The Thief and the Cobbler (1993)

It is written among the limitless constellations of the celestial heavens, and in the depths of the emerald seas, and upon every grain of sand in the vast deserts, that the world which we see is an outward and visible dream of an inward and invisible reality. Once upon a time there was a golden city. In the center of the golden city, atop the tallest minaret, were three golden balls. The ancients had prophesied that if the three golden balls were ever taken away, harmony would yield to discord, and the city would fall to destruction and death. But the mystics had also foretold that the city might be saved by the simplest soul with the smallest and simplest of things.

Making a movie is not easy. All you have to do is look at some of the films I've reviewed for proof of that.

The original Casino Royale, for instance, went through six directors and had some of its stars meddling with the screenplay, resulting in a Frankenstein's monster of a spy spoof. Two of Terry Gilliam's "Trilogy of Imagination" films sunk in American box offices despite critical acclaim, either because of marketability concerns or slow production coupled with financial disputes. Life of Brian was almost never even made after the original backers saw the script and pulled their funding at the last minute.

But perhaps nobody knows more about the pain, the turmoil and the aggravation that comes with filmmaking than three-time Academy Award-winning Anglo-Canadian animator Richard Williams, who currently holds the Guinness world record for longest production time of a motion picture.

And this is the film with which he holds this record:

In 1964, Williams began production on an animated film based off a story of Eastern folklore about a "wise fool" named Mulla Nasruddin. The project went under various titles--The Amazing Nasruddin, Nasruddin!, The Majestic Fool--before they finally dropped the character altogether and went with a brand new story loosely based on its setting, thus retitling the project The Thief and the Cobbler.

And this was only the start of the film's woes--because of its complex animation and independent funding sources, the project was put on and off the shelf many times over the next two decades while Williams worked on other animation projects to raise money to finish it, including commercial work, movie credits, and even scarring generations of children for life with Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.

A light at the end of the tunnel seemed in sight when his work on Roger Rabbit attracted the attention of Warner Bros., who agreed to finance the film's completion, but they pulled out when work fell behind schedule. Finally in 1992, a completion bond company took over, booted Williams from the project, and finished the movie under the supervision of the quicker, cheaper producer Fred Calvert, and since it was around this time that Disney was releasing Aladdin, it was re-animated and re-edited to include musical numbers, additional voiceovers and dialogue for its two title characters (in Williams' version, the thief doesn't talk at all, while the cobbler only has one line). Two different versions were released, one in Australia and South Africa in 1993 (as The Princess and the Cobbler) and one produced by Miramax Family Films for American audiences in 1995 (first as Arabian Knight and then under its original title) in only a handful of theaters each. Neither were box office hits.

For those of you keeping score, the film started production in 1964 and was finally released by a major studio in 1995 - THIRTY-ONE YEARS. It was such a headache that Williams distanced himself from his own film, and only recently has he finally spoken out about it, having finally screened his 1992 workprint in late 2013-early 2014.

The film is technically still being made today, in a sense. In 2006, filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist released an unofficial fan-edited version, a "Recobbled Cut" if you will, a frame-by-frame restoration of the film that stitches together animatics, pencil tests and pre-existing footage from Williams'  workprint, Calvert's edition and whatever else exists to get as close as possible to the story Williams wanted to tell. It has been revised three times since then as additional footage has emerged, the latest edition as recently as last year, and considering that Williams as well as Disney and all other major animation studios have no plans to finish and release the film, I've decided to go with the more recent version, since it's about as complete a movie as we're going to get.

Don't be shy. I've reviewed cinematic fiascos before.

After a really long sequence where I imagine the opening credits were supposed to go, we are transported to a not-the-least-bit-modest Arabic setting, and a golden city. At the center of this city is a very tall, slightly leaning minaret upon which are skewered three golden balls of great implied importance. Prophesy dictates that if ever anyone were to abscond with these golden balls, the golden city would plunge into chaos and ruin.

