THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER: THE RECOBBLED CUT
Starring Vincent Price, Hilary Pritchard, Anthony Quayle, Paul Matthews, Windsor Davies & Joan Sims
Directed by Richard Williams
Written by Richard Williams & Margaret French
Produced by Richard Williams & Imogen Sutton
Cinematography by John Leatherbarrow
Music by various classical artists
Compiled & Edited by Garrett Gilchrist
(Just a few notes before we begin: this review is for the 3rd version of The Recobbled Cut, otherwise known as Mark III. Mark IV is currently being worked on and will probably be released sometime in 2013. I’m not sure if I’ll update this in that event, but yeah, this is a review for the Mark III version. I’ve also gone back into this review and streamlined the parts in bold to make them fit into the review better. Yeah, sorry for going back and Lucasing my review, but hey, I just want it to look nice for y’all. One more thing: there are SPOILERS in here. I highly recommend you watch this film unspoiled, if you haven’t already. Whether or not you read this before seeing it is your choice. Anyway, onto the review!)
I’m gonna start off by stating the obvious: it’s not a perfect world. In a perfect world, things would never go wrong for talented people. The masses would always flock to quality-made productions, artists would always get the upper hand over money-grubbing business executives, and inspired creations painstakingly crafted by good-natured people would always see the light of day and achieve the accolades they deserve. Unfortunately, life has an unfortunate knack for being cruelly unfair most of the time, and if there’s anybody on the planet who can attest to this fact with absolute pathos, it’s Richard Williams. There’s perhaps nobody else in the history of cinema who’s been as royally fucked over harder than Richard Williams, the genius director and master animator behind The Thief and the Cobbler. Once upon a time, Williams was a man with a dream – to create the greatest animated film the world had ever seen. And, in 1964, he set forth on the path to accomplishing this lofty goal. Sadly, it would never come to fruition: Thief spent the next 29 years in on-again off-again production only to be taken away from Williams at the last minute and drastically re-edited into a shameful, Disneyesque shitfest released into theaters in 1993 (and 1995, confusingly) as Arabian Knight…or, The Princess and the Cobbler…or, in some cases, just as The Thief and the Cobbler, which is probably the biggest slap in the face considering the fact the “finished” product was NOTHING like the Thief Williams had envisioned. For a long time, the dream was dead – and nobody in the general public had any clue about the hideous buttfucking the system had given this once great masterpiece of animated cinema.
Nobody, that is, until 2006, when a young filmmaker/animation aficionado named Garrett Gilchrist completed a little restoration project he titled The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut and released it for free onto the internet. Since then, awareness has been steadily growing regarding this lost animated gem, and for the first time, the public could finally sort-of witness the glory of what was intended to be the greatest animated film ever created by human consciousness. I remember stumbling along through the vast chasms of the Interwebz one day when I happened upon an article detailing the story of this troubled film in its entirety, which ended with a strong urging to seek out The Recobbled Cut. I had never heard of the released version of the movie before, and since I am a life-long, fanatically enthusiastic lover of animation, I was intrigued, and I took it upon myself to view this Recobbled Cut for great justice. And friends…it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, at least, in terms of cinema I’ve chosen to expose myself to. For you see, The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut is one of the most important and vital pieces of fan-made cultural preservation you will ever, EVER experience. I was absolutely blown away by Thief, even in its unfinished form – it really, truly is the greatest animated film ever made, a lovingly crafted and dazzingly animated epic tale of good & evil, fate & circumstance, random causality, dreams, and general cartoony goodness that will absolutely astonish your brain while you’re watching it. I really can’t say enough good things about it, which is why I’m writing this doozy of a film review to get it all out. It is now my responsibility to spread awareness of this film by any means necessary, and to alert the populace to both its raw, epic greatness and also its tragic tale of brutal mutilation at the hands of those unworthy of said greatness. And believe me, dear readers…I have every intention of doing so.
It’s important to note that The Recobbled Cut is NOT The Thief and the Cobbler – that film was never finished in its appropriate form. Rather, The Recobbled Cut is an appropriation of what that epic film would have been. It compiles unfinished animation and original storyboards to complete a story inspired by the Arabian Nights legends which is flawlessly executed with the help of incredibly vibrant, instantly memorable characters as a testament to the power and beauty of animation. Why anybody would want to stop that from happening is BEYOND me, but, it happened, ladies and gents. I’m sorry to say it, but you were all deprived of one of the coolest fucking movies that has ever existed – and now I’m here to try and help pick up the pieces.
