The Greatest Animated Film That Ever Wasn't: THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER

February 28, 2017 - 9:24am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A screening of the preserved Thief and the Cobbler  from the Academy Film Archive will screen as a Special Presentation on Saturday, March 4 at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

The specific version of The Thief and the Cobbler that Cinematheque will be screening is subtitled "A Moment in Time". That moment in time, as it happens, was May 1992, when director and animator Richard Williams assembled all of the footage he and a rotating crew of animators and technicians had created over the years, and presented it as an approximately 90-minute workprint to Warner Bros. This was merely one stopping point among many in the decades-long production of Williams's magnum opus, but possibly the most critical: this workprint represented the most complete version of the film that Williams would ever personally oversee, and so we might well regard as the closest to the "true" version of the film that exists.

Before we arrive at the summer of 1992, though, we should start at the beginning. The Thief and the Cobbler began gestating in 1964, when then 31-year-old commercial animator Williams started developing an idea for a feature-length animated fantasy based on 13th Century Sufi folktales. This project, initially titled The Amazing Nasrudin, progressed slowly, as Williams labored over it in between paying projects, but by 1972 it was advanced enough that the filmmaker was able to arrange for a distributor. Here, for the first time, legal issues beset the production, meaning that Williams was obliged to start essentially from scratch with a new, original story. Work continued throughout the '70s, however, as Williams scraped together whatever he could from commercials and television work, assembling a team of animation legends including Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, and Art Babbitt to help in the realization of his feature.

Throughout the 1980s, Williams had enough material put together that he could start shopping the project around in earnest, under the title Once... It was this version that caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who hired Williams to serve as the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a result; in turn, it was Roger Rabbit's success, and the extraordinarily ambitious work on display in certain scenes, that encouraged Warner Bros. to sign a deal with Williams. But by this point, The Thief and the Cobbler had grown so complex in the filmmaker's mind that he and his overworked crew were simply incapable of keeping up with the demands and deadlines of the contract. This brings us to 1992, and the "Moment in Time" workprint, and the financiers' conclusion that Williams would not be able to deliver a completed version of the film on time. The Thief and the Cobbler was taken away from him at this point, and handed to producer Fred Calvert, who spent the next year hacking the footage into something releasable, with the addition of new, much cruder animation. Under the title The Princess and the Cobbler, this version impressed few people (no doubt in part because Disney had, in the interim, released Aladdin, a film which borrowed more than a few elements of Williams's designs). In 1994, Miramax distributed it in the United States, in an even more cut-down version with a new soundtrack, as Arabian Knight, and impressed even fewer people.

And here the story would end, but the mysterious, apparently lost Thief and the Cobbler became a cult object among animation fans, among them no less a figure than Roy E. Disney, Walt Disney's nephew, who attempted to use the might of the Disney corporation to restore and complete the original version of the film. This project, however, has seemingly stalled out since Disney's 2009 death. In 2006, a filmmaker named Garrett Gilchrist released the first incarnation of what he called The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut, primarily based upon the workprint, but with additional material taken from the butchered later versions as needed. There have been four versions of The Recobbled Cut, collected (along with a treasure trove of Williams rarities) on Gilchrist's YouTube channel, TheThiefArchive. In 2012, in part because of Gilchrist's work in exposing the original work to a broader audience, Kevin Schreck directed the documentary Persistence of Vision, capturing the torturous story of Williams's life's work through the eyes of the animators who entered and left the project over the years.

But what of the film itself that was the result of all this trial and tribulation? Richard Williams avowedly intended The Thief and the Cobbler to be nothing less than the finest animated film ever made, and much of the footage comes tantalizingly close to realizing that ambition. In such passages as the beloved-by-animation-buffs War Machine sequence, initially completed in 1982, we see some of the most incredible artistry that hand-drawn animation is capable of: the raw number of moving elements, and the three-dimensional movement through and around sets, would still be dazzlingly complicated even today. And Williams and his animators did it without the benefit of a single, solitary computer.

Other sequences of almost as much complexity abound. In one chase scene, the thief and cobbler themselves chase each other down a geometrically outlandish stairway in stark black and white, a complex deep space made out of strong, basic shapes. Even as simple a matter as a character shuffling cards is graced with Williams's intense fixation on detail and perfection: all 52 cards in the deck have been individually drawn. The great majority of the film has been animated "on ones," meaning that every frame of film is a different drawing (even the most prestigious, expensive animation of the sort practiced at Disney is generally "on twos," with new drawing only every second frame). This allows for an exceptional amount of fluidity in character movement and in the non-existent camera's journey's through three-dimensional space. It's also a major reason why the film was perpetually over budget and behind schedule; that many drawings do take a great deal of time.

Stylistically and visually, The Thief and the Cobbler is like no other animated feature; it draws from the modernist mid-century style of the UPA animation studio, from traditional Middle Eastern aesthetics, and from the rich history of American cartoons. It's a great treat for the eyes, highly skilled craftsmanship making some of the most spectacular imagery you will ever see in an animated film. This emphasis on style does come at a cost, though: the film can be a bit clumsy as a story. There are slow patches, redundancies, and a generally aimless momentum throughout. It's hard not to conclude that Williams really was getting lost in his head and ambitions, losing sight of how the film was actually working.

Still, those ambitions are magnificent. The Thief and the Cobbler, even incomplete, is a once-in-a-lifetime triumph, a panoply of gorgeous visuals like you've never seen and very likely won't see again. For Williams, still actively working (he received an Oscar nomination for the 2015 short film Prologue), the film represents a lost dream; while he supports the restoration efforts in all their various states of completion, he's steadfastly remained separate from them. For the rest of us, it is a cinematic vision like few others, and the greatest work of animation that ever wasn't.