Animation World Magazine, Issue 1.12, March 1997

The Thief And The Cobbler

by Alex Williams

Editor's Note: In August 1995, a film titled Arabian Knights briefly appeared in American movie houses, hardly making a dent in the box office. Nevertheless, many in the animation community started to realize that this was no ordinary film, but rather a film assembled from the ruins of Richard Williams' magnum opus, The Thief and the Cobbler, which has now been released to the home video under its original title. While Animation World Magazine usually does not like to review films in their video version after they have been shown theatrically, we thought it would be interesting to have Richard Williams' son Alex take a gander at this version, which he had not seen before, and give us his reactions; some of my own comments on the film can be found in this issue's Editor's Notebook.

The Cobbler and The PrincessThe Cobbler and The Princess

The Thief and the Cobbler was to have been the greatest animated film ever made, the culmination of the a lifetime's work by master animator Richard Williams. Based on the art of the Middle East, and in particular on the miniatures produced in Safavid Persia circa 1500, the film was at least 30 Years in the making, and became a legend in the animation industry.

The version released on video by Miramax, described as "a musically-charged animated epic created by Richard Williams, the Oscar winning animator of Who Framed Roger Rabbit," is a degraded version of Williams' masterpiece, hardly worthy of the name it bears. lt is the same film formerly released theatrically as Arabian Knight, a work of such startling bad taste that it discredits all who were involved in its completion. The film is more or less unwatchable, a collage of laughably third rate animation interspersed with scenes of remarkable beauty, leftovers from the original cut. Worst of all are the three song sequences, banal and depressingly mediocre, and a bad soundtrack, featuring the voices of Jonathan Winters, as The Thief, and Matthew Broderick, as The Cobbler. Both characters were conceived by Williams as silent stars, without voice. Neither Broderick's endless plot commentaries nor Winters' unceasing and unfunny monologues add anything but noise to the film.

The Thief tries to escape through an Escher-like landscape in the palaceThe Thief tries to escape through an Escher-like landscape in the palace

Unlike Anything Attempted Before
The story of The Thief and the Cobbler began in London in the late 1960s, as Richard Williams began work on an obscure film which was to evolve over many years before reaching its final form. Working with illustrator Errol Le Cain and Art Designer Roy Naisbitt, Williams found a unique style based on Oriental and Eastern art, Unlike anything attempted before or since, and completely unlike Disney's Aladdin, The Thief did not attract full financial backing from a major studio until early 1990. Williams, having won an Oscar for his short film A Christmas Carol in 1972, picked up two more Oscars in 1990 for his groundbreaking work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Bankable at last, Williams was courted by producer Jake Eberts, and Warner Bros. agreed to finance and distribute The Thief.

Work began in earnest in the spring of 1990. Williams and his team of London animators labored to produce a work of lyrical beauty. Those fortunate enough to have seen the original director's cut (much-duplicated copies of which circulate throughout the close-knit animation industry) will be familiar with a work of epic grandeur and remarkable ambition. The destruction of the evil One-Eye's war machine at the end of the film is a sequence of breathtaking complexity and beauty, a symphony of destruction in which sound effects, music and animation combine to create an almost balletic climax. The film, including this final sequence, was entirely hand drawn, traced and painted in the traditional fashion onto celluloid, It is often said that much of the impressive work in The Thief could be easily done today by computer-generated animation, but this is to miss the point. The use of Persian motifs lends the film a graphic two-and-a half-dimensional quality which defies normal physical laws. Such an eccentric vision could only have been produced by a human hand.

Williams, a perfectionist to the end, was unable to complete The Thief on time. In late 1991, the Completion Bond Company, worried by the size of their financial exposure, sent animator Fred Calvert to London to assess the situation. In early 1992, despite the fact that the film was just 10-15 minutes from completion, Warner Bros. pulled out of the project, and the bond company lost their nerve. The Thief was completed from Los Angeles, farmed out around the world by Calvert, and was eventually picked up by Miramax. As Williams' involvement with the movie came to an end, the destruction of his life's work had begun.

Fred Calvert's involvement with the completion of the film is perhaps the most discreditable aspect of the story. Unable to appreciate the remarkable nature of the project he had inherited, he sent the inevitable song sequences to be completed in Korea by animators used to working on Saturday morning children's cartoons. That these sequences look grotesque when juxtaposed with Williams' original work should have come as no surprise. Fred Calvert's leading role in butchering The Thief has become perhaps his most infamous contribution to the medium.

The Thief hiding in a plantThe Thief hiding in a plant

The Spirit of the Film
It is hard, looking at this Miramax video release, to find the spirit of the film as it was originally conceived. The character of The Thief was intended as a mute, a Chaplinesque primitive, subtle and understated. By stealing the three golden balls which protect the Golden City, he unwittingly creates havoc and destruction around him. Superimposed over these scenes is Jonathan Winters' voice, ceaselessly cracking pointless jokes like an unwanted barroom companion. It is as if those responsible for the completion of the film were terrified of silence, overlaying every quiet moment in the film with endless chatter. Matthew Broderick's narration strives to explain what does not need explaining, robbing the story of subtlety or surprises. The film condescends to the the audience, insulting its intelligence.

There remains some beautiful animation in this fractured version of Richard Williams' epic; these include the opening sequence, where The Thief and The Cobbler get tangled up with each other and roll down the steps of the Cobbler's shop, interrupting Zig Zag's march through the city, the chase through the palace through Escher-like optical illusions, and a little of the final war machine sequence. For those courageous enough to sit it out, I recommend watching with the sound turned off. Save for Vincent Price's brilliant valedictory performance as Zig Zag, the evil Grand Vizier, all but a handful of the carefully selected original voice talents have been replaced with other, less suitable, actors. Even John Leatherbarrow's superb camerawork has been made to appear unremarkable, the once subtle colors now vulgar and garish. Finally, the substitution of Baghdad for the Golden City seems in extraordinarily bad taste for a film originally released shortly after the Gulf War.

Zig Zag, the Grand Vizer and The SultanZig Zag, the Grand Vizer and The Sultan

Dick Williams spent 30 years trying to pull off an animation masterpiece, a true work of art, the like of which may never be seen or attempted again. It is sad that so little of his original vision made it into this video release. It is probably little consolation to Williams himself that the Completion Bond Company has since gone out of business, largely as a result of the costs of completing The Thief.

The Thief and the Cobbler, partial credits:
Richard Williams, Screenplay: Richard Williams, Executive Producer: Jake Eberts, Musical Score: Robert Folk, Songs by: Robert Folk & Norman Gimbel, Producers: Richard Williams & Imogen Sutton, Director, L.A. Production: Fred Calvert, Producer, L.A.: Bette L. Smith, Art Director: Roy Naisbitt, Master Animator: Ken Harris, Background Stylist: Errol LeCain, Director of Photography: John Leatherbarrow.
Artistic Supervisors: Special Effects: John M. Cousen, Character Animation: Neil Boyle & Tim Watts, Background: Paul Dilworth.
Lead Animators included: Art Babbitt, Steven Evangelatos, Emery Hawkins, Richard Williams, Alex Williams, and many others.

Alex Williams is an animator at Warner Bros. Feature Animation, currently working on The Quest For Camelot. He spent two years animating on The Thief and the Cobbler, which was directed by his father Richard. He also teaches an animation class at The California Institute of The Arts, and does a weekly cartoon strip Queen's Counsel for The London Times.

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