatar (2009), gimmicks like IMAX film and 3D projection have proliferated to reach a much bigger audience in more venues across the country.  Once the market sees the value of such gimmicks as part of the experience, they are more ready to invest more fully in it, and that’s why you see IMAX and 3D in more markets today.  But even with wider availability, there are some elements of these that prove to be more exclusive than others.  While you find IMAX most everywhere nowadays, insiders will tell you that it’s not a true IMAX experience until you find the right theater.  Most multiplexes today just have retrofitted an IMAX projector and screen into their normal size theater, which kind of hampers the experience.  True IMAX is presented on 100 ft. screens in select theaters across the country, and these are the only ones that are specially equipped to run true 70 millimeter IMAX, which is the best quality picture that you’ll find for the format.  This is the film process that directors like Christopher Nolan and the like are fond of, and prefer to have their films presented in.  It does limit the availability however, making it so that some film purists will have to travel out of their area to find the right kind of presentation.  Living now in LA, I can tell you that I don’t have a problem with finding theaters with special gimmicks such as this.  In fact, Los Angeles seems to be the testing ground for all the technological advancements that theaters are trying to make work for a national audience.  Here, in addition to true IMAX, you’ve got the advances of Dolby Atmos sound in theaters, as well as 4DX presentations, where the very seats you are in move and enhance the feeling of immersion into the theater.  Not all of it will cross over, but it’s interesting to see the theater industry try to figure out ways to make the theater experience even more special.

Outside of Los Angeles, there are other innovations that are making the theater-going experience something worthwhile.  In Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain has revolutionized the concept of Dine-In theaters.  There they do away with the original concession stand element of a movie theater, and replace it with full service dining while watching your film.  The Drafthouse business plan has become a favorite with Gen X and Millennial audiences who want a more of a hip vibe to their movie-going experience, and it is beginning to catch on across the country, including here in LA.  Apart from that, you see small innovations in local art house cinemas across the country.  Art cinemas bring character to the film-going experience, not only giving you a look at first run movies, but also immersing yourself into one of a kind experiences based on where you are seeing the movie.  Sometimes you’ll be watching a movie in a theater that’s been unchanged since the dawn of cinema itself, making it feel like you’ve wandered into a time capsule.  Other theaters are built into unusual places like defunct old schools, churches, factories, or a small little office space.  Despite the peculiarity of some theaters, it nevertheless makes the theater going experience feel unique, and independent theaters often bring that feeling much closer to home.  In many ways, the relics of the past actually gives the viewer much more of a kinship to the cinematic experience because it remind them of a time when going to the movies was a special event.  And if they aren’t a holdover from the past, new age art cinemas can draw in audiences by offering the things that other theaters won’t, like unique cuisine and house brewed beverages that you can only find there in the theater.  If anything, it’s that diversion from the norm that helps to brings repeat business back to these theaters.

The only downside of trying to compete with home entertainment is the the theater industry’s belief that they have to conform to it.  On a recent trip back home to my old theater, Cinemark 17, I noticed that they went through a massive new renovation.  Each theater is now equipped with leather back recliners and has fewer seats than before to accommodate the extra leg room for each customer, with giant walls blocking view of the rows in front of view, leaving only the screen visible.  While it does make the experience more comfortable for the viewer, I was troubled by the walls that closed off each row.  To me, it robs the theater of that unique audience experience that I enjoyed.  Sure, this is more ideal for the viewer who wants more privacy and something closer to their viewing experience at home, and I understand my old theater’s desire to adapt to that audience accommodation.  But it’s not my ideal viewing experience.  This was the point that I realized that my old theater was not my ideal theater anymore.  It changed with the times and became something else.  I still will go to movies there, but it’s just not the same.  Living in Los Angeles now, I do have variety to fill that need, but if I were still living in a small town, this might be a more troubling change overall.  For me, a movie theater is more than just a place to relax while watching a movie.  It’s about sharing that experience with others.  With streaming services competing for exclusive content in the marketplace, I feel that the answer for the theater industry is to not comply and make their theaters more like a home, but more like a palace.  Essentially, I want everyone to experience a movie for the first time in the most spectacular way possible and that’s by getting off the couch and joining hundreds of other in the shared majesty that is cinema.  Bigger screens, elaborate amenities, and even a clever gimmick or special treat to enhance the flavor of the moment.  Going to the movies has always been a special thing in my life, and my hope is that all of you can find that special experience too, no matter where you are.