It is here where we meet our principal cast. So let us now:

The titular cobbler, a quiet, resourceful young lad named Tack with a long, lanky, rag doll-like appearance.

The titular thief, a nameless bloke with a severe case of kleptomania, an attraction to shiny things and a lack of personal hygiene.

King Nod, an aptly-named person in that he is both ruler of the Golden City and a narcoleptic;

Zig Zag the Grand Viseer (voiced by Vincent Price in what turned out to be his final film appearance--his voice work was recorded quite early in production but the movie took so long to come out he ended up dying one month after it finally saw a theater screening) a quite slender-looking Blue Meanie who acts as the king's chief adviser, owns a perpetually-starved vulture named Phido, and speaks entirely in rhyming couplets.

What'd the bad guy from Aladdin have? A PARROT? This guy's got a friggin VULTURE. That is BAD ASS.

The King's daughter, Princess Yum Yum, a maiden fair who must have suffered some injury when from heaven she fell.

Anywho, this Zig Zag feller--loyal subject, office kiss-up, bit of a poet, but wouldn't you know it, he's actually kind of evil. We can tell this when he has Tack arrested and tries to have him executed for accidentally spilling tacks on the floor where he was prancing about in egotistical splendor and stepped on one. We later find out he plots to take Yum Yum as a bride and usurp the kingdom.

When Tack is brought before the king, Yum Yum takes pity on him and just so conveniently has a shoe in need of repair. And being the love interest that she is, a sort of blush-every-time-they-look-at-each-other-face-to-face romance starts happening between her and Tack. Kinda cute, really, even if this is all of a sudden.

"I am Zig Zag the great, and haters gonna hate!"

Meanwhile, our thief notices the golden balls at the seemingly unreachable top of the highest minaret in the city and tries various Wile E. Coyote ploys to steal them. At one point he runs into Tack and makes off with the shoe he was repairing, leading to a chase sequence that is quite reminiscent of the Loonyland castle chase sequence in Raggedy Ann and Andy. Only trippier. And nowhere near as traumatizing.

As the Thief finishes repairing Yum Yum's shoe, Zig Zag throws him into a prison cell where he is nearly fed to his vulture pet. Meanwhile the King, during one of his numerous naps, has a nightmare where the golden balls are stolen and the city is ravaged by an army of one-eyed men...which as it turns out isn't that far from the truth, really.

So, Mr. One-Eye, what are your views on gender equality in the military?

As you've probably already assumed, because we wouldn't have a movie otherwise (or what there is of a movie, anyway) the thief eventually relieves the king of his balls (yes, that's what happens) which fall in the hands of Zig Zag, conveniently when word of a one-eyed warlord's army in the vicinity reaches the kingdom. The king, rather than changing his freshly-soiled shorts, arranging some kind of search party to find his missing balls (tee hee), and perhaps fortifying the city's defenses a bit, sends Yum Yum out into the desert to consult a mad old witch for advice on what to do next. Tack, who has managed to escape his prison cell with a file and a tack, is elected to accompany her, the lucky dog.

Somewhere else, Zig Zag, having failed to use this calamity to have the king grant him Yum Yum's hand in marriage, decides to show his balls to the leader of the One Eyes (phhffftt).

Meanwhile, the thief sets off after our heroes to...do his own thing.

It's interesting how King Nod is protective of his daughter and yet trusts her to carry out this dangerous mission, let alone with a complete stranger whom she's fallen for after only meeting him just yesterday.

"Drive safely and be sure to have her home by eleven. Have fun, you two!"

After some spliced-together scenes in which the thief tries and fails to steal a ruby off the top of a sacred golden idol (where the U.S. Air Force Song is curiously playing during a moment where the thief considers flying overhead the idol's armed guards) and Yum Yum hires an out-of-work band of brigands who would probably have ransacked their caravan and carried the princess off by now were they not for the sake of the potential audience too dimwitted to realize this as their bodyguards, our heroes finally reach the mad old witch living in a rock mountain that from a distance looks like millions of disembodied hands in a big pile through an entrance revealed by the ruby. When asked about how they can save their city, rather than making quite rational claims about strategic defense formations and diplomatic solutions, points to Tack almost immediately and provides cryptic hints as to what he could possibly do, shouting "Attack! Attack! Attack!"

