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The Thief and the Cobbler

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Title: The Thief and the Cobbler  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Art Babbitt, Matthew Broderick, Vizier, Varga Studio, Letterboxing (filming)
Collection: 1990S American Animated Films, 1990S Fantasy Films, 1993 Animated Films, 1993 Films, 1995 Animated Films, 1995 Films, American Animated Films, American Fantasy Films, American Films, Art Films, Baghdad in Fiction, British Animated Films, British Fantasy Films, British Films, Canadian Animated Films, Canadian Fantasy Films, Canadian Films, English-Language Films, Fantasy Adventure Films, Fictional Professional Thieves, Films Directed by Richard Williams, Films Set in Baghdad, Lost Films, Miramax Animated Films, Sufism, Unfinished Films, Works Based on One Thousand and One Nights
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The Thief and the Cobbler

The Thief and the Cobbler
An unreleased poster made near the end of the film's production, before it was taken from Richard Williams.
Directed by Richard Williams
Los Angeles production:
Fred Calvert
Produced by Richard Williams
Imogen Sutton
Gary Kurtz (mid-1980s)
Los Angeles production:
Fred Calvert
Bette L. Smith
Written by Richard Williams
Margaret French
Starring See voice cast
Narrated by Felix Aylmer (original version)
Music by Original version:
David Burman
Peter Shade
David Cullen
Released versions:
Robert Folk
Cinematography John Leatherbarrow
Edited by Peter Bond
Distributed by Majestic Films (Princess)
Miramax Family Films (Arabian)
Miramax Family Films/Lionsgate Home Entertainment (Arabian UK release)
Release dates
  • 23 September 1993 (1993-09-23) (Princess)
  • 25 August 1995 (1995-08-25) (Arabian)
Running time 91 minutes (Workprint)
80 minutes (Princess)
72 minutes (Arabian)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $28 million[1]
Box office $669,276[2]

The Thief and the Cobbler is a British animated fantasy film directed, co-written and co-produced by Canadian animator Richard Williams. The film is famous for its animation and its long, troubled history: Williams worked for 28 years on the project. Beginning production in 1964, Williams intended The Thief and the Cobbler to be his masterpiece, and a milestone in the art of animation. Due to independent funding and its complex animation, The Thief and the Cobbler was in and out of production for over two decades, until Williams, buoyed by his success as animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, signed a deal in 1988 to have Warner Bros. finance and distribute the film.[3] However, negotiations broke down when production went over budget and behind schedule and Williams was unable to complete the film on time. As Warner Bros. later pulled out, a completion bond company assumed control of The Thief and the Cobbler and had it finished by producer Fred Calvert without Williams's involvement, and in a very different, almost unrecognizable form.

In the process, Calvert completely re-edited the film, removing many of Williams's scenes and adding songs and voice-overs that he felt would make it more marketable. Animation done under Calvert was not up to Williams's standards. Calvert's version was issued by Majestic Films International in Australia and South Africa in 1993 as The Princess and the Cobbler. This was later reedited with additional voiceovers by Miramax Family Films in the United States in 1995 as Arabian Knight (later released under the film's original title, The Thief and the Cobbler, on home video). Neither version was a box office success, being released to only a handful of theaters. However, what survives of Williams's original vision for his unfinished film has given the film a legendary status among animation professionals and fans, who consider it a cult film and every bit the masterpiece it was intended to be.

