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Where do I start I don’t even?
Movies, as a general rule, do not happen overnight. Making a film is a long, laborious, expensive process and can take years. Even so, some movies just take this to ridiculous extremes. The longest production time on record for a live action film is the twenty years it took Leni Riefenstahl to finish Tiefland. That record is surpassed by only one other film, our subject for today, Richard Williams’ legendary, famous, infamous, infamfamous unfinished crapasterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler. Thirty one years. In the same length of time it took this movie to see theatres, I went from a sperm to a person writing these words. Thirty one years. And, keep in mind, at least Riefenstahl had the excuse of the SECOND WORLD WAR happening in mid-production.
“I honestly could not give two fucks yada yada etc and so forth.”
So what’s Williams’ excuse?
Alright, so time for backstory.
While he doesn’t have anything like the name recognition of animators like Don Bluth or Ralph Bakshi, Richard Williams is serious business in the world of animation. He emigrated from his native Canada to Britain in the fifties and helped himself to a Bafta for his animated short The Little Island. He was twenty five. That launched a long and often highly acclaimed career in animation with Williams’ picking up an Emmy and a couple of Oscars.
The Bafta was lonely.
In 1964, Williams began work on Nasruddin! the movie that would eventually become The Thief and the Cobbler. Williams was not humble in his goals. This film was going to be his masterpiece, and raise the bar for animation as an artform. Instead it turned into a logistical nightmare that dragged on for decades, with story and characters being dropped and re-written and backers pulling out. Williams had a vision for the film; animation for adults with very little dialogue. But the various investors he found over the decades also had a vision; they wanted to make money. Williams refused to commercialize the work and for long periods of the production had to fund it himself with the proceeds from various animation gigs. A breakthrough finally came when Williams showed some footage to his friend and mentor, Disney animator Milt Kahl. Kahl, realising that his apprentice had indeed become strong in the ways of the force, showed the footage to Stephen Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis and before long they were sidling up to Williams and asking questions like “Sooooooo…how do you feel about rabbits?”
Williams’ agreed to do the animation chores for Roger Rabbit in exchange for help distributing Thief. After Roger made enough money to buy one of the nicer continents and got so much critical adoration that everyone just started feeling a little embarrassed, Warner Bros agreed to bankroll the project and Williams got to work. He recruited some of the hottest young talent from the animation schools of Europe to replace the original animators, most of whom were now gone. And I don’t mean gone as in “moved on to other projects” I mean “they were taken by the icy hand of death which comes for us all in the end.” Which is what happens when your movie takes longer to complete than, I dunno, a pyramid. But at last Williams was ready to finally finish the film. He had the money. He had the talent. What could possibly go wrong?
“He went craaaaaaazy…”
Yeah, so as well as being a phenomenal animator Williams was kind of an insane crazy person. He was a fanatical perfectionist and any animator who wasn’t able to meet his insanely high standards was kicked to the curb. According to one source, literally hundreds of animators were pink-slipped. Making matters worse, Williams…
I’m sorry, this is hard for me to even say.
Williams…Williams didn’t believe in using storyboards. Because he felt they were “too limiting”.
Alright, so imagine you have two architects, okay? One sits down, draws a blueprint for a building, decides it’s crap and then throws it away. The other just starts building. And by the time he’s built twenty stories he realises that the building is crap and has to be torn down. Both architects failed to create a building. But one of them has a rolled up ball of paper, and the other has several million quids worth of wasted time and building material. Williams is the second guy.
Because he didn’t use storyboards and basically allowed his animators to improvise scenes on the fly, the only way to figure out that a particular scene wasn’t working was when it was already at least partially animated. Fail to plan, plan to fail etc.
So by 1991 the movie’s still not finished and is massively overbudget (please, no shrieks of astonishment) and Disney are prepping Aladdin for release, a movie that some might say is rather suspiciously like Thief and the Cobbler. Some might say that. I wouldn’t. I say, yeah, you take thirty one years to make a movie someone somewhere will make a movie like it. Law of averages, baby. Warner Brothers finally threw up their hands and said “Screw this, we got superheroes to ruin” and pulled out. And then The Completion Bond Company stepped in which is never a good day.
“We are the ones people call when things go wrong.”
