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"The Thief and the Cobbler": An Arabian Nightmare


Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler isn’t the saddest story ever told by Toontown, but the story behind its making and unmaking may be the saddest story ever told about that too-heartless Hollywood suburb.

It’s the kind of tragedy that can be—and probably has been—put at the center of a master class on film-making: How great artists (with the help of the Hollywood money men) can be tortured, victimized, humiliated, and finally ruined by some combination of their own talent, grandeur, and independence. Similar stories, of course, can be told about Orson Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, Macbeth, Othello, and Mr. Arkadin. But even Welles can’t beat Williams in the heartbreak department.

It’s a long story, and you’re probably better off consulting Wikipedia’s write up on the project. Suffice it here to say that Williams started on an “Arabian Nights” animated project in the 1960s, working on it during breaks from his more regular commercial work, which he undertook in order to finance this one. He intended it as some kind of artistic masterpiece, not just a commercial offering, and its scope and expense and ambitions swelled accordingly. The turning point seemed to come in the wake of his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, whose tour-de-force animation and dazzling success convinced Warner Bros. to kick in some money for the distribution rights to the still-unfinished Thief/Cobbler, and with that guarantee in hand Williams was able to raise still more money. It was a poisoned gift, though, for the money came with a deadline, and Williams was unable to meet it. Warners looked at the work he’d done and decided not to exercise their distribution option; other investors naturally took fright; and the terms of the financing were such that the cold-eyed accountants at the Completion Bond company wound up seizing the film. They botched up some additional footage to fill the holes, and sent it out to international distributors. In the United States the Disney Company’s Miramax division picked up the film and made further changes before dumping the movie into the marketplace to die a wholly unremarkable death.

In the meantime, Disney’s smoothly corporate Aladdin came and went, collecting awards, hosannas, and oodles of cash.

It would be very easy and tempting to damn the money men—and I will, in due course—but it’s worth dwelling on some other, less palatable facts first. Such as the fact that The Thief and the Cobbler was probably never going to be very good; that it certainly was never going to be other than a commercial flop; and that in its haunted form as a lost, butchered “masterpiece” it may exercise a firmer grip on the imagination. At its best, Williams’s film is like a dream half-remembered, whose power comes from its being vague and half-submerged under the wreckage of early morning consciousness.

The story is simple to the point of monomania: An Arabian city prospers under the protection of three magic golden balls whose disappearance will foretell its ruin. A thief and a cobbler, whose careers intersect without ever intertwining, become implicated with these balls when the former becomes obsessed with stealing them, while the latter gets swept into palace intrigues involving a sleepy sultan, a scheming vizier, and a beautiful princess. Eventually the balls vanish just as the hordes of the monstrous barbarian One-Eye appear on the horizon, but a battle winds up dispatching both One-Eye and the now-treasonous vizier.

This is the kind of story you could easily imagine Disney adapting into a lavish mousterpiece (even if you didn’t know that they’d basically done exactly that) with every cliché intact: Penniless but honest cobbler swept into a romance with a princess while saving a kingdom from a swishy, turd-sniffing villain. Williams’s story certainly has the schematics down, but it has none of the rompy, knowing tone of Aladdin, and little of the claustrophobic construction of the typical animated rom-com fantasy. (You know what I mean: the “meet cute scene”; the “I have a dream” scene; the “I’m going to swallow really hard before jumping in to save the world” scene; the “I just learned a really important lesson and I’m going to tell you exactly what I learned because you, the audience, are too stupid to get it otherwise” scene.) Instead, it has a much more Oriental feel: a free-flowing story line where one thing happens after another, often without explanation. It’s a movie made up of sequences, not acts, and it drifts from episode to episode without bothering to justify its choices.

This, I’m sure, is the reason Warner Bros. backed out of the project once they got a sense of how the movie was going to turn out. In the wake of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (and with Disney’s own Aladdin looming on the horizon), the studio would have been wanting a safe, formulaic movie that could be easily marketed and which wouldn’t surprise audiences whose idea of “animated feature” is narrowly circumscribed by Snow White on one side and The Jungle Book on the other. They certainly would not have wanted to try to market a movie that has an almost avant-garde contempt for explaining itself; whose characters speak (when they speak at all) in rhymed couplets; and whose designs are flat and stylized. Evidence is that The Thief and the Cobbler, in its finished form, would have felt like an animated feature as done by Joel and Ethan Coen: cold, brittle, aloof, ungiving, and highly artificial. Say what you will about the quality of Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy (the movies the Coens were making in the late 80s and early 90s) but their cumulative grosses were only a fraction of one of the Mouse House’s safe hits in the same period.