Off the Page – Treasure Island

Pirate movies have usually seen their highs and lows in Hollywood.  Popular in their heyday of Hollywood’s Golden Age, with stars like Errol Flynn making his mark on the genre, pirates later become outcast as movie budgets for high seas adventures grew higher and higher.  Eventually, pirate movies saw a resurgence in the early 2000’s thanks to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but even there time has shifted the popularity away from swashbucklers once again.  Even still, you can see a long tradition of pirate movies throughout the history of film, and through them, you can find a whole variety of peculiar stories and characters worthy of cinematic treatment.  There are plenty of famous pirate stories that have been adapted over the years, either from true life or from literature, but if one were to pinpoint the most quintessential pirate’s tale from any medium, it would probably be Robert Louis Stevnson’s immortal classic, Treasure Island. First published 1883, in an era not too far removed from when pirates were really roaming the seas, Stevenson’s novel has gone one to become not just a beloved read to many, but also the basis for much of the pirate lore that we are familiar with today.  In Treasure Island, we see the beginnings of many tropes we associate with pirates, like treasure maps marked with an “X,” the Black Spot death mark, peg legs, and even the trope of parrots resting on the shoulders of their pirate masters.  It is, to this day, a widely read book and pretty much the first story that comes to mind when one thinks of pirates.  The tale of young Jim Hawkins and the feared pirate Long John Silver naturally has also found it’s way to the big screen as well.  Surprisingly, or not surprisingly to some, the studio that has been associated with this particular tale the most has been the Disney company, which has been responsible for two screen adaptations; three if you count Muppet Treasure Island (1996).

The second of these adaptations is the one that I want to focus on here, because it represents a very interesting thing that you usually see in Hollywood, and that’s the practice of re-imagining.  A re-imagined movie is one where it takes an already established and familiar story and re-contextualizes through a different setting or style.  You see this a lot when Hollywood imports a movie idea from the international market and remakes it.  Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was remade into a Western called The Magnificent Seven (1960) for example, and while the setting and time period are very different, both movies still retained the same general plot.  One common re-imagining you see in Hollywood is taking a familiar story and setting it in an alien world, or out into space, which is exactly what Disney did with their animated feature Treasure Planet (2002). What’s interesting about Disney’s re-imagined version of the story is how much they ground it in the original tale, while at the same time taking it way outside our world.  It’s futuristic, and old-fashioned at the same time. Here we see 18th century aesthetic planted onto interplanetary technology from a far distant future and it leads to some quite amazing visuals.  Here, pirates don’t have peg legs but instead become part cyborg, and sailing ships are equipped for venturing through the stars instead of the open seas.  At the same time, the movie runs the risk of having these two styles clashing and causing a distraction from the overall story, but regardlesss of one’s feelings towards the look of the film, there’s no doubting that it is a bold choice.  Disney certainly gambled with this film, and sadly it didn’t click with audiences in the way they hoped.   It’s often cited as the movie that killed the traditional animation market, rather unfairly.  Still, it is interesting to see how much of the movie maintain’s the essence of Stevenson’s classic novel, even with all the sci-fi flourish.  And in many ways, it’s what helps to make the movie work as well as it does.

“The were nights when the winds of the Etherium, so inviting in their promise of flight and freedom, made one’s spirit soar.”

Disney’s development of Treasure Planet has an interesting history of it’s own.  The film was a dream project for longtime directing partners John Musker and Ron Clements.  Working together since the mid-80’s, they are the team responsible for such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and more recently The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016).  But, for most of their partnership, they had always held onto Treasure Planet as their ultimate goal.  They pitched it to the top brass at Disney as far back as before The Little Mermaid, and would return back to it between projects over the course of almost 17 years.  At the turn of the century, with technology advancing to the point where it became more feasible to make a concept like Treasure Island in space a reality, Ron & John were finally given the green-light to work on their long waiting dream.  The reason that this project meant so much to them is because they were both big fans of the original novel and of science fiction in general.  It’s probably something that bonded them together as collaborators and what drove their determination to see it through.  Now, they knew that the story appealed to Disney, seeing as how Walt Disney himself had created a live action adaptation back in the 1950’s (a studio first by the way).  Their choice of setting it in space, however, was their way of distinguishing it from all other adaptations that have come before, and make it more visually appealing in the animated medium.  Animation can tell a story in ways that are too limited in live action, so why shouldn’t they take those kinds of liberties with Treasure Island.  It’s clear that Ron Clements and John Musker set out to make the movie with a lot of love and respect for Stevenson’s original, and resetting it in space was not an attempt to exploit the story for the purposes of making it more exciting.  No, once you see the movie, you’ll notice that it’s not the changes to the setting that make the biggest difference; it’s often the changes in the characters that leave the biggest impact.