Animation producer Fred Calvert was appointed by the bond company to hack the movie into something marketable. Calvert renamed the movie The Princess and the Cobbler and tried to make it as close to Aladdin as possible. Miramax bought the rights on behalf of Disney and then did their own hatchet job on it, casting celebrity voices and releasing it under the title Arabian Knight before finally letting it limp to video under its original title of The Thief and the Cobbler. Part of the problem with reviewing this movie is that there are so many different versions of it, the first Calvert cut, the Miramax edit and the (at time of writing) four Recobbled cuts, which are filmmaker Garret Gilchrist’s attempts to restore the film to William’s original vision or as close as possible. For clarity, I’ll be reviewing the Miramax version because that’s the one I have on DVD and it features Matthew Broderick who I haven’t made fun of recently. Come my friends, let us gaze upon the beauty and the carnage.
So the movie begins with narration by our hero, Tack the cobbler, voiced in this version by A-list actor Matthew Broderick.
Tack explains that legends say (oh do they really) that at the centre of every star is an Arabian Night and that this story takes place in Baghdad, which is in an Arabian night, which is in a star. Got that? Honestly, I haven’t seen bullshit opening narration this pseudo-profound since Dinosaur’s “some things start out big and some things start out small.” Anyway, Tack gets around to the actual exposition. Baghdad is a beautiful oasis of peace, culture and beauty much like today, protected by three magical golden balls on top of a minaret. These balls protect the city from the evil king One Eye and Texans with Daddy issues and basically just keep everything copacetic. The movie suddenly pulls an absolutely jaw-dropping tracking shot over the desert until we see One Eye’s army laying waste to everything before them and a single soldier with enough arrows in him to drop Boromir escaping on horseback to warn Baghdad.
In Baghdad we meet Tack, who’s working as a cobbler’s apprentice, and the Thief (Jonathan Winters) who’s working as a freelance IT consultant, web-design mostly but really anything in the general field of computer…
He’s a THIEF you jackasses!
So a big problem with the movie (or at least, with this version of it) is that Tack and the Thief were originally supposed to be silent characters who then had voiceovers dubbed over their every scene in a classic case of not trusting the audience’s attention span and intelligence. Broderick’s is mostly just bland and coma-inducing (“Broderickising” is the technical term that I just made up) but the stuff they’ve given the Thief just makes you want to punch a wall. It’s full of innuendo and pop-culture references and empty of charm, wit or relevance of any kind. So the Thief sets about stealing everything in sight and tries to mug a little old lady who turns out to have the arms of a longshoreman and breaks him like glass.
“I wondered which would break first. Your mind, or your body.”
The Thief then sneaks into Tack’s shop while the Cobbler is asleep while outside, a procession marches through the city in honour of the Grand Vizier, Zig Zag.
Sigh. Not ALL my pop culture references are for you, American readers. Learn to share.
Tack wakes up while the Thief is trying to rob him and they scuffle, tumbling out of the shop and right into the path of the Vizier’s parade.
“Hey! Clear the Way!
Through the old bazaar!
Here’s this blue creepy guy, who’s quite like Jafar!
Oh he gave us dildos to carry in our haaaands!”
Zig Zag (voiced marvelously by the malevolent malodious malefactory of the dread Vincent Price) steps on a tack and has Tack arrested and brought to the palace to face execution (the boy was a criminal).
Meanwhile, we meet Tack’s future love interest, the Princess Yum Yum (Yum Yum. Yum Yum. He’s gonna marry Yum Yum). Yum Yum in the Miramax and Calvert edits of the movie gets quite a big upgrade in status from Williams’ original vision, with most of the added scenes and songs centered around her. The intention is clearly to create a Princess Jasmine type character, a tough, courageous female lead. That’s all good in theory but it falls apart for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the animation done under Calvert is so woefully inferior to Williams’. Secondly, the songs they wrote for her are so woefully inferior to anything ever set to music. Seriously, the sound of me brushing my teeth is better than these songs. And lastly, my rule for creating strong, independent female characters is the same as my rule for paying the rent.
Don’t talk about paying the rent.
Don’t tell me that you’re about to pay the rent.
Just pay. The Fucking. Rent.
“Wow. You’ve taken passive-aggressive note-leaving to a whole new level..”
Yum Yum talks a good game about being smarter than any man, and wanting to be free of the strictures of palace life and finding adventure in the great wide somewhere but for the most part that’s all she does. In the same amount of time she spends whining Jasmine has kissed her tiger goodbye, scaled a wall like frickin’ Spider-man, conned some apple sellers, hooked up with a cute guy and his monkey, gotten in a little pole-vaulting and returned home to engage in a little high-stakes court intrigue with the Grand Vizier. She didn’t talk about all the shit she was going to do, shit got done.