The entire story of The Thief and the Cobbler – the production of the film itself, I mean – is long, confusing, and above all, tragic. First off, a brief background on Richard Williams: you know that old colloquialism about how someone “wrote the book” on a given topic? Well, Richard Williams IS that guy with concern to animation. Really! His book The Animator’s Survival Kit is considered THE definitive tome on the art of animation and is even used in animation classrooms all over. Also, he was the Oscar-winning animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. So basically, this guy rules at animating. Anyway, Richard Williams sought to make the entire film independently – with absolute creative control over what would happen in it. This was the obvious and highly important choice for the film, but a cold truth about the world is that independent animators don’t make a ton of money. Williams demanded perfection in the animation, down to the straightest line, striving to push the boundaries of what animation had previously accomplished – but doing so would cost a fortune. Think about it this way: time is money, and this movie took nearly 30 years to see some form of release – and it isn’t even fucking done yet. The amount of intricacy in the animation of this film is a beautiful and awe-inspiring thing to see, but it didn’t come cheap. To pay for his expensive masterpiece, Williams (along with his animation studio) took on work from anyone who would be willing to pay – commercials, films, television shows, you name it, Richard Williams Studio was animating it.
The film originally began life as The Amazing Nasruddin, and was set to be a tale about Mulla Nasruddin, a legendary figure from Near Eastern folklore. The film’s name changed to The Majestic Fool, and then to Nasruddin! and production chugged along very slowly. Eventually, Williams had a falling out with some of the people he was planning the film with, and it was also determined that Nasruddin! was “too verbal” for a proper animated film, so the script was thrown out sometime around 1972. (I’ve actually seen some footage left over from Nasruddin!, and trust me…they were right.) However Williams, having gained a lot of visual reference and inspiration from Middle Eastern artwork and folklore, decided to make an entirely new production based in this world that would ideally become the greatest animated film ever created. Now titled The Thief and the Cobbler, Williams began production on this new project in 1973. Production was extremely slow, and due to Williams not faithfully following the script he had written, scenes were pretty much animated on a whim. Williams made it a point to hire animation legends to work on the project – names like Ken Harris, Art Babbitt, and Emery Hawkins. You might not know who these guys are, but they are all considered legends in the field of animation, and true masters of their craft. The film was conceived as a way to preserve their craft for all generations to come. Williams himself made things a bit of a problem, since he didn’t like the tyranny of scripts or storyboards hindering his creativity and ambition. Because of this, scenes were being animated without any bearing as to where they would end up in the film – many of the scenes involving the Thief doing random things that are in the film exist because Williams wanted to keep his master animators busy while he plotted out the entire film in his head.
After receiving some financial backing from a Saudi Arabian prince in the late ’70s and using it to complete the climax of the film (which contains some of the most intricate, complex and detailed animation ever committed to celluloid), Thief was comprised of about 12 minutes of completed footage. (The prince eventually backed out of the movie after Williams missed two deadlines and went drastically over budget.) Richard Williams put together a screening of the completed 12 minutes to show to potential financiers, and this caught the attention of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, who were in the process of prepping for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. They checked out the animation for themselves, and after being thoroughly impressed, they offered Williams the position of Animation Director for Roger. Williams accepted the offer, knowing that he would finally be able to gain financial backing for The Thief and the Cobbler in return for working on such a high-profile project. And, after Roger was released in 1988 and became a huge box-office success which gained him two Academy Awards, it happened. Warner Bros. Pictures gave Williams proper funding, a distribution deal, and a 1991 deadline, and for the first time in the history of the film, it looked like it was actually going to be made. It was during this time that Williams began to truly gain the reputation of being a perfectionist blowhard: he was firing scores of animators left and right, staying extra late at the studio working on the film, and even throwing out entire completed scenes and re-animating them. To make matters worse, he still didn’t have a solid storyboard of the film, meaning the entire thing was pretty much in his head and nobody had any solid foundation to go on. By the time the 1991 deadline rolled around, production still had about 15 minutes of animation left to finish – animation which would take months to complete under Williams’ methods. It was also around this time that Disney began prepping their ad campaign for their new film Aladdin…which was also based on the Arabian Nights tales and bore some VERY striking resemblances to The Thief and the Cobbler (more of that later…believe me, it’s quite a tale). Feeling the pressure, Warner Bros. demanded Williams compile a workprint of the finished animation for the film, and use storyboards to fill in the parts that weren’t completed. Williams begrudgingly complied, and in 1992 the workprint was screened for the studio bigwigs.