“The Cyborg!! Beware the Cyborg!!!”

There are alterations to many of the main cast that were done mostly out of expedience.  Jim Hawkins companions, Dr. Livesey and John Trelawney are combined together into one character in the film; Dr. Doppler (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), who is re-imagined to have come from an alien race that appears to be canine based.  The savvy commander of the expedition, Captain Smollett, is completely re-imagined here, not only taking on a feline form, but also shifting genders to be female, in the form of Captain Amelia (voiced with authority by Emma Thompson).  Most other characters from the box are either excised or completely altered; the villainous Blind Pew is no where to be seen for instance.  Minimizing the cast benefits the film greatly though because it puts the focus where it needs to be, which is on the relationship that forms between Jim Hawkins and John Silver.  What Ron & John seemed to care about most from the original novel is how this unlikely friendship between the young boy and the fearsome pirate forms and inevitably shapes their destinies.  It plays out much in the same way as in the book, but whereas the novel allows the relationship to form over the course of a serialized recounting over several chapters, the movie has to build that connection in a rather short amount of time.  The way that the movie makes it work is that they establish very early on that Jim is dealing with the aftermath of his abandonment by his father.  Because of this, he has turned cold and distant to others around him.  Silver, spots this while on their voyage and instantly takes an interest in steering him in the right direction.  Now, of course it probably was Silver’s way of coaxing the truth about the treasure map out of Jim, but the great surprise within the story is that Silver actually proves to be a better father figure to Jim than either of them ever would’ve realized. And that was the appeal that prompted the directors to take the story so seriously, seeing the importance of mentor-ship in forming young minds.

It is interesting comparing Jim Hawkins and John Silver to other like minded characters in the Disney family.  John Silver in particular is very unconventional as a Dinsey villain.  Where most Disney antagonists are un-redeemable rogues who get what’s coming to them, Silver actually stands out for having a redemptive arc.  In fact, it is often hard to call him a villain at all, despite his often awful deeds.  It’s his relationship to Jim that makes him likable to us the audience, because we are witnessing the story from Jim’s point of view.  As he begins to warm up to Silver, so do we, and it’s that bond that drives the emotional heart of the movie.  It is, in many ways, what makes the film work so well, because the movie makes that relationship between the boy and the pirate work so well.  John Silver is one of literature’s most memorable characters, given as he has now become the archetypal pirate for most people, and the version in the film is really something to behold.  Using a combination of both hand drawn animation and CGI, Silver is a beautifully constructed hybrid.  Instead of his signature one leg, Silver is shown to be half man and half cyborg, with computer animated limbs that transform into a variety of tools at his disposal.  His hand drawn parts were done by legendary animator Glen Keane, whose long history at Disney has included animating complex characters like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast (1991) as well as Tarzan in Tarzan (1999), which made him a perfect fit for this character.  While his character animation combined with the CGI parts are impressive on their own, it’s the way that he puts emotion in the model that really drives home the brilliance of the character on film.  Matched perfectly with the voice of stage actor Brian Murray who plays Silver, the animation calls for some rather emotional moments and it delivers.  I was particularly struck by the subtlety of the moment when Jim asks Silver how he lost his limbs, to which he replies solemnly, “You lose a few things chasing a dream.”  It’s a great moment of vocal and animation acting that makes this, in my mind, the best version of Long John Silver we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

“At least you taught me something, “Stick to it,” right?  Well, that’s just what I’m gonna do.  I’m going to make sure that you never see one drubloon of ‘my’ treasure.”

