Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Thief and the Cobbler

The Thief and the Cobbler (Recobbled Cut), AKA The Princess and the Cobbler AKA Arabian Knight
seen online via YouTube

There's a wonderful graphic novel called Hicksville, about a tiny New Zealand village which houses a secret archive of comics created by the greatest cartoonists in history. These are the dream projects that they weren't able to publish for a wider audience due to business restraints imposed on them by selfish editors and publishers. Needless to say, it's a hell of a lot more than just superheroes. There's much more to the story than just that, though. It's well worth reading.

I was reminded of the book when I learned of the story behind the film The Thief and the Cobbler, which is also a story of a notable artist's dream project compromised by an indifferent company. Richard Williams is a Canadian animator by way of London, who won Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the 1971 version of A Christmas Carol. He also has an Emmy for the TV film Ziggy's Gift. So basically he's really good at what he does.

Before all of that, though, in 1968, Williams began self-financing work for a project called The Thief and the Cobbler, inspired by the Arabian Nights tales and meant to be a more adult-oriented film. The work went slowly. After Roger Rabbit became a success, he signed a deal with Warner Brothers to finish Thief, but production went on past the deadline. Meanwhile, Disney was about to release the similar Aladdin and, fearing the competition, the financier pulled Thief and had it completed in Korea with new musical segments. Under the title The Princess and the Cobbler, it was released to the international market in 1994.

It gets worse. Miramax, notorious for their practice of re-cutting foreign films and re-distributing them during the Weinstein regime (they don't call Harvey Weinstein "Harvey Scissorhands" for nothing), got their hands on the film, drastically re-wrote, re-cut it and re-released it under the title Arabian Knight a year later.

Fortunately, in 2006, a "director's cut" version was put together by animator Garrett Gilchrist which used Williams' original storyboards and unfinished animation. This "Recobbled Cut" is a patchwork, but it's much closer to Williams' original vision than either of the other two versions, and this is the version I watched on YouTube last night.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like to see your life's work treated so shabbily? I mean, look at the poster and you'll see that Disney's Aladdin owes a great deal to this movie. Zigzag, the villain (voiced by Vincent Price!), is clearly an amalgam of Jafar and the Genie. I've always loved Aladdin, but after seeing Thief, I know I can never look at it the same way again.

Thief is a fun movie, if a bit light story-wise. There are no musical numbers like in Aladdin. The animation style reminded me of the Pink Floyd movie The Wall (the style, NOT the subject matter), with elements of Ralph Bakshi as well. It's kinda trippy, with lots of arabesque design patterns, rubbery figures, and unique visual gags. For instance, the Cobbler is almost always seen with two or three tacks dangling from his mouth (that's his name, in fact, Tack), but the way the tacks are animated suggest an actual mouth.

Despite the strides in the medium within the past twenty years, animation, I think, still gets unfairly categorized in America as being mostly for kids. I've alluded to it before in relation to Toy Story 3 and its Best Picture Oscar run. And then there's the hand-drawn animation versus computer-generated animation debate - if it can still be called one, since the latter has been winning at the box office for quite awhile now. Here's an animated movie that's both adult-oriented and hand-drawn that could've gone a long way towards challenging preconceptions about animated movies, but was not allowed to succeed on its own terms. It's a heartbreaking story, but at the very least, we're able to see what could have been.


  1. This is the most review like post I've ever seen from you on this. Not a criticism, just noticing it.

    This sounds like something worth finding time to check out. I'll put in on my long list.

  2. Every so often I write more traditional reviews. It's unavoidable in some cases - like this one.


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