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Feb 092012

An Epic animation undertaking that was tragically screwed at the hand of the corporate machine.

Richard Williams Animating at his desk.

The Thief and the Cobbler was supposed to be the greatest animated feature film ever created! The film is  master animator Richard Williams   life’s work.

Stills from the Thief and the Cobbler.

Williams  labored on his dream project for over 30 years. Sadly, his masterpiece suffered a similar fat such as The Magnificent Ambersons and the unfinished Don Quoxite by Orson Welles. Imagine how much it sucks to have your life’s work taken away from you because of money and  then released to the public in a form totally different from that you intended. I call this artist’s hell. That’s the tragic and sad story behind  The Thief and the Cobbler.

When he began production in 1964, Williams wanted The Thief and the Cobbler to be his masterpiece, and a milestone in the art of animation. Because its complicated animation and independent funding, The Thief and the Cobbler was in and out of production for over three decades. Williams worked for years as a producer of incredible TV commercials. Every cent he earned went into the gradual independent production of The Thief.

How the whole thing began.

Williams illustrated some books by Idries Shah based on the ancient Arabian stories of Nasrudin. The film was developed based on the illustrations. Williams brought in  Legendary Warner Bros. Master Animator Ken Harris to  start working on some early animation for the project. Harris knocked out quite a bit of footage, but the relationship between Shah and Williams went South.  The film was changed to remove the main character Nasrudin and a  thief character was created and the story was built back up from that point.

The Thief

Legendary Disney Master Animator Art Babbitt did some test animation with the character of the Cobbler. Then came Zig-Zag  voiced by  Vincent Price from 1967 to 1973 who died in 1993. It was Price’s final appearance. Zig-Zag  was mostly animated by Williams.  King Nod and Fido were also animated by Babbitt.

Animator Ken Harris

Animator Art Babbit

In the early 80’s the film got financial backing from Prince Mohammed Faisil of Saudi Arabia. Williams  went into production on the war machine sequence. They agreed that if the backers liked the sequence they would finance the rest of the film. They did like it but delays and extra expenses scared away the prince.

At this point the film had developed a cult following.  Some documentaries came out about Ken Harris, Art Babbit, and Williams himself. This created a buzz within the animation business among artist. In the mid 80’s Williams took his film to San Francisco to show his good friend the legendary Disney Animator Milt Kahl at ILMs (Industrial Light and Magic) screening room. Afterwards some ILM guys came out of the projection room gushing their pants over how awesome the film was. Williams told the ILM guys that he didn’t have the money to finish the film.

Underground Legend!

Video copies of a work print made during Williams’ involvement of the film  circulated among animators at many studios. I myself got a VHS copy in 1995 while I was working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Disney from an   Irish Animator friend of mine who got it when they worked at Bluth Studios in Dublin.

The word spread quickly.  The Producers of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? asked to see it and Williams sent it over. Robert Zemeckis, Stephen Speilberg, and some big wigs people at Disney got to screen it and were blown away.  Even though they didn’t want to fund The Thief and the Cobbler it impressed them enough to ask Williams to Direct Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Roger Rabbit  proved that animation could be big business and Williams was able to get outside funding to complete The Thief. He signed a deal with Warner Bros. in 1990 to finance and distribute the film, but Williams the perfectionist to the end, was unable to complete The Thief on time so Warner Bros. subsequently pulled out.  The Completion Bond Company took control from Williams of The Thief and the Cobbler and had it finished by producer Fred Calvert without Williams. Which they did very crapilly. As Williams’ involvement with the movie came to an abrupt end, the annihilation of his life’s work began.

Instead of following the work reel that William’s had provided Warners, Calvert did a complete re-edit of the film. He took out many of Williams’ sequences, adding songs and voice overs to make it more marketable.Fred Calvert’s sent new 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. The finished film was released in Australia and South Africa as “The Princess and The Cobbler”. Miramax then purchased the film and made a few more changes like adding voices for some of the silent characters and cutting a few scenes. This version was eventually released in the US under the name “Arabian Knight.”

The version released on video by Miramax is an unwatchable collage of  third rate animation. Worst of all is the bad soundtrack, featuring the voices of Jonathan Winters, as The Thief, and Matthew Broderick, as The Cobbler. Both characters were originally created  by Williams as pantomime characters. Broderick’s pointless commentaries and Winters’ unfunny monologues add nothing but annoying noise to the film.

Neither version was a box office success. Thanks to it’s  history and intent  the film has earned significant cult status among animation professionals and fans. Some very prominent Animators from the Golden Age of animation were involved in the creation of the film and played a noteworthy role in preserving the knowledge and skill of animation for the newer generation of animators. Guys like Art Babbit, Grim Natwick, Ken Harris and Emery Hawkins to name a few.

The Thief and the Cobbler’s Villain Zig Zag the Gran Vizier. Voice of Vincent Price

When the film was released in the Fall of 1995, it  was crammed with Disney-style songs, large amounts of new dialog, and a promotional campaign that made it look like a cheap rip-off of  Disney’s Aladdin. While some moments of Williams’ brilliant vision remain, the finished project ended up NOT being the innovative, completely un-Disneyesque epic that he had toiled for so long to create. It BOMBED!


Welcome Richard Williams to the Man vs. Art Pantheon of Awesomeness!

For the reasons I raved about above and in the podcastand because of his determination, vision, talent, and mastery of animation, I hereby nominate Richard Williams to the Man Vs. Art Pantheon of Awesomeness! 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.

Richard Williams Man vs. Art Pantheon of Awesomeness Inductee

But……There is a silver lining to this cloud!

In 2006, a fan named Garrett Gilchrist put together a non-profit fan restoration of William’s work print, named The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut. It was done in as high quality as possible by combining available sources, such as a bootleg copy of Williams’ work print and better-quality footage from DVD and VHS copies of the released versions. This edit was much supported by numerous people who had worked on the film, with the exception of Richard Williams himself, who wishes not to have anything to do with the film anymore.  This edit gained positive reviews and is considered “the best and most important ‘fan edit’ ever made”

This is the film you guys get to watch today. Enjoy!

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