The depiction of Jim Hawkins is somewhat different, especially from the book.  He’s depicted as a bit older than his literary source, and with far more of a chip on his shoulder.  For Jim Hawkins in the novel, his passion is driven by a desire to have an adventure, which literally comes falling into his lap once Billy Bones gives him the treasure map from his death bed.  In the movie, still reeling from the crushing abandonment by his father, Jim wants to set out on this journey to prove to both his mother and himself that he’s not a failure.  The early depiction of Jim at the film’s start might put off some literary purists, because he’s absolutely modeled after a moody, millennial teenager in those scenes.  We first see him recklessly playing some extreme sports on his solar surfer, which gets him in trouble with the law, and he often punctuates his conversations with modern anachronisms like, “cool,” “dude” or “whatever.”  But, as the film illustrates, these character flaws are what motivates the transformation that he goes through by film’s end.  He’s given voice by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the film, who does a good job of bringing a lot of emotion to the character.  As an actor not too far removed from being a teenager himself at the time of this film’s making, Joseph manages to balance the maturing of the character in a believable and balanced way.  We see him grow from being pessimistic and self-involved to one willing to sacrifice his life even for those who have done him wrong.  In the depiction of Jim Hawkins, we see how important the need for a positive role model is in a young person’s life, and the great irony from the story is that that positive direction comes from a bloodthirsty pirate.  It’s a trope that you still see used today, such as the recent Oscar-winner Moonlight (2016), where a young man finds his positive father figure in his neighborhood’s local drug lord.  In Treasure Planet, this part of the story is given it’s full attention and helps it to resound all the more.  Stevenson managed to make the unusual relationship something that stood it apart from it’s peers, but the animated movie drives it home in a much stronger way.

Apart from the characters, the film makes the most profound changes in the visuals.  The blend of old and new in the film is fascinating to see realized.  According to Ron Clements and John  Musker, they took inspiration from the Brandywine School style of artwork, which emphasized fine detail and a mixture of cool and warm hues within their paintings.  You commonly see paintings of this type associated with literary book covers from the turn of the century, and that’s exactly what drew the directors towards adapting it for their film.  In order to make that work with sci-fi elements, Musker and Clements stuck to a 70-30 rule, which meant that their film would incorporate that ratio into every aesthetic element needed.  That’s how you get schooners that operate with solar sails, or grotesque aliens that wear 18th century clothing, and celestial skies that fill the place of open seas.  It’s a ratio that surprising works out very well.  Over time, you actually forget about the anachronistic disparity between the two styles, and just accept it as the world that it is, which helps to absorb you into the story all the more.  I believe that grounding it in this classical style helps to maintain the Stevenson touch, while at the same time modernizing it in an effective way.  Treasure Planet itself is a beautiful iconic image on it’s own, with it’s dual ring system that not surprisingly marks an “X” over the planet.  The visual effects themselves follow that same 70-30 rule, as it shows perhaps the most sophisticated blend of CGI and traditional animation that has ever been achieved.  With that, it brings a scale to the story that I don’t believe has ever been achieved before.  One of the most striking images is the reveal of the crescent shaped space port.  The incredibly complex shot zooms in from far away, showing what we thought was a moon is actually a intricately detailed port.  Coming in closer, we find that much of the detail resembles what early seafaring ports might have looked like in the 18th century, but with dimensions that defy the laws of physics.  It’s that blend that breaths new life in this old story and continues it throughout the film.  Some critics may not have seen the point of this change, and wondered why Disney didn’t just remake Treasure Island in a normal way, but after seeing amazing images like that one, who can argue with such a change.

“Doctor, with the greatest possible respect, zip your howling screamer.”

Disney’s Treasure Planet was a bold departure from the norm in animation, and it was a gamble that in the beginning didn’t do them any good.  The film has some devoted fans (myself included) and is growing a cult following.  But, some arguments still arise as to why Disney would bring sci-fi into Treasure Island.  The answer to this is that there is nothing about Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel that necessarily says it has to take place in a certain place or time.  In fact, Stevenson remains vague about the story’s actual setting, instead focusing on how the plot unfolds and the relationships between the characters.  Disney’s interpretation brings a new perspective on the story, while at the same time maintaining the heart of it.  In the end, it is about a young boy who comes of age, finding his way in life through the mentor-ship of an unlikely role model.  In the end, that’s what John Musker and Ron Clements wanted to explore, and for the most part, they achieved their goal.  You can tell that the whole film was made with a lot of love, and you don’t commit 17 years of your life to an idea just to do a mediocre job at it.  It does offer a great contrast with the original story, of which still serves as much of the backbone of the movie.  The film delves deeper into the personal struggles, but apart from that and the changed setting, it is essentially a faithful adaptation right down the line.  If only this film had come out a year later, with Pirates of the Caribbean revitalizing the genre, then it might have found a more accepting audience.  In the end, it is worthwhile to see both the movie and the novel itself.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic still holds up as the quintessential pirate’s tale, and Disney’s animated feature lives up to it’s legacy, while at the same time completely transforming it.  It is, in my opinion, Disney’s most misunderstood film and my hope is that someday it will be fully appreciated as the masterpiece that it is.  Visually, it stands out as one of Disney’s most spectacular achievements and it’s story is one that packs an emotional wallop.  Like Silver says of Jim Hawkins in the film, it’s got the makings of greatness in it.

