Monday, January 21, 2013

The Long & Complicated Production of The Thief & The Cobbler

This unique film's fate is perhaps one of the most tragic in movie history.

The Thief and the Cobbler was supposed to be the masterpiece of renowned animator, Richard Williams. Today, it is best remembered for its infamous production history. In 1964, after having success at making several short films, Williams set out to create an animated adaptation based off of the tales of Nasreddin. However, the translator of the original Nasreddin stories, Idries Shah, demanded that Williams give him 50% of the film's profits. Thus in 1972, Williams was forced to make major changes to the plot and replaced the titular character with two new ones, a willy thief and a humble cobbler named Tack. In order to fund his project Williams continued to create commercials and short films. In 1977, he hired several famous animators from the Golden Age to work on The Thief, including Art Babbitt, Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, and Ollie Johnston. As years passed, Williams's project became more and more ambitious (and expensive). He wanted to make The Thief his magnum opus.

The Thief eventually caught the attention of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Speilberg. Williams was hired to be the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and finally had the much needed financial backing to complete his film. But, Williams failed to complete The Thief and the Cobbler by its 1991 deadline. Even though only 15 minutes of screen time were needed to be finished, Williams lost control of the project and Miramax handed it over to Fred Calvert.

An unfinished scene using a storyboard of Tack and Princess Yumyum.

Calvert butchered the film. He completed the remaining animation as cheaply as possible, cut several scenes, and removed scenes that were more adult in nature (not realizing the film was supposed to be for the art house crowd). By far the worse offense committed was adding unnecessary dialogue for the Thief and Tack, who were supposed to be silent, and adding very poorly written musical numbers not in the original script. To make matters worse, several of the animators working for Williams had gone on to work for Disney, resulting in many similarities to Aladdin. When the edited version of the film was released in 1993, it failed miserably at the box office and was torn apart by the critics.

The feather doesn't have a reflection! It must be a vampire! (The Fred Calvert version of this film is awful.)

Disney, you're not fooling anyone. (Image courtesy of Jbsdesigns.)

However, the workprint of the original film survived. Appreciation of the film grew among film and animation enthusiasts. At the 2000 Annecy Festival, Williams showed the faded print to Roy E. Disney (Walt Disney's nephew). Roy collected several pencil tests and artwork from the film, but the project never came into fruition. In 2006, filmmaker and dedicated fan, Garrett Gilchrist, created a non-profit restoration named The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut. This edit gained support from many animators who worked on the film and several of them gave Gilchrist rare material to work with. Since then, The Recobbled Cut has gone under several revisions, using cleaner footage or newly discovered animation. Currently a 'Mark 3' version, released in 2008, is available on Youtube. The 'Mark 4' version is planned to be completed in 2013. In 2012, a non-profit documentary about Williams's life long project (Persistence of Vision) was released by Kevin Schreck.

Trailer for The Persistence of Vision.


  1. Nat, where do you find this stuff? Fascinating! I mean it!

    1. I first found out about this film when I watched the butchered version years ago when I was very young. I didn't remember much about it all except for its unusual art style. A couple years ago, I stumbled across The Recobbled Cut on Youtube and became intrigued by the film's history. I found it so fascinating, that I did some research and made a post about it.