Again, say what you will about the Coen brothers’ movies. (I think they are masterpieces.) They are also sustained by great bolts of pungent dialogue; Thief/Cobbler is almost dialogue-free. A Coen movie is planted thick with prickly, eccentric characters; those in Thief/Cobbler are ciphers. A Coen movie exists on two planes: flamboyant, ironically self-aware film-making, above which float rich and interesting personalities. But Thief/Cobbler is trapped within its own obsessive-compulsive artistry. It’s an alienating movie, one that pushes you back, insisting you not get too close lest you miss any of its pageantry and ingenuity. It’s all technique and no heart, like a flip-book made in study hall by a 14-year-old with severe social disabilities.

The best way of watching and appreciating Thief/Cobber is as a silent movie. I don’t just mean that you have to take it as a story that unfolds visually with a minimum of talk. I mean that it is constructed the way many silent films were constructed. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin—whose filmmaking techniques Williams seems to have wound up imitating—worked through improvisation. They would start with an idea or situation and then improvise scenes based on that conceit. They would piece together sequences working out baroque variations on simple gags. They would do fun things, confident that audiences would follow them if only the camera were content to record them. When they had enough such scenes, they would edit them together into a feature-length mélange. Williams seems to have done something similar, concocting cartoony, silent-comedy routines based on sneaking through a palace or climbing a mountain or disassembling a mechanical war machine. They are uniformly spectacular, but they don’t really connect to or build on each other.

Chaplin and Keaton made great films, but they are an acquired taste these days precisely because they work so much through dream logic, in which one thing simply follows on another. (Keaton, for one, was very good at building to sequences of comic horror that have the feel of lucid nightmares; it’s impossible not to laugh at the flood of policemen that pursue him at the end of “Cops,” and equally impossible not to shudder.) Thief/Cobbler would fit in easily with their company but for its lack of human warmth. Chaplin, with his kohl-darkened eyes, and Keaton, with his limpid gaze, can forge an instant connection with the audience. The title characters in Williams’s feature remain animated illustrations only.

Yet Thief/Cobbler‘s great skill its ability to evoke cartoonishly nightmarish situations, like the cobbler sewing himself onto the thief at the start of the film. Its dreaminess is its great virtue; and paradoxically, that virtue is actually accented by its half-finished state. A completed film would probably feel smaller, because it would have been rounded and sealed off; the incomplete film suggests corridors, dungeons and labyrinths still unexplored. A film finished to its maker’s specifications would probably have revealed an artist so caught up in the details he forgot the whole; an incomplete and butchered film suggests the work of a prophet unable to make sense of the vision he’s been imparted. Like Kafka and the Bible, Thief/Cobbler is at its most powerfully spooky when at its most inscrutable. And thanks to the moneymen, it will always be so.

That is not a reason to actually thank them, of course. Miramax in particular ought to be damned for giving us Arabian Knights, the US release version, which added an appallingly misconceived narration by Matthew Broderick—a skilled enough actor whose voice utterly lacks character—and a grotesquely unfunny running “comedy” routine by Jonathan Winters. It also came with songs, some of which were marginally less awful than some of the others, and an empowered princess whose apish imitation of Princess Jasmine and other faux-masculine heroines of the later Disney school would be odious if it weren’t incompetently executed.

There is also no reason to thank Echo Bridge Home Entertainment for its recent release of The Thief and the Cobbler to DVD, which may raise hopes we are getting a better, or at least different, treatment of the material. It is actually worse, presenting pretty much the same set of trashy Miramax elements while also giving us significantly less of the glorious visuals: It cuts the 2.39:1 ratio to 4:3. One-Eye would know exactly what to do to these fraudsters.

I could, of course, still recommend that you buy or rent this movie on DVD—in one of its forms—just because even horrifically truncated and butchered it is still a film that every animation fan should see. I won’t, though. Better that I commend The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut to your attention. Disney, supposedly, started a restoration project several years ago; its conclusion, perhaps, is to be ardently wished for. Until then, Garrett Gilchrist’s edit must do, and does it very well. I doubt even a true restoration would have the same power as Gilchrist has brought to the project.

Correction: An earlier version of this review mistakenly had Anchor Bay as the distributor of the latest DVD release. Echo Bridge is the distributor.