The bigwigs were not happy. An ever-expanding budget and Williams’ slow working pace made Warner Bros. frustrated and nervous, and after 4 years of financial support, they effectively backed out of the project, citing lost confidence in Williams. A few months later, The Completion Bond Company (basically, just a film insurance company…you can imagine how many creative people were employed over there) seized control of the film and booted Williams out of the director’s chair. Basically, they had legal control over the project at this point, and Williams had no say in how it would continue. He was separated from his creation, and creative control was handed over to a man named Fred Calvert. Instead of finishing the film that Williams had started, Calvert decided to completely reconstruct the tone of the movie, and excise much of Williams’ original animation to make a more streamlined, family-friendly production. This differed strongly from Williams’ original vision of a mature, adult-oriented film…not in terms of “adult” themes, but you know…an actual film with a story that didn’t have cartoon animals singing about their feelings every 5 minutes. The execs ordered Calvert to finish the movie in the shortest amount of time possible for the smallest amount of money possible, and in 1993, Majestic Films bought the distribution rights from the Completion Bond Company and released this new version of the film in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler. Two years later, Miramax gained U.S. distribution rights and re-edited the film even further, making “brilliant” decisions such as adding Matthew Broderick and Johnathan Winters to the mix to provide voice-overs for the previously MUTE characters of the Thief and Tack the cobbler, and giving the film the oh-so-clever title of Arabian Knight. It was at this point the horrid fate of the once ambitious film was sealed.
Arabian Knight was released in America in 1995 to terrible critical reception and box office failure. It was considered a poor, misguided attempt at streamlining Williams’ vision and a blatant ripoff of Disney’s much more successful Aladdin, which was released in 1992. Calvert had gone about adding horrible, unmemorable Disneyesque songs to the production, and those were also criticized for being the horrid piles of shame that they were. In the end, The Thief and the Cobbler had been butchered by the Hollywood system – a victim of both overzealous ambitions from the creator and cheap, uninspired completion methods from the company that stole it from him. A genuine work of art downgraded to a cheaply-made, by-the-numbers commodity. Richard Williams vowed to never speak of the film again, a vow which he has stuck to for the most part. And seriously, can you blame the guy?
But you see my friends, we’ve finally come full circle: In the 2000’s, a filmmaker named Garrett Gilchrist set off on a quest to see The Thief and the Cobbler somewhat restored to its former glory. Going directly to the animators who worked on the film, Gilchrist eventually gathered together all of the released and unreleased footage, voice recordings, music selections and storyboards and edited it all together to create The Recobbled Cut, which currently stands as the closest anyone has come to completing The Thief and the Cobbler as a whole. Be happy that Gilchrist did that, ladies and gents, because he basically saved an entire work of art from tragic obscurity.
So now, after reading that long and admittedly twisty tale, you may be saying to yourself “Well, that sucks for him. But why should I care?” The reason you should care, my friends, is because The Thief and the Cobbler – had it been finished – really, genuinely would have been the greatest animated film of all time!!! Seriously, this is a movie which would have been played countless times on television, become an international landmark classic, and would’ve had a grand impact on the face of cinematic history as we know it. The film is seemingly made out of pure imagination, streamed directly from some unknown and mystical source directly into your retinas. The quality of the animation is breathtaking – you can definitely see the effort that went into the flawless, fluid motions of the characters and the world they inhabit. The movie is just straight up fun to look at! It’s pure eye candy while also being a completely satisfying cinematic experience.
So now that you’ve heard the tale of how the movie was made, just what the hell is the movie about? Well, it’s about some really well thought-out and developed characters, for one thing. The hero of our adventure is Tack, a lowly cobbler in an old Arabian city who – through a series of seemingly random and coincidental events – ends up becoming the prince of all the land, with the beautiful Princess Yum Yum (that’s right) by his side. It’s also the tale of an unnamed Thief, who is simultaneously a crucial yet largely unnoticed part of the events which unfold. Sliming his way through the mayhem to be our antagonist is Zigzag, an ugly and very blue Grand Vizier who lusts for power and is extremely well-voiced by none other than Vincent Price, and undeniable film legend who goes all out to help imbue Zigzag with the right amount of hilarity and hubris and fully realize him as one of the creepiest, most lecherous animated villains ever devised. Despite her, uh, “simple” name, Princess Yum Yum is actually a very strong female character – we actually see her do things in the movie, and she utilizes her feminine charm (and wrath, at least on Zigzag’s vulture Phido) to get shit done. I really enjoy her character a lot because she’s not just an airhead princess – she has personality and that previously mentioned charm which shines through the screen because of her amazing animation. She’s treated respectfully, and it makes her character that much stronger. And one thing I want to mention about Tack is his mouth – he doesn’t really have one. Well, he does, but it’s always closed and unmoving. Instead, his mouth expressions are handled by tacks which he keeps in his mouth like toothpicks – when he’s happy, they perk up! When he’s sad, they droop. It’s a really clever trick that works perfectly for guy who doesn’t really talk that much. All of these characters are so well defined, and have their own visual styles which are instantly ingrained on your memory – truly, there’s no better compliment you can give to successful animated characters.