Alright, so Zig Zag brings Tack before Kind Nod and is all “hey, look what I found, can I execute it?” but Yum Yum takes one look at Tack they instantly fall in lurve.
“Stop it, they’re not looking at you.”
“Dude. Just stop.”
Yum Yum tells her father that she needs a cobbler and has in fact been holding out for a cobbler ’til the end of the night. The king is too sleepy for all this and goes along with it for some peace and quiet while Zig Zag fumes silently.
Later that night in his cobra-headed obsidian tower Zig Zag plots and schemes.
Sigh. You know what? One of these days I’m going to write something about a good Grand Vizier who’s just genuinely trying to do what’s best for the kingdom. I mean, they’re just hard working Joes like the rest of us and they get worse press than frickin’ clowns.
Anyway, Zig Zag has a pet vulture called Phido who was originally voiced by Donald Pleasance of all fucking people but in the Miramax cut is voiced by Eric Bogosian. Phido, like the Thief, don’t work. He’s basically Iago only without the good script to make the raucous obnoxiousness entertaining. Iago was annoying with us. Phido is annoying at us. Anyway, Zig Zag intends to marry Yum Yum so that he can rule over Baghdad and, and, and I don’t even know who’s stealing from who anymore. This is like trying to keep order in a prison.
Meanwhile, the movie tries to get us to care about the relationship between Tack and Yum Yum the poor deluded, thing. Yum Yum asks him if cobblers have names. No. No. They don’t. Cobblers don’t have names. Cobblers don’t even exist, Yum Yum. They’re just figments of your imagination. Shoes just appear and no one knows why.
“Really? That’s weeeeeird.”
Meanwhile, the Thief tries to get into the palace through the pipes and this scene, I think, is as good a place as any to talk about the central conflict of the film. Tack and Zig Zag? No. The king and One Eye? Nuh-uh. There are two competing artistic visions at work in this version of the film, Richard William’s and Fred Calvert’s. I bring it up here because this scene of the Thief is one that Calvert spoke of himself and the quote just perfectly sums up the differences between the two men. Calvert described the process of salvaging/butchering William’s cut like this:
“We hated to see of all this beautiful animation hit the cutting room floor, but that was the only way we could make a story out of it. One of the problems, there were a number of these situations…in the script, there might be two or three sentences describing the Thief going up a drain pipe. But what he animated on the screen was five minutes up and down that pipe which would ordinarily be five pages of script…These were the kind of imbalances that were happening. He [Richard Williams] was kind of Rube-Goldberging his way through. I don’t think he was able to step back and look at the whole thing as a story.”
Okay, I’m not really a fan of what Calvert did to this movie, and his vision for it. Calvert was…okay, “hack” is an awful, awful word that I really don’t like throwing around but…he was a journeyman. Put it that way. But while I don’t agree with his solutions, I have to admit that he pretty much diagnosed the problem with this movie dead on. The scene where the Thief squeezes his way up the pipe is just a glorious, glorious piece of animation. But it’s a single, trivial moment in the story that you just can’t justify the amount of time and effort that was spent on it. This represents the difference between Calvert and Williams’ in a nutshell. Williams has five minutes of a character climbing up a pipe for no other reason than he wants to. Calvert chops it down and adds an infuriating voiceover with dumb Jewish mother jokes but at least gets us from one scene to the next without much further ado. Williams’ is all talent and no discipline, with a fantastic sense of visuals but precious little understanding of story. Calvert’s not fit to wash Williams’ brushes as an animator, but he has a grasp of basic film-making that seems to elude Williams’ utterly.
Anyway, the Thief steals Yum Yum’s back scratcher and Tack gives chase, pursuing him through a black and white chequered hallway and ohhhh my sweet creator this animation. Take a look.