“Look at you! Glowing like a solar fire.  You’re something special, Jim.  You’re gonna the stars, you are!”

 

Recobbled – The Neverending Story of a Lost Animation Masterpiece

Animation is a remarkable, yet time consuming art-form.  When audiences see a new animated film in their local theater, I’m sure that very few of them ever think about the time and money that was poured into their completion.  With changing technologies, that extensive time frame has shortened somewhat, but even Computer animated features can still take years to be completed.  Back in the Golden Age of animation, you would sometimes be looking at 5 years or more for the production of a full length feature, from concept through production, to locking it in the can.  Towards the end of the heyday of hand drawn animation, 4 or 5 years was commonplace, though it would fluctuate between a very short (2.5 years for Beauty and the Beast) and very long (6.5 years for Sleeping Beauty).  But, what about 31 years of production?  That was the case with a little seen but highly regarded animated feature called The Thief and the Cobbler (1995).  The magnum opus and work of passion for independent Canadian animator Richard Williams, Thief not only carries the longest production span of any animated film ever; it holds the record for the longest film production, period.  And in fact, it could be argued that the movie is still not done, depending on what version of the film you are watching.  I briefly mentioned this movie in a previous article about prolonged film developments and felt that it was deserving of a analysis all it’s own.  The Thief and the Cobbler is a movie that has fascinated me recently as an animation fan, not so much for the movie itself, but for the fascinating history of it’s production.  In Thief, you see not just a fascinating work of pure artistic passion on display, but a document to the history of animation itself.

To know something about this movie, you need to know a little about the mad genius behind it.  Richard Williams is a veteran of the animation medium, and is widely considered within the industry to be one of the great masters.  Though he had for many years been courted by major animation studios like Disney and Warner Brothers to jump on board their teams, Williams has largely preferred to work independently through his small London, England based studio.  From there, he has largely made a name for himself as a highly respected commercial and title sequence producer.  His work can be seen in the opening titles of 60’s and 70’s era classics like What’s New Pussycat? (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), as well as in classic British television commercials from the era.  What made his work stand out was the intricate and fluid detail that he would put into his animation; utilizing complexity that few other studios would ever attempt.  In 1971, legendary animator Chuck Jones commissioned Williams’ studio to create a short adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the result was a critically acclaimed success.  Originally intended for television, Carol was subsequently given a theatrical run, which led to Oscar win for Williams and his team.  From that, he was given an even bigger commissioned assignment to create a film centered around the Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls.  True to Williams style, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) is an animated film unlike any other you will ever see; with bizarre and often surreal sequences that defy explanation, and not what you would expect for a movie based of rag dolls.  But, Williams career is most defined by his life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, a movie that sadly became too big a dream to hold onto.

The Thief and the Cobbler began in 1964 as a collaboration with Middle Eastern author Idires Shah, who collected and translated many Arabic tales about a character called Mulla Nasrudin, or “the wise fool.”  When the partnership between Williams and Shah broke down, Williams retained the idea for the project and changed the “wise fool” into the character that would eventually be the titular Thief.  Later, Williams began another go at developing the project in earnest with a new treatment by screenwriter Howard Blake.  Blake’s treatment brought many elements that would turn up in the final film, including the titular cobbler named Tack, the evil vizier Zig Zag, the sleepy king, and the plot device of the Three Golden Balls that protect the Golden City.  Though the script helped to bring structure to the story, Williams maintained a free-flowing style to his direction.  Instead of story-boarding out his scenes, he instead opted to let scenes play out based on the imaginations of himself and his artists.  This unfortunately led to a lot of sequences that added little to no momentum to the plot, though they stood out as remarkable on their own.  Williams also insisted on animating the sequences in 24 frames per second, as opposed to the industry standard of 12 frames.  The result gives the animation a remarkably smooth flow, which becomes mesmerizing the longer the sequences run; which sometimes can be several minutes without cutting.  And that in lies why it took 20 years to only complete 20 minutes of the planed 100 minute movie.  And because of this sluggish adherence to free-flowing storytelling and complex animation that Williams was hard pressed to find funding for so long to complete his master work.