So anyway, the story begins with a narrator, who sets the stage by informing us -
“It is written among the limitless constellations of the celestial heavens, and in the depths of the emerald seas, and upon every grain of sand in the vast deserts, that the world which we see is an outward and visible dream…of an inward and invisible reality.“
– which might be the coolest fucking opening line for any movie that has ever existed in the history of EVER. The pure epicness of that one line alone is but a taste of the glorious wonder which is to follow – but I’m digressing. The narrator continues to tell us that once upon a time, there was a city made entirely of gold. In the city, on top of the tallest minaret, were three gold balls of some magical variety. It had been prophesized that if the golden balls were ever taken away, then “harmony would fall to discord” and the city would come to “destruction and death.” Keeping up? The prophecy also states that the city would be saved by the “simplest of souls with the smallest and simplest of things.”
This introduces us to Tack, who we find sleeping peacefully in his shoe shop. Soon after, the narrative introduces us to the Thief, who remains otherwise nameless throughout the entire film. The design of the Thief is hilarious – he’s a skinny, sickly-green fellow with a large cloak used for stashing a large quantity of stolen goods. He attempts to rob a little old lady, who immediately turns the tables on him by thoroughly beating him senseless and literally tying him into knots. It’s a great introduction to both the Thief and the old lady (who later turns out to be Princess Yum Yum’s nanny), and it properly establishes both the whimsical nature of the story and the cartoonish silliness employed throughout the film. Eventually, the Thief wanders into Tack’s shoe shop, where he vainly attempts to rob the broke cobbler of any cash he might have. Meanwhile, the sound of loud music can be heard, as an entirely self-important parade takes place on the street for Zigzag the Grand Vizier, who clearly thinks very highly of himself as he sort of dance-walks through the square as a group of hastily-moving underlings continually roll up and unfurl a carpet beneath his feet as he walks – it’s a hilarious image, and instantly defines Zigzag as the biggest douche ever. After waking to find he has accidentally stitched himself to the Thief while he was sleeping, Tack and the Thief awkwardly stumble out onto the street, where several of Tack’s tacks spill out right where Zigzag is about to step. He steps on one, and after screaming in pain he immediately orders Tack to be seized and taken to the palace, where his fate will be decided.
By this point the film has already established an important precedent: this is a highly VISUAL story – as it should be! The animation, character designs, and backgrounds are so gloriously rendered it’s almost unbelievable to witness. The main characters of the film – the Thief and Tack the cobbler – are entirely silent. As in, they DO NOT SPEAK. This is a very obvious aesthetic choice that Richard Williams made, and it helps to emphasize the visuals as the primary storytelling compenent. This is where the Miramax-helmed shitfest Arabian Knight goes horribly wrong – they actually give Tack and the Thief fuckin’ voices! Tack has the horrible misfortune of being awkwardly voiced by Matthew Broderick – whose involvement in anything pretty much guarantees a sheen of mediocrity. Miramax got away with this by making Tack the narrator of the film – and he pretty much spells out everything that anybody with half a brain could figure out just by, you know…watching the fucking movie. They even went in and added scenes of Tack saying such brilliant things like “Why can’t I ever talk when it matters?”…which is pretty much the stupidest, most disrespectful thing you could make a previously mute character say. But still, despite the horrible treatment Tack received, it’s nothing compared to the evil slaughtering the Thief’s character underwent. Miramax decided to make the Thief “a man of few words…but many thoughts” because, apparently, having an entirely mute character in a cartoon is too risky and ridiculous of a thing to do. So they got a comedian named Johnathan Winters to provide CONTINUOUS voice-over “thought-speech” to THE ENTIRE MOVIE. So basically, this just means that some asshole is making terrible, pop culture-referencing “jokes” over beautiful animation that has absolutely NO BEARING on the story at all! And worst of all, it doesn’t stop!!! The Thief is constantly jabbering away “in his head”, but nothing – NOTHING he thinks has anything to do with anything. It really is a baffling and infuriating thing to watch.
You might be wondering why I’m getting so furious over some stupid voices added to an animated film, and the reason is because doing so completely rapes the entire point of what Richard Williams set out to accomplish, and because it totally bastardizes the characters! Tack and the Thief are NOT supposed to talk. Period. To think that they needed to talk for some reason is not only foolish, but offensive to Richard Williams AND the audience. We don’t need things spelled out for us, especially in an animated film where the visuals are all we need to understand what is happening. It’s self-indulgent, unnecessary, redundant, boring, and worst of all, annoying. It’s a big reason why Arabian Knight is considered an atrocious film. Now, I will add an asterisk here saying that Tack does indeed have one line in The Recobbled Cut, but it’s so gloriously awesome that I won’t spoil what he says or when he says it. When it happens, it makes sense and it’s just so surprising that your brain can’t help but enjoy it! With Arabian Knight, it doesn’t make sense in the slightest – it just illustrates how terribly Richard Williams and his art were screwed over.
