Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
The Thief and The Cobbler
Directed by Richard Williams
Written by Richard Williams and…well, it depends.
Like most parents, my wife and I took our kids when they were little to pretty much every animated feature that came out, and ended up buying the videos too—VHS back then. They of course watched these over and over and over again with that relentlessness unique to toddlers and deranged psychopaths. Well, the kids are now off in college, and of the dozens and dozens of nearly shredded videotaped cartoons that used to crowd our shelves, only one remains. Roundabout the time Aladdin left the big screen for the video stores back in 1993, a Disney animator friend told us that there was this near-legendary cartoon with a similar subject, but that was much, much better, and that luckily Miramax had just released a much-altered but still worthwhile version of it. That is the tape we still own, and that I still sometimes take down, spend some time figuring out how to get my TV to recognize the old VHS machine again, and watch by myself if no one else is around or interested. It’s a re-cut, pan-and-scanned, hastily assembled triage of an unfinished, failed, three-decade-long obsession by an (outside the industry) unknown maverick graphic artist turned cartoonist—and it just might be the greatest work of hand-drawn animation ever made. And that’s why Richard Williams’ The Thief and The Cobbler is this month’s movie you gotta see.
Never heard of it? No wonder. Richard Williams, a Canadian animator, began work on it as passion project in London in 1967, a quarter of a century before Robin Williams’ (no relation) genie stole the Aladdin show. Like Aladdin, The Thief and The Cobbler tells the tale of a lowly boy, in this case a cobbler named Tack, who falls in love with Princess Yum Yum, the daughter of a kindly but somewhat thick-witted Sultan. As with Aladdin, the Sultan’s vizier Zig Zag is evil and intends for the princess to become his own wife. But that’s where the similarities end. There is no genie, but rather the threat from a dreaded foreign army led by the Genghis Khan-like “One-Eye.” There are also hilariously idiotic bandits, a witch living high on a mountain made out of giant hands, a pet vulture named Phido, a bunch of alligators, a Rube-Goldberg sewer system, an obsessive, amiably inept, sanitation-challenged and fly-plagued Thief, and an artistic design that looks as if M.C. Escher and Frank Gehry had shared a fever-dream while on vacation in Isfahan. Characters of all varieties and looks wander through landscapes of psychedelic complexity, animated at an insane 24 frames per second, one-to-one drawing-per-frame rate. Some scenes achieve a near 3D effect through sheer skill in the exercise and manipulation of perspective and pattern. And then there’s the story, which is really, really fun (while the story varies somewhat according to which version you’re seeing—see below—any and all of them provide a dazzling visual experience the likes of which no other film has ever, or likely will ever, come close).
Over the years, Williams’ project was supported and then abandoned by about half a dozen different producers and companies (including a Saudi Arabian prince, Warner Brothers, and Jake Eberts, the producer of Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and Dances With Wolves, among others) as he kept altering, delaying, expanding and reconceiving a once simple project into what eventually became a quixotic and overwhelming quest for perfection.
Initially the film had been conceived as an expansion of some Middle Eastern tales he’d illustrated in children’s books, as well as an attempt to integrate the hypnotizing, abstract graphic aesthetic of Islamic art into a popular film. But Williams wasn’t really an animator when he started, nor did he have a clear script in mind, or who all the characters would be, and so the first few years were a steep learning curve. He visited and hosted the best and most respected early Disney animators every year to learn his trade—and eventually, as a side benefit, he thus became the repository and conduit of their skills to a younger generation of animators. Everything Williams did for money—including supervising the animation for Who Shot Roger Rabbit? for which he won two Oscars—was done to support this ever-growing quest, which he’d originally titled The Amazing Nasruddin (Nasruddin being a “wise fool” in Middle Eastern lore). As hard on his hired team as he was on himself, Williams went through literally hundreds of animators over the years in service of his vision.
Finally, like Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, the film was so far over budget and behind schedule that it was taken away from the genius who’d started it. In his place, TV animator Frank Calvert was more or less coerced into finishing it. Calvert recognized and did what he could to preserve the genius of what Williams had already accomplished, but it meant seriously re-cutting the film. Various new writers were brought in to make the story work as it was being reconstructed. Originally the secondary characters had been given some dialogue, most notably the villainous Zig Zag, who had from the start been voiced by Vincent Price (by the end, it would turn out to be Price’s last job), but Williams had meant for the main characters of Tack the Cobbler and The Thief to be silent, except for one gag line at the end (similar in intended effect to George Valentine’s last line in the recent The Artist). With the new cut and different distributors lined up for the US and abroad, new and rather generic songs were added, along with a variety of newly scripted voices, including Matthew Broderick for Tack and Jonathan Winters for The Thief for the US version.
One might think what Calvert et al did would have destroyed the beauty and purity of the original vision, but in this case it really didn’t. You can see for yourself: A loving if unofficial reconstruction of what Richard Williams seems to have intended, using his work-print and every other scrap of available material, was put together by fan Garrett Gilchrist in 2006, and titled The Thief and The Cobbler: Recobbled Cut. (The story of this reconstruction, along with some more history of the original production process, can be found here). Williams apparently no longer discusses the film and, understandably disgusted and heartbroken, had nothing to do with this reconstruction effort. While Recobbled has the benefit of re-including some beautiful passages that Calvert decided to cut, it’s actually a bit less involving because it’s simply more self-indulgent and wanders off into often less entertaining threads. Furthermore, while the added songs in the Miramax-Calvert version do kind of suck, and Matthew Broderick’s wall-to-wall voice over becomes increasingly unnecessary and irritating, the late, great Jonathan Winters is priceless as the voice/thought-process of the Thief. Other voices include, as noted, the also late, great Vincent Price, Jennifer Beal, Toni Collette, Joss Ackland, and Eric Bogosian.
In spite of everything that could have and even that did go wrong with this insane flight of filmic fancy, in spite of being pan-and-scanned, cut and recut, badly scored, voice-overed and otherwise fucked with, in spite of being on record as the film taking the longest time to finish in history, none of it matters. Like some old master painting that still awes and entrances in spite of having been water-damaged, cut down, reframed and repeatedly restored, Richard Williams’ masterpiece still somehow just works. It is a tribute to his vision and his genius, which shines through in almost every fabulous frame. And that’s why The Thief and the Cobbler, in whatever version you choose to see it, is this month’s movie you gotta see.