Over time, William’s studio managed to stay afloat with projects like Carol and Raggedy Ann & Andy, but Thief was always waiting in the wings for when the opportunity came.  Due to mounting economic pressure, Williams constantly had to simplify his story and cut back on his animation, but he still persisted with his bold vision.  Sometimes, he lucked out with an interested investor.  In the late 70’s, 15 years since the start of production, Williams caught the attention of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, who commissioned an animation test to see if the remainder of the film was worthy investing in.  Williams used this influx of funds to complete what would end up being the film’s most complex scene, the destruction of the colossal War Machine from the villainous barbarian King One-Eye, a sequence that to this day is mind-boggling in it’s complexity.  Though the prince was impressed with the work that Williams had done, the cost overrun and missed deadlines prevented further investment, and Williams was forced yet again to shelve his dream project, although now with perhaps the most elaborate sequence finished.  Though unseen by the public, Willaims was still able to share what he had done to other industry professionals who had nothing but high praise for what they saw.  Eventually, Disney sought Williams assistance with one elaborate project of their own; the Robert Zemekis directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).  What Willaims revolutionized at his studio was multi-perspective animation, where character and environments would constantly change perspective as the camera placement swoops around, giving them an almost three-dimensional look.  Naturally, Disney wanted this style to help their hand-drawn animated characters like Roger and Jessica Rabbit co-exist believably in a live action film, where camera movement is ever-changing.  Williams was named Animation Director for the film, and his work again garnered him an Honorary Oscar.

With the goodwill from Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams finally had the attention of Hollywood, and plenty of interested parties lined up to give Williams the needs to finally finish Thief for good.  Disney and Steven Spielberg, the parties behind Roger Rabbit, expressed interest at first in funding the project, but later backed out.  Warner Brothers stepped in and signed Williams to a contract.  With that, he had the money and the manpower to complete his film, as well a release schedule that he had to adhere to.  He was finally able to have over an hour of completed film, but again, his adherence to perfection caused to project to go over-budget and over-schedule.  Sadly, at the same time, Disney was themselves working on their own Arabian set animated feature, Aladdin (1992), which made Warner Brothers all the more impatient and worried.  Unfortunately, Williams darker and more adult-appealing film was less marketable than Disney’s blockbuster, and Warner became certain that they had a film that was un-releasable.  So, they cut their contract with Williams and ended up selling it to a secondary animation studio run by Fred Calvert in order to complete it, without Williams involved.  Williams tried to salvage what he had with a 1992 workprint screened for studio execs, but it didn’t work.  Thirty one years since the first drawing had been completed, The Thief and the Cobbler was released to little fanfare in 1995 with nearly half of Williams original film either cut or re-animated, with a new Disney-style musical score and celebrity voices cast for his originally mute title characters (Matthew Broaderick as Tack the Cobbler and Jonathan Winters as the Thief).  Vincent Price, who recorded his voice for the villain Zig Zag over the 30 year span, was retained, but because the film released after his 1993 death, his lines ended up getting cut down rather than replaced.  Miramax oversaw the release in North America, and this compromised version has since become known as the “Miramax Cut” even though they had nothing to do with the production.

Thus, the long, troubled production of Richard Williams masterpiece came seemingly to an end, with his vision never being fully realized.  He came close, but studio interference caught up to him in the end.  Regardless, Williams is still regarded as a legend among the animation community and Thief surprisingly has something to do with that.  Because of it’s long production, Thief stands as somewhat of a documentation of the evolution of animation, bridging the Golden Era with the Renaissance of the late 80’s and the early 90’s.  Think about it, in the time it took Thief to be completed, Disney Animation had put out 15 feature films, and had seen their studio both decline and be reborn under new management.  Walt Disney was still breathing when production started on this film, just to give you an idea of how far back this project began.  Animation as a whole changed so much in that time, and you can see that reflected in the movie.  While Williams attention to detail remains fluid throughout, you can spot instances when the quality differs.  The sequences that were animated late in production have a different, more polished look than others that were made decades earlier.  The older scenes, mostly centered around the Thief, have a more classical look to them, not unlike many of the trippy, psychedelic animated films that arose in the 60’s and 70’s.  Couple the sequences where the Thief tries to steal the magical Golden Balls and the climatic War Machine sequence at the end, and it’s clear that they were made in different eras, where different tools were made available to animators.  At the same time, Williams staff of animators also shows a remarkable span of animation history.  He brought onto his team some legendary animators like former Disney animator Art Babbit (who worked on the Queen in  Snow White and Geppetto in Pinocchio) and Grim Natwick (the creator of Betty Boop) to not only contribute their own animation, but also to mentor both him and his young staff.   And among his young staff were newcomers like Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg, who would go onto prosperous careers at Disney, including working on films like Aladdin (animating Jafar and the Genie respectively).