As several animators from the Golden Age of animation were involved, the development of the film also played a significant role in preserving the knowledge and skill of animation for the newer generation of animators.[4] A 2012 documentary, Persistence of Vision, called it "The greatest animated film never made."[5]

Video copies of an unfinished workprint made during Williams's involvement in the film often circulate within animation subcircles, and this workprint gives a good idea of Williams's original intent for the film.[6] In 2006, filmmaker Garrett Gilchrist released an unofficial restoration known as The Recobbled Cut to the internet, intending to create a high-quality edit of the film which would mirror Williams's original intent as closely as possible. The Recobbled Cut was revised again in 2008 and 2013.[7] Over the years, people and companies including The Walt Disney Company's Roy E. Disney, have discussed restoring the film as closely as possible to its original intended version, but none of these projects have come to pass. In 2013 and 2014, Richard Williams broke a 20-year silence about the film to screen a digital transfer of his own 35mm workprint of the film as it existed on May 13, 1992, billed as "The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment In Time." Afterward, Williams acknowledged the role The Recobbled Cut had played in rehabilitating the film's reputation.[8]

With The Thief and the Cobbler being in production from 1964 until 1995, a total of 31 years, it surpasses the 20-year Guinness record[9] by Tiefland (1954), eventually having the longest production time for a motion picture of all time. The film was, upon release, the final appearance of Sir Anthony Quayle, who died in 1989, and the final appearance of Vincent Price (died 1993), who originally recorded his dialogue from 1967 to 1973. Williams recorded further dialogue with Price for the 1990 production, but Price's age and illness meant some lines remained unfinished.


  • Plot 1
    • The Thief and the Cobbler (1992 workprint) 1.1
    • Changes made in The Princess and the Cobbler (1993, Majestic Films) 1.2
    • Changes made in Arabian Knight (1995, Miramax) 1.3
    • Changes made in The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut (2006, 2007, 2013) 1.4
  • Voice cast 2
    • Notes 2.1
  • Production history 3
    • Development and early production on Nasruddin! (1964–1972) 3.1
    • Nasruddin! becomes The Thief and the Cobbler 3.2
    • Prolonged production (1972–1986) 3.3
    • The Thief gains financial backing 3.4
    • Beginning on full production (1989–1992) 3.5
    • Richard Williams loses control of the film (1992) 3.6
    • Production under Fred Calvert (1992–1993) 3.7
  • Releases 4
    • Home media 4.1
  • Reception 5
    • Influence 5.1
  • Restoration attempts 6
  • Documentary 7
  • See also 8
    • Other animated movies with long production histories 8.1
  • References 9
  • External links 10


The Thief and the Cobbler (1992 workprint)

The film opens with a narrator describing a prosperous city called the Golden City, ruled by the sleepy King Nod and protected by three golden balls atop its tallest minaret. According to a prophecy, the city would fall to a race of warlike, one-eyed monsters, known as "one-eyes", should the balls be removed, and could only be saved by "the simplest soul with the smallest and simplest of things". Living in the city are the good-hearted cobbler Tack and a nameless, unsuccessful yet persistent thief. Both characters have no dialogue.

When the thief invades Tack's house, the two fight and stumble outside, causing Tack's tacks to fall onto the street. Zigzag, King Nod's Grand Vizier, steps on one of the tacks and orders Tack arrested while the thief escapes. Tack is brought before King Nod and his daughter, Princess Yum-Yum. Before Zigzag can convince Nod to have Tack executed, Yum-Yum saves Tack by breaking one of her shoes and ordering Tack to fix it. During repairs Tack and Yum-Yum become increasingly attracted to each other, much to the jealousy of Zigzag, who plots to take over the kingdom by marrying the princess. Meanwhile, the thief notices the golden balls atop the minaret and decides to steal them. After breaking into the palace through a gutter, the thief steals the repaired shoe from Tack, prompting the cobbler to chase him through the palace. Upon retrieving the shoe, Tack bumps into Zigzag, who notices the shoe is fixed and imprisons Tack in a dungeon.