Anyway, I got a little sidetracked from the story…I’m sorry, but there’s just so much to talk about with this movie. Tack is taken into the palace where he meets King Nod – who is very appropriately named because he always seems to be nodding off to sleep – and his daughter, the beautiful Princess Yum Yum. Zigzag wants to have Tack killed because he “attacked” him in the square, but Yum Yum instantly sees something in Tack and purposely breaks her shoe so she can save the cobbler’s life. This infuriates Zigzag, who has something of a longing for Yum Yum himself. Meanwhile, the Thief sets his eyes on the legendary golden balls atop the minaret, and sets about trying to get into the palace walls so he can steal them. Why would the Thief want to steal these balls that are bound to the city’s fate? Well, the first thing you should know about the Thief is that he’s an idiot, and the second is that this guy does NOT think about anything besides stealing (another reason why making him a “man of many thoughts” is retarded). He’s the king of kleptomaniacs, putting stealing above his own life in almost every aspect. A lot of the movie revolves around scenes with the Thief trying to steal something in some way, even though it only directly influences the plot twice – he’s mainly used as comedy relief throughout the film, and indeed is barely noticed by any other characters as things progress. In fact, Tack is the only major character who directly interacts with the Thief, or seems to even be aware of his existence. There’s a scene in which the Thief has successfully gained access to the palace’s inner chambers, where he runs into Tack fixing Yum Yum’s shoe. The Thief steals it and Tack chases after him, leading to one of the most visually stimulating and powerfully exciting chase sequences in motion picture history. Tack chases the Thief through a series of M.C. Escher-inspired set pieces that comprise the interior of the palace – perspective and the laws of physics are thrown out the window and the characters are forced to make their way through the mayhem while we watch with delight. Seriously, it’s one of the coolest things you’ll ever see, and even though it only lasts about 40 seconds, it leaves a permanent imprint on your brain. Had Thief been completed and released into theaters, I guarantee it would have become one of the film’s standout and signature scenes. I guess we can thank our lucky stars that the sequence is one of the ones which is completely finished.
Another thing I’d like to randomly point out about The Recobbled Cut that’s worth mentioning is the music. The music used here – like everything else about the film – is simply breathtaking and perfectly utilized for the visuals we’re seeing. The classical pieces chosen are so well-edited and synced to what is happening in the film that it almost seems like they were written for the movie, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t know much about the process of how the film’s music was chosen, or about Williams’ full intent with how the music was utilized in it, but just judging from the way it exists in The Recobbled Cut I’ve come to the conclusion that Williams definitely intended for The Thief to be somewhat of a musical experience, too. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s beautiful, epic 40-minute masterpiece Scheherazade sort of serves as the main theme of the movie; its gorgeous strings and horns are heard throughout the film and various points. Without a doubt, it’s the single piece of music that gives the entirety of The Recobbled Cut its flavor. The rest of the music in the film is beautiful as well, and luckily for us, there are several moments where the animation has been timed sublimely with the accompanying music – there’s a scene where the Thief comically bounces around on the canopies of the marketplace windows in a botched attempt at getting to the top of the minaret, and the silly music chosen for the scene fits perfectly – the tone of the music, the swoops of the horns…it all matches with the action of the animation perfectly. There’s another scene with the Thief in which he has fashioned some makeshift wings out of palm fronds to swoop off a tall cliffside with, in an attempt to steal the ruby off of The Great Ruby Idol (gotta hand it to the Thief…he goes for the big grabs). After a very dodgy launch, he eventually soars into the air and begins flying around to the sound of a patriotic-sounding U.S. Air Force battle march, evoking the greatest memories of old-time aerial war films. The Thief and the Cobbler has a built-in lyricism to it, a structure of a somewhat loose and musical kind. The music seems to guide the story, while at the same time existing outside of it…indeed, the music somewhat serves as another character in the film, making just as much of an impression as the cast of characters it’s scoring. It’s really an effective move, and best of all, it’s done subtly – the music actually serves the story without interfering with it. This is MUCH different than the Bond Company/Miramax edits, which unnecessarily add some of the most laziest, monotonous, unoriginal, and straight-up simple-minded Disney-cribbing songs you could ever imagine. This literally shits in the face with Williams’ original vision, which – as I’m sure is quite apparent – was the polar opposite of the Disney brand of animated filmmaking. I’ll give it to Aladdin…there are some pretty damn good songs in that flick, and let’s face it, that’s what Disney’s strong suite is. That’s why blatantly RIPPING IT OFF and then adding it to a film which was NOT supposed to have ANYTHING LIKE THAT IN IT is misguided, thoughtless, stupid, and insulting…plus many more negative adjectives I won’t list here. It literally boggles the mind. Now, I will say that The Recobbled Cut does use some of the score from the Miramax edit – not the songs of course, but just the background score – but it’s only in scenes where some other piece of music might not have fit, and in all fairness, the musical score of Arabian Knight was probably the least worst thing about that release. Gilchrist did a fantastic job of being able to pull together something great from sources of varying quality, and the score he’s stitched together is another miraculous triumph.
