"The Thief and the Cobbler" is considered a true masterpiece of animation, and easily the most ambitious independent animated feature film ever conceived. A 28-year labor of love by three-time Oscar-winning animation legend Richard Williams ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit", "A Christmas Carol" (1971), "Return of the Pink Panther"), the film was intended to be his magnum opus; an animated epic for audiences of all ages to experience on a blockbuster scale. Showcasing some of the most intricate and complex animation ever attempted, Williams aspired to create the greatest animated film of all time, while preserving the legacy of traditional animation in the process. Williams' incredible work on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" helped kickstart the Disney Renaissance and his book, "The Animator's Survival Kit", is considered the best book ever written on how to animate.
The film had its origin as an animated adaptation of the tales of Mulla Nasrudin, but copyright issues prevented the expansion of that concept. Early work on "The Thief" was independently funded (through commercials, films, and other work) from the early 1960s into the late 1980s. Williams funneled millions out of his own pocket into the project, paying his animators to work on it in their spare time. During this time, he employed master animators Ken Harris (Chuck Jones' key animator on the "Roadrunner" films) and Art Babbitt ("Fantasia") to work with him on his masterpiece and apply their methods to his studio. He also hired actors including Vincent Price, Sir Anthony Quayle, Sara Crowe and Donald Pleasance to voice the film's characters. By the early 1980s, about twenty minutes of the film (including the famous "War Machine" sequence) was finished in color to show investors, but the film had yet to secure funds for full production.
In 1988, Warner Bros. picked up "The Thief" after the success of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and full production began in 1989. Warner signed Williams to a negative pickup deal, which meant the studio hired a completion guarantor company to ensure they'd be given a finished film in case Williams was unable to deliver one. Williams hired a team of new, younger animators to work on the film and their work progressed for three years, squaring away the majority of the film's runtime. By spring 1992, there was approximately 15 minutes of animation left to complete (which at Williams' rate would take "a tight six months" or longer), but the film had gone over budget and missed the 1991 deadline imposed by the studio.
To make matters worse, Disney was working on "Aladdin" (a film (very) closely inspired by "The Thief" featuring work by some ex-Williams animators) at the same time, and at a much faster pace. Williams was asked to storyboard the rest of the film and assemble a Workprint version for the studio to screen. On top of the penultimate reel of film being missing during the screening, the studio left wishing they had a less complex and more commercially viable film. Intimidated by "Aladdin", added to their lack of success with animated features (and their head of animation knowing little about the field), Warner ultimately lost faith in the film and withdrew from the project in May 1992. Control of the film was then given to the Completion Bond Company, who fired Williams from his own film he had dedicated nearly 30 years of his life to, only to finish it cheaply and quickly without his involvement.
Now under the production of Fred Calvert (a former low-budget Saturday-morning cartoon animator), the film (now titled "The Princess and the Cobbler") was given new animations, voice-overs, and poorly written songs on a tiny budget. The result bears virtually no resemblance to Williams' original vision and fans consider it unwatchable. The film was released in 1993 (albeit only in South Africa and Australia) and then bought by Disney's Miramax in 1995, only to be further butchered by Harvey Weinstein and released as "Arabian Knight." The end result made very little in theaters, was quickly forgotten and is currently only available on poorly-transferred Pan-and-Scan DVD (now under its original title, "The Thief and the Cobbler"), which at one time was packaged inside cereal boxes for free.
During the time when a decent version of the film was unavailable, a Workprint version of Williams' original film surfaced through VHS copies, which circulated amongst collectors and animation enthusiasts before being uploaded to the internet in the 2000's. By repeatedly duplicating VHS copies, the Workprint's quality was deteriorated, along with the film's beautiful colors and details.
At the 2000 Annecy Film Festival, Williams screened a VHS copy of the Workprint for Roy E. Disney, who agreed to help restore and complete the film. Unfortunately, the scarcity of original pencil tests and completed animations plus legal issues with Miramax have stalled the project. Disney's departure from the company in 2003 (and passing in 2009) led to the restoration (reportedly appointed to Don Hahn) being put on hold.
Since 2006, the film has acquired a cult following on the Internet through "The Recobbled Cut," an unofficial restoration by artist and filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist. This re-edit showcases the most complete version of the film in the highest quality currently available, mirroring Williams' intentions as closely as possible. All kinds of rare footage was sourced (some of which was supplied by artists who had worked on the film in the early 90's), ranging from 35mm film to VHS Workprint footage and pencil/color tests. The HD version took over two years to complete and is probably the most complex restoration of any film ever attempted. More than anything, the Recobbled Cut shows how close the film is to being complete (the film was about 75-80% complete when production ended, with most of the film's more complex and intricate scenes already completed).
The film has also gained exposure through a documentary released in 2012 by filmmaker Kevin Schreck called "Persistence Of Vision", which tells the film's troubled story and has received considerable acclaim in the independent film scene.
Within the past few years, Richard Williams himself has been screening a restored 35mm duplicate print of the film's last Workprint version, struck on the day production ended. He screened it first in Los Angeles for the AMPAS in December 2013, again in London for the BFI in June 2014, and once more at the Annecy Film Festival in June 2015. After the BFI screening, he did a 50-minute Q&A. When one fan asked him if he was happy with the film being the unfinished masterpiece that it is, he replied "...no, I would've liked to finish it." Another fan asked him why he doesn't finish the film now since it's practically complete and the story makes sense. In short, he said that it'd be difficult since they chopped up the negative as well as the original animation, plus he'd need a talented crew like he had back in the early 90s (then acknowledged that some of the original crew were in attendance). He then said the rest of the film would take a year to complete, but that it can't happen because "the rights [are] a nightmare" and "it's become a life with lawyers...no more lawyers!"
It has been said that Disney will no longer produce traditionally animated films and will only produce digitally animated films in the future. As much as there's an audience for digital animation, it's undeniable that there will always be an audience for traditional animation (as Disney's 2D-animated films are undoubtedly their most celebrated, even to this day).
We urge you, on behalf of everyone who worked on "The Thief" during its three decades of production and everyone who wants to see it completed, to obtain the rights to the film, restore its existing footage and complete the remainder of the film with the full involvement of Richard Williams and his animation studio. The incomplete footage could be finished using the same methods as the original production, in Cinemascope, with hand-drawn animations supervised by Williams. While source material has become scarce (though possible to track down), with today's editing technology, a reasonable HD version of the film could be restored from Williams' 35mm Workprint and the released versions combined. The finished product could be released on Blu-Ray/DVD and given a theatrical run, as intended, which could be marketed as "the lost animated masterpiece over 50 years in the making."
Your predecessors at Disney seemingly attempted to bury "The Thief" into obscurity and ruin it forever, possibly because they saw it as a threat to the "Aladdin" franchise. Since it clearly survived (as true art always does), we ask you now to rectify their mistake and rescue the film while it's still possible - because if any film deserves it, it's this one. The power is yours to leave behind the legacy of traditional animation in the best way possible, by giving this masterpiece the proper ending it deserves. Thank you.
- John Lasseter, CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studios
The Walt Disney Company
- Robert Iger, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company
Restore and Complete "The Thief and the Cobbler"
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