From left to right: Tack the Cobbler, Zigzag the Grand Vizier, King Nod and Princess Yum-Yum. The character designs are a combination of UPA and classic Disney styles,[3][10] and the overall style and flat perspective are inspired by Persian miniature paintings.[6][10][11][12]

The next morning, Nod has a vision of the Golden City's destruction by the one-eyes. While Zigzag tries to convince Nod of the kingdom's security, the thief steals the balls after several failed attempts, only to lose them to Zigzag's minions. Tack escapes from his cell using his cobbling tools during the ensuing panic. Nod notices the balls' disappearance after being warned of the one-eyes by a soldier mortally wounded by them. Zigzag attempts to use the stolen balls to blackmail the king into letting him marry Yum-Yum. When Nod refuses, Zigzag defects to the one-eyes and gives them the balls instead.

Nod sends Yum-Yum, her nurse, and Tack to ask help from a "mad, holy old witch" in the desert. They are secretly followed by the thief, who hears of treasures on the journey but fails in stealing any. In the desert, they discover a band of dimwitted brigands, led by Chief Roofless, whom Yum-Yum recruits as her bodyguards. The protagonists reach the hand-shaped tower where the witch lives, and learn from the witch that Tack is prophesied to save the Golden City. The witch also presents a riddle: "Attack, attack, attack! A tack, see? But it's what you do with what you've got!"

The protagonists return to the Golden City to find the one-eyes' massive war machine approaching. Remembering the witch's riddle, Tack shoots a single tack into the enemy's midst, sparking a Goldberg-esque chain reaction to destroy the entire one-eye army. Zigzag tries to escape, but falls into a pit where he is consumed by alligators and his mistreated pet vulture, Phido. The thief, avoiding many deathtraps, steals the golden balls from the collapsing machine, only to have them taken from him by Tack. With peace restored and the prophecy fulfilled, the city celebrates as Tack and Yum-Yum marry. Tack speaks one line - "I love you." This was intended to be spoken by Sean Connery, although the line was never recorded. The story ends with the thief stealing its reel of film and running away.

Changes made in The Princess and the Cobbler (1993, Majestic Films)

The version by Fred Calvert is considerably different from Williams's workprint. Four songs have been added – the film originally had none. Many scenes have been cut: These include the thief attempting to steal various objects along with evading capital punishment for it, and the subplot wherein Zigzag tries to feed Tack to Phido. Also removed are any references to the "bountiful maiden from Mombassa", whom Zigzag gives to King Nod as "a plaything" in the workprint. Tack, almost mute in the original, speaks many times in the film and narrates most scenes in past tense: The original had narration only in the beginning by a voice-over. Some subplots have been added; In one, Yum-Yum volunteers to visit the witch, to prove herself more than ornamental. In another subplot, the Nanny scolds Yum Yum for liking a lowly cobbler. Also, there are several lines of alternate or removed dialogue.

Changes made in Arabian Knight (1995, Miramax)

The Miramax version includes all changes made in The Princess and the Cobbler. In addition, several previously mute characters are given voices, most notably the thief (as Tack explains in this version, the thief is "a man of few words, but many thoughts").

The Golden City is named as Baghdad. Most scenes featuring the One-eye's slave women have been removed, although he can still be seen sitting on them. The scene where the Mighty One-eye dies has been removed.

The ending is entirely recut. At the end, Tack becomes Prince and the first Arabian Knight. The song "It's So Amazing" has been removed. During the wedding, the thief attempts to steal the balls again. Tack ends the story by saying: "So next time you see a shooting star, be proud of who you really are. Do in your heart what you know is right, and you too shall become an Arabian Knight." Tack also mentions that the thief eventually was put in jail for years but becomes the Captain of the Guards and the king even allows him to steal one last thing which explains why he took the end sign as well as the entire film.