So anyway, once the Thief successfully steals the golden balls (but loses them due to incurable clumsiness), the city is thrown into panicked chaos. Zigzag orders his lackies to retrieve the balls, and, once he has them, he uses it to his advantage by trying to coax King Nod into letting him marry Yum Yum in exchange for returning the golden balls. This offends Nod horribly, and he orders Zigzag out of the palace for good. Zigzag then decides to take the balls to the One-Eyes, a savage and fierce race of one-eyed men who plan to invade the Golden City and take it as their own. Meanwhile, the king sends his daughter and Tack (with the Thief in pursuit) into the desert to find the Mad and Holy Old Witch, the only one who can tell them how to save the city from the One-Eye invasion. Along the way they run into a group of comedic imbeciles called the Brigands, whom Yum Yum assigns as her Royal Guards to prevent them from pillaging their little caravan. The Brigands are pretty hilarious, but apart from getting our heroes back to the Golden City quickly after they’ve met the Witch, they serve no real purpose in the story. This isn’t really a bad thing though, because their foolishness adds a whimsical touch to the middle segment of the film. However, once they return to the city, they find the One-Eyes preparing for their invasion with a giant, impossibly elaborate War Machine and thousands of marching troops. I won’t spoil what happens from this point on, but I’ll just let you know that it involves some of the most complex, intricate animation ever devised and is an extremely satisfying (if highly unlikely) climax to the film. The War Machine sequence is also mostly finished, and we can definitely breath a sigh of relief that this unbelievably detailed animation is preserved for our enjoyment.
On that note, let’s talk about the unfinished nature of The Recobbled Cut. Yes, this movie is not complete. The movie seamlessly transitions from fully finished animation one moment to very rough, sort-of finished animation the next, or in some cases, just basic storyboard drawings. Backgrounds are unfinished, sound effects are missing, and entire sequences are told through stills. You might be thinking that watching an unfinished film with still pictures and basic line drawings spliced in may seem tedious or boring, but you would be WRONG boy, because watching Thief with the incomplete parts intact is like looking into the brain of a genius animator. We get a glimpse into the process of traditional animation, and an understanding of how painstaking and meticulous the animators got with this thing. The unfinished footage actually adds to the movie, and in a way, makes it feel that much more ethereal – it’s really, really cool. I’ve actually watched the film with people who were unaware of its unfinished nature, and midway through they asked me if it was stylistically that way on purpose. After explaining why it was like that, they told me they thought it added to the film’s resonance. And it does! Now, don’t get me wrong – the movie would definitely be a LOT better if it was actually finished. There’s actually segments of The Recobbled Cut which feel bogged down because of its unfinished nature – mainly, the middle part of the movie where our heroes venture into the desert to meet the Mad and Holy Old Witch. This is definitely the part of the movie that would have benefited from just a little more time from Warner Bros before they pulled the plug. I’d much rather see the completed animation than storyboards added in to fill up space, but this is a classic case of taking what you can get. While it would be astronimically awesome to see Thief completed and fully animated, it is a visual treat to see the unfinished work spliced in as well – it just adds to the surreality of the film. Another interesting thing about The Recobbled Cut is that it actually uses some of the Fred Calvert-helmed animation to fill in space in a few key spots – King Nod gets an extra line when sending Yum Yum on her quest into the desert, some footage of Tack and Yum Yum meeting the Witch from The Princess and the Cobbler is used, and perhaps most appropriately a scene at the end in which the Thief is hoisted up above a crowd in celebratory recognition is used. All of these things were absent from Williams’ original workprint, and they are actually really tactful additions put in by Garrett Gilchrist. They work extremely well, despite their woeful source of existence. That’s makin’ some good lemonade out of some pretty shitty lemons, folks.