No words…should have sent a poet…
Now, I’ve already said repeatedly that this animation is amazing, but why is it amazing? Okay, so animation 101. The human eye can differentiate between 12 frames in any given second. If I’m showing you a slide show of a man juggling, you will see the slides as distinct, still images as long as I show you twelve a second or less. However, if I go faster than that then your brain won’t be able to keep up and it will seem like the picture of the man is actually moving and juggling those balls and also you will realise why more people don’t hang out at my place. This One Weird Trick is basically what film (if we’re talking about photographic images) and animation (if we’re talking about drawn or rendered image) is all about. Breaking the 12-frames a second barrier to create the illusion of motion. Now, most live action films are 24 frames per second (Peter Jackson recently tried 48 frames per second with the Hobbit but that just makes people sick). 24fps is all fine and dandy when you just have to point a camera at some mammals doing their thing, but it’s an entirely different proposition when you have to draw every one of those frames. Which is why almost no one does. Not even the really big studios. Not even Disney. Most hand-drawn animation is done on “2’s” which means that you double every cel. So, in one second you will still have 24 frames, but half of those will just be the previous cel repeated. The reason so many of the scenes in Thief and the Cobbler move like nothing else you’ve ever seen is because Williams actually had 24 frames drawn for every second of footage. That’s…like…real life. Williams basically looked at the world and said to God “Yeah, I can do that. In animation”.
Anyway, the Thief gets away and Tack is caught by Zig Zag who locks him up in the dungeon. Wistfully, he looks through his cell window at the night sky. In her bedroom, Yum Yum thinks of her cobbler, and then, they share a duet.
The single greatest love song of all time.
The one, the only:
Am I feeling love?
Alright, regular readers will know just how much mileage I’ve gotten out of mocking this song, but now that I actually have to review the thing it doesn’t even succeed at being laughably bad. That’s right. Even Am I Feeling Love, is no Am I Feeling Love? Broderick and Jessica Beals (Yum Yum) are both competent singers and the lyrics aren’t even laughably bad, they’re just insultingly trite. For something to be truly “So Bad It’s Good” you need passion and vision married to a complete lack of talent. Think about it, would The Room be the magnificent monstrosity it is if Tommy Wiseau hadn’t given a shit about it? Am I Feeling Love can’t even be enjoyed ironically because it’s just zero effort from end to end. Also, even the premise of the song is compete bullshit. Am I feeling love? Please. Tell ’em Oracle.
“No one can tell you you’re in love, you just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.”
The next morning Zig Zag tries to win Yum Yum’s affections with a polo match (chicks love polo, everyone knows chicks love polo). Meanwhile, the Thief sees the golden balls on top of the minaret and decides to steal them.
In the palace, the perforated scout arrives and tells a horrified King Nod that One Eye and his army are on the march. Zig Zag tries to calm the king down by saying “What are you worried about? We’ve got the most advanced Golden Ball based defence system in the world” but when they go to check on the balls uh-oh spaghetti-oh!
Nod, showing the grace under pressure that you’d expect from the ruler of a city of 7 million people, runs out on to the balcony and starts screaming that they’re all doomed.
“FLEE! FLEE FOR YOUR LIVES!”
“Stay at your posts.”
Meanwhile, the Thief tries to am-scray with the loot but drops the balls which go bouncing around Baghdad like it’s a pinball machine. Zig Zag manages to recover the balls and makes his move. He tells King Nod that he can use his magic to return the balls before One Eye’s army arrives, and all he asks is that Nod gives him Yum Yum’s hand in marriage. Nod quite rightly says “No” but fails to follow it up with “Guards!” and “Seize him!” and “Okay smart guy, how about you give me my balls back and I don’t take yours?”
Instead, he allows Zig Zag to just swan out of the palace. Zig Zag then decides to throw his lot in with One Eye and he and Phido ride off into the desert to meet his army. Nod says that the only one who can save them now is the “Mad Holy Old Witch” (not to be confused with the Wholly Mad Old Witch). Yum Yum volunteers to go on a quest to meet the witch and says that she’ll bring along Tack as her guide because apparently he’s the world’s first albino desert nomad. So they head out of the city and oh fuck me are you serious…
And so our heroine began her perilous quest, bravely allowing herself to be carried for many miles over treacherous terrain.
In the desert they meet a gang of bandits who attack them because the school system has failed them. No, seriously. That’s why. They even have a song about it. Would you like to hear it? Sure you would!
There. Now you’ve heard it too. Now we are bound, you and I. For all eternity. From this day on, we are the ones who heard it.
The bandits are actually some of Nod’s troops that he sent out into the desert and just kinda forgot about (ASS) and Yum Yum immediately conscripts them into her bodyguard. Instead of sending a persuasively worded letter to King Nod demanding backpay and compensation written on his daughter’s severed ear the bandits are actually really pleased about this and show the travellers the way to the lair of the Mad Holy Old Witch which is at the top of the Hands of Glory.
Don’t leave him hangin’, sky.