In addition to it’s legacy of reputation and the quality of it’s talent, The Thief and the Cobbler also is a perfect illustration of how just how difficult it is to get a movie made.  Not every studio has the financial security and resources of Disney.  And Williams never wanted that either.  He knew that he would never see his vision realized in a corporate controlled environment, so he continually sought to keep his production as independent as possible.  He stated very early on that his movie was going to be very non-Disney, both in the animation and in the story-telling.  No songs, no animal sidekicks; just pure visuals transporting the viewer to a world never seen on screen before.  Sadly, when corporate interests did intervene, it turned the movie into exactly what Williams was trying to avoid.  In that regard, the “Miramax” cut stands as a cautionary tale of when studio interference spoils the finished product.  Williams’ workprint has resurfaced over time and has been circulated online in various forms.  Williams himself has managed to put the disappointment behind him and moved onto other projects, though the movie is still a sore point to this day.  Dedicated fans however have done extensive work to try to reconstruct William’s original version.  Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, even tried to get a restoration off the ground before his untimely death in 2009.  Other fans have shared their own work online in what is now known as the “Recobbled Cut.”  This version shows William’s original intent with unfinished, work-in-progress scenes inter-cut with finished ones from the Workprint.  Though in rough form, it nevertheless shows us what might’ve been.  What’s fascinating is that it shows that animated films are ever completed in sequence, but are often done out of order, with the more complex scenes done first.  In the recobbled cut, we see that many of the unfinished parts are the filler moments in between the more epic scenes.  Thankfully, Williams brilliance shows in the film’s spectacular finished moments, like the War Machine, the chase through the palace, the villain Zig Zag’s grand entrance, and the polo game with the Thief caught in the middle.  We may not have a finished film, but these big moments allows our imagination to fill in the rest.

Richard Williams, now 84 years old as of this writing, is still working on new projects today.  He most recently completed an entirely hand-drawn short called Prologue (2015) which takes many of the techniques he pioneered with Thief like hyper-detailed character animation and three-dimensional perspective changes, and presents them in a stripped back, pencil sketch presentation.  Again, this was another labor of love that he worked on for years, even while he was still making Thief, and his efforts were rewarded with yet another Oscar nomination.  Though, he’s moved on from Thief, he still hopes that someday it will see a new life, and maybe even completed based on his original vision.  A screening of Thief in 2013, based off the Workprint with a new high-def restoration, won wide praise from the animation community, and Williams is once again embracing the film, incomplete as it is, as his most cherished work.  For those of you interested in seeing the movie, avoid the compromised “Miramax Cut” and find one that is closer to Williams vision.  Sadly, the Miramax version is the only one available on home video, but, the makers of the Recobbled version have graciously made it available to view online for free.  In fact, I’m linking it for you all to enjoy below this article, because I want as many people as possible to experience it.  It’s not perfect, nor is it among my favorite animated films, but as a fan of animation, I admire it as a work of un-compromised artistry.  It’s also a fascinating look into the creation of an animated film, with so many sequences in various stages of completion.  Whether or not we see a finished version of this one day is unclear, and it’s highly likely that it may never be complete, but for now, we can appreciate what 30 years of a persistent artistic vision can accomplish.  In this movie, you see the story of the animated medium played out in one place, with artistic styles of several eras all coming together at once and creating something special.  And whether people know it or not, it has influenced a whole generation of artists in the years since.  In the end, it’s the animated equivalent of a Venus de Milo; more powerful broken apart than it would’ve ended up being as a whole.

PART 1

PART 2

PART 3

PART 4

PART 5

PART 6

PART 7

RICHARD WILLIAMS INTERVIEWS