At this point, I want to take a moment to focus on something you may have noticed in the pictures – Zigzag looks an awwwwfulllll lot like an effective combination between the Genie and Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. Just for reference, take a close look at the pictures here:
The Genie and Zigzag are both blue and have wild facial expressions. Jafar bears a striking resemblance to Zigzag and is also a Grand Vizier to an uninvolved, somewhat lackadaisical ruler. A royal princess falls in love with a poor scamp and they go on an epic adventure together. Zigzag even has a pet vulture named Phido, and Jafar has a pet parrot named Iago. Both of the films take place in old-school Arabian marketplaces and palaces (although Thief‘s palace is much, much cooler). Both of the heroes are imprisoned by their respective Grand Viziers after getting up close and personal with their respective princesses. Both of the movies feature a trick based on the idea that they’re on film reels at their endings…Aladdin with the Genie’s “made ya look” thing and Thief concluding with the Thief stealing the film…and I could go on.
Now, we could just chalk this up to extreme coincidence, and say that it’s just random circumstance that two characters from a multi-million dollar production would look so much like one character from a mostly independently-funded production which had been in the making for at least 28 years. You could also say it’s a coincidence that Aladdin and The Thief and the Cobbler both take place in old Arabian times, feature princesses, kings and grand viziers, and both take influence from the Arabian Nights folklore – hell, you could even argue that said influence is the reason for these striking similarities…in the story, at least. But then I could tell you a little story about an Japanese anime program called Kimba the White Lion, created by anime legend/godfather Osamu Tezuka. It ran on television in the mid-60’s and featured a colorful cast of talking animals. Kimba was the son of a great lion who strived for peace in the jungle and provided a haven for animals everywhere.
Sound sort of familiar?
So, you could say that all of these things are just a huge coincidence, and Disney just happened to create huge-budget movies that have striking similarities to these other lesser-known projects. Or you could say they are swindling assholes who completely jacked the intellectual properties of others so they could make a quick buck. You see, either one of these could be true, but they can’t BOTH be true. All I know is, Thief was in production for a LONG time before Aladdin was even a thought in anyone’s head. Over the years, Williams hired and fired a slew of animators, especially during the Warner Bros.-funded era in the late 80’s…right before Aladdin was conceived and created. Getting fired by someone is no doubt an infuriating experience, and William fired plenty of animators who logically might have gone to work for Disney. Not only that, but it’s kind of impossible to be working on something for decades and not have people in your related field gain knowledge about it in some way. The Thief and the Cobbler was infamous in animation circles before Aladdin was released. Now, I wasn’t there, and there’s no hard evidence to prove it, but I would NOT put it past Disney to completely rip off the hard work of someone else – especially if there were people there who felt slighted at Williams’ gall to create an admittedly self-righteous “greatest animated film ever” and fire the people he got to do it. I dunno, it just sort of makes sense to me. I almost don’t want to believe it, but it’s hard for me to look away from the probability that Aladdin is a giant, multi-million dollar “Fuck You” to Richard Williams. They basically took his beautiful, complex, artistically original masterpiece and warped it into a mainstream commodity to sell merchandise with. And it’s also hard to look over the fact that it was BECAUSE of Aladdin that The Thief and the Cobbler began to fall apart! And THEN you can look at the fact that Miramax – which, if you remember, released Arabian Knight – is a DISNEY-OWNED COMPANY. Warner Bros. felt the pressure from Disney because of Aladdin and backed out of The Thief because Williams couldn’t finish it on time. Now, they might have done this eventually anyway, but I’m willing to bet that if Aladdin wasn’t about to be released, they would have given him at least a LITTLE more time. It really is a clusterfuck of a situation – and Richard Williams just happened to come out on the bottom.