Tack and Yum Yum climb the tower and meet the Witch who tells them “Belief in yourself is what you lack! Attack! Attack! Attack!” which is what the voices tell me all the time.
In One Eye’s camp, Zig Zag offers his services to the big cyclops and helps him plan his attack on the city. One Eye has got no time for grasses though, so he sticks Zig Zag in the vanguard. Tack, Yum Yum, the Brigands and the Thief (oh yeah, he just tagged along for absolutely no reason) race back to Baghdad just in time for One Eye’s assault. And I have to admit, this is all kinds of epic.
As the army approaches the city, Zig Zag sees Tack.
“Ohhhhh…I do not care for you.”
He rides out to face him and Tack realises that the witch wasn’t saying “Attack!” she was saying “A tack!” and fires a tack at Zig Zag which misses but sets in motion a train of accidents that causes One Eye’s massive war machine to fall apart while the Thief is inside it, trying desperately to reclaim the Golden Balls. And this whole sequence is…
Okay guys? See this movie. I know I keep going on about its problems and how it’s not a great movie but still, see it. You have to see it. Just for the animation alone.
Okay, so One Eye’s army is defeated by Tack and the fact that Calvert ran out of footage and all is well. The Thief is caught with the Golden Balls by the palace guards but Nod just assumes that he rescued them and so he’s celebrated as a hero. Tack and Yum Yum marry, and the movie ends with Tack a changed man.
No. Seriously. How is that even supposed to be the same guy?
Alright, so here are my final thoughts on Thief and the Cobbler (and I already touched on this in the Aladdin review so sorry if I repeat myself). There are sequences here with quite simply the best cel-animation I have ever seen in my life (and I, believe it or not, have seen quite a bit). Seriously. Better than Walt in his heyday. Better than Otomo. Better than Miyazaki. It’s that good. But animation is just one element of an animated film, a major one to be sure, but just one among many. And this is why I can’t really get on board with the narrative that this would have been the Greatest Animated Film ever if those Hollywood sleazeballs hadn’t ruined everything and had just given Williams however much time and money he needed to finish the movie.
“YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT…oooh it’s finally out!”
Guys. He had enough time. And he had enough money.
This movie gets compared a lot to Aladdin by its boosters, and I think it’s a very instructive comparison (although not for the reasons its fans think). Aladdin also faced massive production problems and had to be practically re-done from scratch with only a year before it hit theatres. That movie also has fantastic animation (though nothing close to Thief at its best) but that is not all that it has. And frankly, this is why I think the plagiarism allegations are kind of pointless. Does Zig-Zag look a lot like the Genie? Yup. Was that intentional? Well, sure, it’s possible but does that really change the fact that Aladdin has wonderfully engaging characters, a brilliant voice cast, a killer script, a genuinely sweet love story, fantastic songs and one of cinema’s best villains and that Thief has none of those things? Is some suspiciously similar character design really going to tip the scales in this movie’s favour?
Richard Williams is a fantastic animator. But on this evidence, not a great writer or even a great director in the sense that that requires working with a team, overcoming their weaknesses and bringing out the best in them. So for me, Thief and the Cobbler is not the great masterpiece that never was, it’s the great masterpiece that was never going to be.
Yeah, I know, I know. It sometimes seems like I give 20/20 animation scores out like business cards on this blog and here I am giving a seventeen to a movie I’ve just finished saying has the best animation I’ve ever seen. And it does. In parts. But there’s also some very slapdash work done by Calvert and company to finish the movie in time for release. Do I blame Calvert for that? No. If Williams wanted those scenes animated he should have done it himself. Maybe with a few hundred animators that he didn’t need to fire.
Some nice character design, but The Cobbler, Princess and Thief are Bland, Blander and Annoying.
The Price is right.
Oh! Yeah! Those guys…
In answer to your question, I am not feeling love.
FINAL SCORE: 45%
NEXT UPDATE: 08 January 2015. Longer than usual break as I put the final touches on the play and try to digest a solid tonne of my mother in law’s turkey and stuffing. Have a Happy Christmas every body and I shall see you all in the New Year.
NEXT TIME: The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in my fur.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer based in Dublin. The new movie review goes up every second Thursday, and he is also serialising his novel, The Hangman’s Daughter, with a new chapter every Saturday. Today’s review was made possible by the very kind donation of Callie Arendt. Thanks Callie.
hickory dickory dock
the mouse ran up the clock
times run out