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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.
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.
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?
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.
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.