Now, just for clarity’s sake, I would like to state that I am not trying to bash on Aladdin as a movie itself. In all honesty, I think I’ve pretty much been a fan of Aladdin for my entire life. If you ever asked me what my absolute favorite Disney movie was sometime over the past few years, I definitely would have told you Aladdin. In fact, the chances are very good that it was the first movie I ever saw…if you’ve ever read the “My Mission” section of this site, I mention that the earliest memory I can fully remember is going to see Aladdin with my family in the movie theater, so Aladdin has pretty much been there my whole life. But now that it’s exactly 20 years later, I’ve grown up, slightly matured, and learned many things about the world…and one of them is that Disney – let’s face it – is a pretty fucked up company. I don’t want to get into a long tirade about the evils of Disney or whatever, because honestly, I have quite a few mixed feelings about it…I mean, like I said, I fuckin’ LOVED Aladdin. And I still think Aladdin is a well-made film for what it is…but now, after experiencing The Thief and the Cobbler and learning of its long and winding history, I can’t help but look at Aladdin in an unpleasant and disappointed light. I mean, even if it ISN’T true that Disney completely ripped off Richard Williams’ ideas – which could possibly be the case – Aladdin still doesn’t measure up to the greatness that Thief was aiming for, and it certainly pales as a work of art by comparison. The Thief and the Cobbler was conceived from a purely genuine, creative place of inspiration, and was trying to break new boundaries as an artistic statement and in a wonderful field of expression. Aladdin is just the same ol’ Disney shit we’ve seen over and over time and time again, just shoved into a different package. It’s painfully obvious that it’s just another commodity with that “Disney Sheen” on it. And don’t get me wrong, the “Disney Sheen” is mighty fine – they obviously have been doing it right for generations now! And I don’t want to stomp on Walt Disney’s grave…I mean, the man built an EPIC legacy, pioneering animation as a major art form and influencing millions of people along the way. He made the very first animated film for chrissakes, he’s a goddamn American icon. But the company he built has become something of a money-guzzling juggernaut, doing everything in its power to suck the money out of your wallet. The vast control they have over the media is as undeniable as it is gargantuan and far-reaching – Disney owns a SHITLOAD of movie-production companies (again, including Miramax), TV stations, clothing lines, THEME PARKS, and other marketing what-have-yous. Disney has become a multimedia and cultural titan, and when they have that much pull in the entertainment industry, I think it’s fairly obvious they can do whatever the fuck they want – even if it is destroying a true artist’s potentially game-changing work of art. And The Thief and the Cobbler is DEFINITELY a game-changer – that’s pretty much what Williams had in mind, I think. So I dunno, the point is Aladdin is now officially in an awkward place within my psyche. There’s definitely a sense of innocence lost within me, and sadness over the fact I can never view a movie I previously loved with the same outlook again…The Thief and the Cobbler is pretty much to blame for that. But, overall, I actually think that it’s a good thing, and even something that my life has kind of been leading up to in a very strange, specific way – it’s like a lesson just for me about the nature of the world. For me, Aladdin is caught somewhere between a beloved childhood favorite and a lecherous, manipulative and totally underhanded marketing campaign. I’m guessing the truth is somewhere in the middle – but there is no doubt in my mind that The Thief and the Cobbler is vastly, unequivocally superior.
Man, I could literally write about The Thief and the Cobbler for days on end and never get tired of it, or run out of things to talk about. There’s just so many intricate layers to the film, and its meanings and interpretations. I haven’t even talked about the small, barely noticeable details that pop out at you every time you re-watch the movie because of the intricate amounts of things happening in almost every frame, or the scenes hand-drawn in fully-realized, twisty-turny three dimensional space which were animated WITHOUT the use of computer animation, or even the references to drug use and psychedelia when the Mad and Holy Old Witch inhales “mystic fumes” which show her the way to save the Golden City. The film functions not only as a substantial dissertation on the random, chaotic nature of existence, but also on a really basic level as just a funny cartoon – the sequences with the Thief evoke the greatest memories of the classic Looney Tunes repertoire, with hilarious sight gags and visually pleasing physical comedy that would entertain even the smallest of children with no concept of the deeper themes being explored. That is the true mark of a successful film, in my opinion – one that works on a deeply complex level, and also on an entertainingly simple one. The Thief and the Cobbler will forever stand as one of cinema’s greatest disappointments, not because of the content of the film itself, but because it was never able to appropriately see the light of day. I just KNOW that if this movie had been released properly in the late 70’s, the 80’s, or even in the mid-90’s, it would have completely rocked the world of animated cinema and changed everything as we know it. It’s a highly inspirational and influential film, and I know this because it’s had a profound effect just on me and my life. It truly is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of my absolute favorites of all time. I honestly think my life is better because I have seen it, and I think a lot of people would benefit from viewing it and hearing its story. I highly, HIGHLY recommend The Recobbled Cut to literally everybody in the entire world…seriously, go onto YouTube and watch it, it’s pretty easy to find. I think there’s something for everyone in this movie, at least one thing that somebody can find and hold onto after viewing it. It’s a genuine work of art which has been swept under the rug for the crime of being perhaps TOO great…but it’s still there for us to experience.
Perhaps The Thief and the Cobbler was destined for failure even from the beginning. Perhaps Richard Williams’ ambitions were too great, and maybe a movie of its scope and scale was just too much for the world to handle. But thanks to The Recobbled Cut, we at least have some semblance of the genius that Richard Williams was trying to give us. Garret Gilchrist should be praised for his invaluable efforts to restore the film to its former glory, and I thank my lucky stars I was able to experience it in some way because of his resolve. History might forget The Thief and the Cobbler, but I know that for as long as I live, I never will. Richard Williams once said the film he was making was in “the language of a dream” – perhaps that’s why it got lost in translation when he tried to express it in reality. But all I know is, in a perfect world, this movie would have been released, and it would have gotten the accolades it deserves. But even with its imperfections, the fact The Recobbled Cut exists as it does reflects the very world in which we live in…and you know what? I think it’s pretty damn good enough.