THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER”

In the mid 1960s, a young and ambitious animator in London had an idea: he would produce a film based on the Arabian Knight folklore of Nasruddin. The production took many more years than he would’ve imagined, and what should’ve been an animation masterpiece wound up as a butchered travesty which became lost in oblivion. The animator in question was Richard Williams and his film was “The Thief and the Cobbler.”

Richard Williams’ career in animation began very early during his teenage days working for a small production house out of Toronto, where he storyboarded advertisements alongside George Dunning (who later gained immortality as the director of “Yellow Submarine”). He eventually turned to painting and left for Spain in the hopes for a future as the next Picasso. That didn’t happen, so Williams developed a storyboard for an animated film. Heading to London, and with the backing of George Dunning (now working in London at TVC studios), Williams developed this storyboard to produce his first independent film, “The Little Island” (1958) a very UPA-like tale of three men on an island who each have their own very different concept of truth, goodness and beauty.

After a number of years of animating TV commercials and creating highly imaginative animated sequences in films (most notably the playful main titles to “What’s New, Pussycat?” ), Williams gained industry attention with the stunning 1971 version of “A Christmas Carol,” which won the Academy Award as Best Animated Short Subject.
Throughout this period, Williams labored on what he intended to be his crowning achievement: “The Thief and the Cobbler,” an elaborate and artistically-inclined labyrinth of action, suspense, drama and humor rolled into one.

The story, as Williams conceived it, surrounds a kingdom in the middle of the desert where three golden balls held high on top of the tallest minaret. If the balls were to be taken at any time, chaos and death will emerge. And, of course, the balls get pinched. The only hero who could return the balls and save the kingdom is a poor but humble cobbler name Tack, a monochromatic figure whose expressions are created by the tacks he sticks in his mouth.

On the antagonist side is the grand vizier, ZigZag (voiced by Vincent Price), whose only wish is to marry the Princess YumYum and to takeover the kingdom though the help of the gold balls and the approaching army led by the Mighty One Eye. But the disruptive little thief gets into the mix and things get more complex when it’s all said and done.
Williams started production around 1968, but the film was a constant on-again/ off-again affair since Williams decided to self-finance the work. While he was busy with advertising work and for-hire film projects, Williams was constantly struggling to find time and money to bring “The Thief and the Cobbler” to life. At one point, the film supposedly by a Saudi Arabian prince named Mohammed Faisil, which is odd since the film is not exactly slavish in its appreciation of Arab culture.

Of all the scenes comprising this film and one of the most intriguing pieces is the “War Machine” sequence, where a giant contraption led by Mighty One Eye’s army is brought to battle with King Nod’s kingdom, only to slowly and gradually collapse after a string of events originating from Tack’s cleverness. The thief who tagged alone for the ride tries to fetch the gold balls that were inside the contraption while everything falls apart around him, leading to a slew of scenarios and situations that occur with him walking through deadly targets and other mishaps. This whole sequence lasted about 10 minutes and contains some of the most intricate hand-drawn animation ever made (it puts CGI to shame).

In the mid-1980s, after a screening of his completed footage at ILM, the producers of Amblin Entertainment approached Williams to direct the animation for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Needless to say, Williams took the offer and felt that could help fund for the completion his film. Incredibly, Warner Brothers stepped in and helped to fund for the completion and future distribution of the film.

While “Roger Rabbit” was an instant classic and the animator won two Oscars, Williams was not viewed as an instant genius. Warner Brothers became impatient with the slow progress on “The Thief and the Cobbler” and backed away from the project when Williams (laboring from a workprint) had only about 10-15 minutes left to finish.

Then the worst happened: exercising its contractual rights, Warner Brothers allowed the film to be taken away from Williams by the Completion Bond Company. It was given to producer Fred Calvert, who opted to re-write the film and add in three or four songs into the mix. Too much of Williams’ work was scrapped, including the complete War Machine sequence (a fraction remained). New voices were recorded, most miserably Jonathan Winters as the thief (which was astonishing since the character was mute in the original concept and Winters was allowed to ad-lib irrelevant observations throughout the soundtrack). All of the new animation was also sent to Korea for completion. The result was a mess, with Williams’ artistically framed sequences crashing into new hack Korean slop.

(Ironically, the Completion Bond Company which grabbed the film from Williams folded when that project forced the company into bankruptcy.)

The completed film was released in North America in 1995 by Miramax under the title “Arabian Knight,” but it did very poor in the box office; many moviegoers were unaware of the film’s long history and dismissed it as a quickie rip-off of Disney’s “Aladdin.” It had a brief home video release under its original title of “The Thief and the Cobbler,” but it never had a widescreen release. Even its recent release on DVD is still pan and scanned to death.

Among animation enthusiasts, the workprint of “The Thief and the Cobbler” is available in bootleg video circulation (don’t ask how that happened, but it happened). Some of the workprint is available online at http://www.geocities.com/eddie_bowers/movies.html, but as of this writing these the public viewing of these scenes are disabled by the webmaster (who will supposedly provide individual access for those eager to see them).

The most astonishing workprint sequence is the scene where the thief, who is about to have his hands severed after being caught stealing, uses back scratchers in lieu of his hands when he is placed on the chopping block. That scene, along with the bath scene where the back scratchers are snagged, are not in the Miramax released version.

“The Thief and the Cobbler” as envisioned by Williams remains in limbo. Roy Disney allegedly showed interest in helping Williams finish the film his way, but that was put on hold following Disney’s war against Michael Eisner. Until Williams’ film is rescued from its cruel fate, the only way it can be appreciated as its creator intended is through The Bootleg Files.




Posted on July 1, 2005 in Features by
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