Changes made in The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut (2006, 2007, 2013)

Garrett Gilchrist's restorations mostly follow Richard Williams's workprint very closely, at least in their intent, using most of its original audio track and editing structure. In order to present a more complete film, Gilchrist added additional music (some from Fred Calvert's version) and sound effects, and also included finished footage that does not appear in a finished state in the workprint, whether taken from Calvert's versions or from other rare sources. Most of the story changes made by Fred Calvert and Miramax are not present, but it does include a few minor Calvert-only scenes or alterations, either as a side effect of using Calvert's footage for a major video source or because Gilchrist felt these scenes were useful to the storyline. For this reason, Gilchrist does not refer to his edit as a "Director's Cut."[13] The 2013 HD restoration is known as ""The Recobbled Cut Mk 4," and took over two years to reconstruct. Some additional artwork and scenes were created for this presentation.

Voice cast

Character Original version
(The Thief and the Cobbler)
Allied Filmmakers version
(The Princess and the Cobbler)
Miramax version
(Arabian Knight)
Zigzag the Grand Vizier Vincent Price Vincent Price Vincent Price
Tack the Cobbler Unknown (Only one line) Steve Lively Matthew Broderick (Speaking)
Steve Lively (Singing, uncredited)
Narrator Felix Aylmer Steve Lively Matthew Broderick
Princess Yum-Yum Sara Crowe Bobbi Page
Sara Crowe (One line, uncredited)
Jennifer Beals (Speaking)
Bobbi Page (Singing)
The Thief Unknown (Never speaks) Ed E. Carroll Jonathan Winters
King Nod Anthony Quayle Clive Revill
Anthony Quayle (Speech scene, uncredited)
Clive Revill
Anthony Quayle (Speech scene, uncredited)
Princess Yum-Yum's Nurse Joan Sims (Unconfirmed) Mona Marshall Toni Collette
Mad and Holy Old Witch Joan Sims Mona Marshall
Joan Sims (Some lines)
Toni Collette
Chief Roofless Windsor Davies Windsor Davies Windsor Davies
Mighty One-Eye Chris Greener Kevin Dorsey Kevin Dorsey
Phido the Vulture Donald Pleasence Donald Pleasence Eric Bogosian
Dying Soldier Clinton Sundberg Clinton Sundberg Clinton Sundberg
Goblet Kenneth Williams Kenneth Williams Kenneth Williams
Tickle Kenneth Williams Kenneth Williams Kenneth Williams
Gofer Stanley Baxter Stanley Baxter Stanley Baxter
Slap Stanley Baxter Stanley Baxter Stanley Baxter
Dwarf George Melly    
Hoof Eddie Byrne Eddie Byrne Eddie Byrne
Hook Thick Wilson Thick Wilson Thick Wilson
Goolie Frederick Shaw Frederick Shaw Frederick Shaw
Maiden from Mombassa Margaret French    
Laughing Brigand Richard Williams (Uncredited) Richard Williams (Uncredited) Richard Williams (Uncredited)
The Brigands Joss Ackland
Peter Clayton
Derek Hinson
Declan Mulholland
Mike Nash
Dermot Walsh
Ramsay Williams
Joss Ackland (Uncredited)
Peter Clayton
Geoff Golden
Derek Hinson
Declan Mulholland
Mike Nash
Tony Scannell
Dermot Walsh
Ramsay Williams
Joss Ackland (Uncredited)
Peter Clayton
Geoff Golden
Derek Hinson
Declan Mulholland
Mike Nash
Tony Scannell
Dermot Walsh
Ramsay Williams
Singers for the Brigands   Randy Crenshaw
Kevin Dorsey
Roger Freeland
Nick Jameson
Bob Joyce
Jon Joyce
Kerry Katz
Ted King
Michael Lanning
Raymond McLeod
Rick Charles Nelson
Scott Rummell
Randy Crenshaw
Kevin Dorsey
Roger Freeland
Nick Jameson
Bob Joyce
Jon Joyce
Kerry Katz
Ted King
Michael Lanning
Raymond McLeod
Rick Charles Nelson
Scott Rummell
"Am I Feeling Love?" pop singers   Arnold McCuller
Andrea Robinson
Arnold McCuller
Andrea Robinson
Additional voices     Ed E. Carroll
Steve Lively
Mona Marshall
Bobbi Page
Donald Pleasence


^a According to Richard Williams, Sean Connery was going to record Tack's one line, but never showed up at the studio, so the line was instead performed by a friend of his wife's.

