The Thief and the Cobbler Review
Canadian-born animator Richard Williams has been making films since the 1950s. Some of those films have been watched by millions. Yet to the average cinemagoer his name is likely to mean very little. If you’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, for example, then you’ll be amongst those millions. Likewise if you’ve seen the 1971 television adaptation of A Christmas Carol voiced by Alastair Sim, Michael Hordern and Michael Redgrave. Both won Oscars for Williams, two in the case of Roger Rabbit (for Best Visual Effects and a Special Achievement Award) and one for A Christmas Carol (for Best Animated Short). The latter shouldn’t have even been regarded by the Academy, yet its quality was deemed more than sufficient to ensure a theatrical run following its initial screening on ABC to a huge audience. Williams was co-producer and director on the Dickens adaptation and animation director on Roger Rabbit, further down the credits than Robert Zemeckis but in charge of the film’s real achievement: not only the logistics of combining the cel animation with live action, but also the incorporation of a multitude of styles from across the decades and the various film studios. Look closely enough and not only will you find familiar characters from the Disney and Warner Bros’ rosters, but also the Fleischer Studios, Terrytoons, Walter Lantz and more besides. To top it off Williams also provided the voice of Droopy and insisted that production be carried out in the UK, housed at Ealing Studios.
A Christmas Carol and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are only the two most famous works to involve Williams’ expertise. Also well-known, though not to a similar degree, are his various title sequences from the sixties and seventies. What’s New Pussycat, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the 1967 version of Casino Royale and the 1968 version of The Charge of the Light Brigade all made use of Williams’ talents. The main reason was his very first short film, The Little Island from 1958, which he made almost entirely on his own over a period of three years; the opening title read “A film conceived, designed, animated, directed and production by Richard Williams” with only the score and sound effects seeing input from anyone else. It was a philosophically-minded piece, serious in its themes but stylised in its technique. The combination made an impact, winning Williams both a BAFTA and the opportunity to set up his own studios. Their output over the next few decades would encompass the Dickens film, numerous commercials and bits and pieces for movies: the animated interlude in The Magic Christian was one of theirs as were the daydreams in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. They even worked on a Ken Loach feature, supplying the titles for Looks and Smiles.
Whilst all of this was ticking over Williams also had a dream project on the go, tentatively entitled The Thief and the Cobbler. He had provided the illustrations for an edition of Sufi folktales entitled The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasruddin (first published in 1966) and was keen to adapt them into a feature. Initial steps were made during this period, but only began a stop-start process of finding and then losing financial backers. Projects were taken on with the aim of adding additional funds, whilst the big hits - such as A Christmas Carol or another Christmas special made a decade later, the Emmy-winning Ziggy’s Gift - would attract further short-lived interest from the studios. During this time some of the soundtrack was also recorded with Vincent Price and Anthony Quayle being amongst those lending their voices. Needless to say, such names and the protracted nature of the project attracted attention from elsewhere resulting in three television documentaries: The Golden City by the BBC in 1969; Once, again by the BBC, in 1981; and, just a year later, The Thief That Never Gave Up, an hour-long profile from Thames Television. Shortly afterwards, thanks primarily to Ziggy’s Gift and its acclaim, Williams first got the approach for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Part of the deal in agreeing to the film was a stipulation that producer Steven Spielberg would aid both the completion of his long-gestating feature and its distribution.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out as planned. Warner Bros picked up the film in 1988 and imposed a deadline of 1991. It wasn’t reached. Approximately ten minutes worth of material still required final animation, plus there were fears on the part of Warners owing to its similarities to Disney’s upcoming Aladdin. They finally lost faith when Williams screened a workprint (utilising storyboards and pencil tests for the incomplete sequences) in 1992; the project was removed from his hands and given over to television producer Fred Calvert. Calvert reportedly had access to the original screenplay but paid little attention. For example, Williams had originally intended The Thief and the Cobbler to be an homage to silent cinema, with both of the titular characters being mostly mute: “a silent movie with a lot of sound” was his description. Calvert did away with the idea, imposing dialogue on both through the heavy use of voice-over. He also introduced a number of songs to the production with the animation for these sequences being completed in Korea.
Calvert’s re-edit was released in a handful of territories in 1993 under the title of The Princess and the Cobbler. It was subsequently picked up by Miramax who then imposed their own edits on top of Calvert’s further diluting Williams’ original. The voice artists were almost all replaced: Matthew Broderick stepping in for Sean Connery (who, admittedly, had had very little original dialogue); Toni Collette for Joan Sims; Eric Bogosian for Donald Pleasence, and so forth. Only Vincent Price and, oddly enough, Windsor Davies remained. The dialogue was also heavily Americanised as typified by the once silent, now wisecracking thief. This version emerged in the US in 1995 under the title of Arabian Knight, though it would revert back to The Thief and the Cobbler for home video editions, a move that cannot help but annoy as it potentially deceives the viewer into believing that they are watching Williams’ intended cut.