So Tack is destined to save the city, it turns out. Well, at least the film spares us showing him expressing his feelings of self-doubt and ruing his lot in life, wanting so much more than what he's getting, tired of people looking upon him as a lowly, insignificant shoemaker. You know, like that guy in that other movie. The one with the parrot.

As easy as it might be to make a Ghandi joke here, I just don't have it in me.

Fortunately it didn't seem like they had to travel very far, which means absolutely no side trips to strange worlds with taffy monsters, inflatable kings and stuffed camels on strong hallucinogens. Just a young man accompanying a princess on a search for her daddy's balls. (Couldn't resist, sorry.)

It also means that our heroes return to the golden city just in time to learn those one-eyed warriors have decided to pay them a visit, with Zig Zag leading the charge. And they're brought them a lovely present: a big black nasty war machine filled with soldiers, catapults and very sharp things.

Fortunately, Tack is suddenly struck with a moment of inspiration and stands before Zig Zag David-and-Goliath style armed with a piece of string and a single tack. (Get it? "A tack a tack a tack?" Hah, the witch was using a play on words, because he has a tack, and his NAME is Tack, heh heh...) Fashioning a makeshift catapult, he fires the tack at Zig Zag...and misses...but sets up a cartoon-style chain reaction that eventually destroys the One Eye army's war machine.

Figures. And they all want to watch the Super Bowl on MY TV.

The climax of the film consists mainly of the thief retrieving the three balls while the One Eyes' war machine falls apart around him, narrowly escaping numerous death traps during the meanwhilst, as Zig Zag nearly runs off with Yum Yum, fights Tack and then gets eaten by some alligators and his long-suffering bird while the brigands fight off One Eye soldiers and their leader is apparently killed. (That part consisted of storyboard drawings and wasn't exactly clear.)

Everything in the previous statement takes up about fifteen minutes of a ninety-eight minute cut.

Tack takes the king's balls (snicker snicker) back from the thief, and with that the Golden City is saved and the king in his gratitude allows the cobbler and Yum Yum to wed. Then the thief in a closing fourth-wall gag, delays the film's release even further by running off with it.

Yeah, this moment was pretty inevitable, too. Cute, though.

What this movie makes me is sad.

It isn't because of the story. Any flaws in its plot--the minimal romantic development between Tack and Yum Yum, the super-long climax, the lack of characterization of the brigand army and the One Eye warriors--can perhaps be blamed on the amount of footage that was available to piece this Recobbled Cut together. At the very least, Princess Yum Yum wasn't just written as the damsel in distress, which was nice, and even though the thief didn't have a lot to do here story-wise apart from plot catalyst, he does do comic relief duty quite well.

It isn't because of the visuals. The finished portions of the film look extravagant. Williams is known for being a perfectionist and for hiring veteran Looney Tunes and Disney artists and expecting perfection of them, and although their work here was not as appreciated by widespread audiences, the complexities of each finished scene are to be admired, and I haven't seen art design this mesmerizing since Yellow Submarine. This movie is certainly a must-see for art and animation buffs.

No, the thing that makes me sad about this film is the sheer amount of wasted potential. This movie has all the makings of an animation classic, a masterpiece, something you'd find on Turner Classic Movies on the very rare occasion that they show an animated film. The Thief and the Cobbler could have been a milestone in the history of the medium instead of the footnote it is today. Richard Williams started out all those years ago on the verge of something truly great, and if things hadn't turned out the way they had, something great is what he would have gotten.

It must feel, metaphorically speaking, like someone had ripped his golden balls off. (Sorry, that one was too easy.)

Thieves should know better than to handle another man's--okay, I'll stop now.

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