"The Thief and the Cobbler" is considered a true masterpiece of animation, and easily the most ambitious independent animated film ever conceived. A 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 an animated epic like no other for audiences of all ages to marvel over. Showcasing some of the most intricate and complex animation ever attempted, Williams was striving to make the greatest animated film of all time, and preserve the legacy of traditional animation in the process. Williams' incredible work on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" helped kick off the Disney Renaissance and his book, "The Animator's Survival Kit", is considered the best ever written on how to animate.
Early work on "The Thief" was independently funded (through commercials, films, and other work) from the early 1960s into the late 1980s, with Williams funneling millions out of his own pocket into the project. 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 teach him their methods. He also hired actors including Vincent Price, Sir Anthony Quayle, Sara Crowe and Donald Pleasance to do voice-over work for the film. By the early 1980s, about twenty minutes of the film was finished in color to show investors, but the film had yet to find full funding.
In 1988, Warner Bros. picked up "The Thief" after the success of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and full production began in 1989. Williams hired a team of new, younger animators to work on the film and their work progressed for three years, squaring away much of the film's runtime. The film was nearing completion by spring 1992, but the film had already missed the given deadline and gone over budget.
To make matters worse, Disney was working on "Aladdin" (a film closely inspired by "The Thief" featuring work by some ex-Williams animators) at the same time, and at a much faster pace. Warner Bros.' fear of "Aladdin" and lack of faith in the film (added to their lack of success with animated films) led to their withdrawal from the project. Control of the film was then given to the Completion Bond Company, who fired Williams from the 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 no resemblance to Williams' original vision and fans consider it unwatchable. The film was then bought by Disney's Miramax in 1995, only to be further butchered by Harvey Weinstein and retitled "Arabian Knight." The end result made very little money in theaters, was quickly forgotten and is currently only available on poorly-transferred Pan-and-Scan DVD, which at one time was packaged inside cereal boxes for free (now under its original title, "The Thief and the Cobbler").
During the time when a decent version of the film was unavailable, an unfinished workprint version of Williams' original film (see below) surfaced through VHS copies which circulated amongst collectors and animation enthusiasts before becoming available on the internet in the 2000's. By repeatedly duplicating VHS copies of it, the workprint's quality was deteriorated, along with the film's beautiful colors and detail.
At the 2000 Annecy Film Festival, Williams showed Roy E. Disney a VHS copy of the film's workprint, which Disney agreed to help restore. 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 Garrett Gilchrist. This re-edit showcases the film in the most complete version currently available in the highest quality, mirroring Williams' intentions as closely as possible. All kinds of rare footage has been included (some of which was supplied by artists who had worked on the film in the early 90's), ranging from HD 35mm footage to VHS workprint footage. 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 by filmmaker Kevin Schreck called "Persistence Of Vision", which tells the film's troubled story and has been gotten considerable acclaim in the independent film scene.
Richard Williams himself has recently been screening a restored 35mm duplicate print of the film's last workprint version. He screened it first in Los Angeles for the AMPAS in December 2013, then again in London for the BFI in June 2014, and once more in Annecy for 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 from now on. However, as much as there's an audience for digital animation, 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 remaining 15-20 minutes of animation 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 - not just because it's always been the right thing to do, but 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.