Here in the UK The Thief and the Cobbler never surfaced in any form. Bootlegs of the original Williams workprint exist and it’s been easy enough to import a DVD of the Miramax cut, but no version has ever received a theatrical run or appeared on the home video market. It’s a situation which should inspire someone to do right by the film and release a proper edition. By which I mean a legitimate airing of the workprint with the original voice cast and the Calvert and Miramax cuts relegated to ‘additional feature’ status. There are also those television documentaries in existence to provide the background during various stages of the production, plus the various Williams short films and commercials which either brought attention to his work or, more importantly, provided financial support. Many of these still haven’t seen the light of day on disc, even The Little Island despite its unanimous acclaim. Moreover, they would place the emphasis back on Williams himself, highlighting those enormous talents which should be just as integral a part of The Thief and the Cobbler as its protracted production history. Combine these cuts of the feature with the documentaries and the shorts and you would have something resembling a definition edition. Sadly, this release isn’t it.
Almost fifty years after initial production began, the first proper release of The Thief and the Cobbler in the UK is an extras-free offering of the Miramax cut. Even the presentation is merely serviceable. Put simply, this isn’t the way to handle the film. But in the absence of anything else we’ll have to make do and whilst the re-edit of the re-edit is undoubtedly a mess, there are still glimmers of Williams’ intentions and enough entertainment value to the salvaged. Unfortunately, in order to do so we need to channel out a great deal, much of it narrative-based. The songs, for starters, shouldn’t be there, nor their sub-par animation, and the newly-dubbed voices really do grate. No offence intended towards Broderick and the rest, but their presence is annoying. And it’s not simply a case of Connery, Sims and Pleasence having been replaced by more youthful American stars. There’s also the huge switch from barely any dialogue, as Williams had planned, to a continual yammering away and various hideous anachronisms. At one point the thief, initially meant as a mute figure whose comic activities punctuate the narrative much like Scrat in the Ice Age films, even uses the phrase “Psyche!” - it’s hard not to shout at the screen.
Part of the reasoning behind the minimal dialogue was that it would emphasise Williams’ visuals. And no matter which cut or edit of The Thief and the Cobbler you watch, it’s hard not to impressed by the distinctive style on display. The best description is perhaps one that makes nods to Michael Ocelot, George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine and the 1950s output of UPA (The Tell-Tale Heart, The Unicorn in the Garden, numerous Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing shorts). The mixture is that of complex backgrounds and comparatively simplistic character designs, with an emphasis on perspective influenced by Persian art styles. Williams also makes use of some staggering travelling shots, all conceived and executed without the aid of computers, which are guaranteed to amaze. The end result is distinctly its own, though nowadays it’s hard not to be reminded of Disney’s Aladdin, especially the similarities between the two film’s respective evil sorcerers, Zigzag and Jafar, and they’re talking pets/sidekicks. Of course, The Thief and the Cobbler’s designs were conceived of decades before the Disney even began production.
Then again, it’s soundtrack wasn’t. Indeed, it’s hard not see Aladdin’s influence on the Miramax edition. The smart-ass dialogue is decidedly post-Robin Williams’ Genie, whilst the plotting - re-ordered and re-emphasised from the original screenplay - brings up a number of similarities. Of course, the initial re-titling of The Thief and the Cobbler to The Princess and the Cobbler makes clear both the sidelining of the thief character and a greater concentration on the romance. The wishes being pursued here are not those of Williams but rather those of a perceived general audience - and seeing how Aladdin had scored such a success in that area, it’s hardly surprising that Miramax would seek to imitate. Needless to say, I’m far from satisfied with this version, but then that dissatisfaction needs to be tempered with the recognition that this is all that we have legitimately available. I’m torn between loving those glimmers of Williams’ original and hating what has been done to them. I’m also glad that the film is finally getting a release in the UK, but also saddened that it’s not in the form it should be or in an edition that does it any kind of justice. The ratings in the sidebar are therefore largely superfluous: it’s case of the mostly worthless being rendered worthwhile thanks to there not being a better option.
As made clear in the main bulk of this review, this is a very basic package. There are no extras whatsoever, just a static menu and the feature itself in its bastardised Miramax form. The presentation is merely so-so. The film comes in a ratio of 1.33:1, not the intended widescreen, and has been sourced from a print rather than the original negative which means continual specs of dirt and instances of damage making themselves known. It also means that the colours do not quite dazzle as they should with the murkier scenes appearing murkier still. It’s watchable, but once again demonstrates the disdain this film has had to put up with for so long. The soundtrack is a simple stereo offering and reasonable enough without ever truly impressing. Optional subtitles, in any language or for the hard of hearing, are not available.