Movie Review: "The Thief and the Cobbler"--ReFocus

6/03/2010 Posted by Admin

Movie Review: Refocus

"The Thief and the Cobbler"

By our guest blogger, John Shannon

Editor's note: With new movies coming out every Friday, new DVDs every Tuesday, and nearly a hundred years worth of film history to draw from, it’s easy for some titles to get lost in the shuffle. “ReFocus” is a weekly column detailing a film that for one reason or another deserves revisiting. Whether it’s simply providing further context or taking a second look at a misplaced classic, we’re here to continue the conversation and give films their proper view.

This week…

"The Thief and the Cobbler"

The story of Richard Williams and “The Thief and the Cobbler” is an urban legend for animators and fans of the art form. A frustrated animator, Williams began work on his self professed masterpiece in 1964, intending for it to capitalize on all the art of animation could achieve and bring it away from the mass-produced Disney formula.

The film takes place in the far off land and time of the Middle East, where the evil King One-Eye is on a mission to conquer the known world. The last freestanding kingdom is the Golden City, which has been blessed with three golden orbs that rest upon the palace’s tallest minaret. But the Sultan’s vizier, Zig-Zag, has struck a deal with One-Eye, stealing the holy spheres and removing their protective spell. After a variety of circumstances, an unnamed Thief and a young cobbler’s apprentice referred to as Tack is chosen to accompany Princess Yum-Yum on a mission to regain the kingdom’s defenses and take down One-Eye once and for all.

Over three decades, Williams worked on the project off and on, doing studio work on the side to fund his dream. Occasionally, a studio would show interest in financing the film, but when Williams would meet them with his massive, complex storyboards and a refusal to budge on creative decisions, they were quickly scared off.

The biggest concern on the potential investors’ part was Williams’ intentions for the titular characters. Williams’ envisioned the thief and the cobbler as mute individuals, challenging his animators to get across all their thoughts and feelings via animation. This was unheard of at the time, and still is to this day. Even WALL-E and EVE had sounds to chirp to give audiences a clue to their motivations.

Another concern was William’s refusal to craft a musical. Disney’s animated musical films had set the bar for how things were done in the realm of feature animation, and Williams wanted no part of it.

Over time, Williams’ independently crafted his film, even getting far enough along to get Vincent Price to record voice work as Zig-Zag, the sniveling vizier. But just as he would pick up steam, the money would run out, or he would be unhappy with the work he produced and would burn everything. It seemed his masterpiece would always remain unfinished.

But in the late '80s, opportunity arose. Williams was approached to direct the animated segments on a film by the name of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Two Academy Awards for his work later, and Williams had a golden ticket to do whatever he wanted. Of course, he brought out his storyboards for “Thief and the Cobbler.” This time, investors didn’t hesitate.

However, it soon became clear that Williams’ ambition wasn’t quite within his grasp. A simple line in the script that read: “The Thief climbs up the drainpipe” became a five-minute segment on film. Williams favored Goldberg-esque set ups and as boarded, his film stretched to a near three-hour run time with enormous pacing issues and multiple dead spots. Investors wrung their hands, but let the genius work, hoping something marketable would come out of it. But after multiple complaints of being over-worked and under-directed from his animation team, Williams was removed from the project and producers took what they had and sent key sequences out to Korea to finish the rest.

The title characters were given inner monologues, and songs were written and inserted into the film to match the resurging Disney brand. The movie was even re-titled “Arabian Knight” in order to capitalize upon the recent success of Disney’s “Aladdin.”

These added songs and aggressive cuts destroyed what Williams set out to achieve, and he has publicly denounced it, vowing never to return to his attempted work. Luckily, fans of Williams with friends in key places have been able to salvage the lost scenes, and in 2006, a “Re-Cobbled Cut” surfaced at conventions and through questionable means online.

While the Re-Cobbled Cut is closer to Williams’ vision, the studio cut isn’t a total disaster. Looking beyond the songs and subpar animation in sequences clearly placed for exposition’s sake, there is a lot to treasure and admire here, particularly the chase between Zig-Zag and Tack within the palace, or any mischief the Thief gets involved in. Jonathan Winters does his best giving the Thief a logical, smarmy inner monologue, and nearly steals the film. The visuals certainly are key here, with many How-Did-They-Do-That moments. Anyone remotely interested in the art of animation should give this film a look.

Unfortunately, this is all buried underneath songs that are entirely unnecessary, bringing the narrative to a screeching halt. The best types of these songs (such as “A Whole New World” or “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”) build upon the story and give further insight into our characters. Here, they stick out like sore thumbs, clearly studio notes trying to repeat Disney’s success.

For the curious, the Re-Cobbled Cut is available in bits and pieces on YouTube, and the Miramax cut is out (and relatively cheap) on DVD. At the end of the day, we can only look at what we were given and mourn what could have been. With the severe lack of hand-drawn animation out there today, it’s worth it to look back at one of the lost gems of a dying art.

What do you think? Half the fun is getting in on the conversation, so sound off in the comments below. Whether you agree or disagree, your opinion is welcome, and we’d love to hear it.

John Shannon can be reached at

Next week on ReFocus: “The Patriot”

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  1. Kevin Schreck said...

    It's really an amazing film. What a tragedy that it was never completed as Richard Williams intended.

    I'm making a documentary on the production and destruction of Richard Williams' "The Thief and the Cobbler," but the project needs funding. Please donate today at this Kickstarter link!:

    Thank you!