^b While Yum-Yum's dialogue was mostly re-voiced by Bobbi Page for the Allied Filmmakers version, one line of Crowe's dialogue is retained when Yum-Yum throws her pear at Zigzag in disgust during the polo game.

^c In both of the 1992 workprints, the thief is heard making short grunts/wheezes in a few scenes – though not as many as in the Allied Filmmakers version. It is unclear who provided these sounds, but it is known that Carroll did the additional ones for the Allied Filmmakers version.

^d Although Quayle's voice was mostly re-dubbed by Revill in the re-edited versions of the film by Allied Filmmakers and Miramax, Quayle's uncredited voice can still be heard for an entire scene when King Nod gives a speech to his subjects.

^e Sims' voice for the Witch was mostly re-dubbed by Marshall, but a few lines spoken by Sims were retained when she first fully materializes and when she receives her chest of money all the way up to the part when she's in a basket lighting a match to the fumes.

Hilary Pritchard was initially cast as Yum-Yum and is listed in a 1989 Cannes brochure. By the time of the 1992 workprints she had been replaced by Sara Crowe.

Similarly, Miriam Margolyes was initially billed as the Maiden from Mombassa, but the workprint features co-writer Margaret French as the Maiden.

Catherine Schell would have played Princess Meemee, the sister of Princess Yum-Yum, and Thick Wilson played the enchanted ogre prince "Bubba." Both characters were dropped in 1989 at the request of Warner Bros.

The widely bootlegged VHS workprint differs somewhat from the later May 13, 1992 workprint, screened by Richard Williams in 2013 and 2014 as "The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time," although they are similar overall.[14]

Production history

Development and early production on Nasruddin! (1964–1972)

In 1964, Richard Williams, a Canadian animator living in the United Kingdom, began development work on a film about the Mulla Nasruddin, a "wise fool" of Near Eastern folklore.[1] Williams had previously illustrated a series of books by Idries Shah,[10] which collected the philosophical yet wise tales of Nasruddin.[1] Production took place at Richard Williams Productions in Soho Square, London. An early reference to the project came in the 1968 International Film Guide, which noted that Williams was about to begin work on "the first of several films based on the stories featuring Mulla Nasruddin."[1]

Williams took on television and feature-film title projects in order to fund his pet project, and work on his film progressed slowly. In 1969, the Guide noted that animator Ken Harris was now working on the project, which was now entitled The Amazing Nasruddin. The illustrations from the film showed intricate Indian and Persian designs.[1]

In 1970, the project was re-titled The Majestic Fool. For the first time, a potential distributor for the independent film was mentioned: British Lion Film Corporation. The International Film Guide noted that the Williams Studio's staff had increased to forty people for the production of the feature.[1]

Dialogue tracks for the film, now being referred to as Nasruddin!, were recorded at this time. Actor Vincent Price was hired to perform the voice of the villain, Anwar (later renamed "Zigzag"),[1] originally assigned to Kenneth Williams. Sir Anthony Quayle was cast as King Nod. Price was hired to make the villain more enjoyable for Williams, as he was a great fan of Vincent Price's work and ZigZag was based on two people Williams hated.[12]

Nasruddin! becomes The Thief and the Cobbler

Idries Shah demanded 50% of the profits from the film, and Idries Shah’s sister Amina Shah, who had done some of the translations for the Nasrudin book, claimed that she owned the stories.[10][15] In addition, Williams felt that producer Omar Shah had been embezzling from the company for his own purposes. As a result, Williams had a falling-out with the Shah family in 1972, Paramount withdrew a deal that they'd been negotiating,[15] and Williams was forced to abandon the script.

In a promotional booklet released in 1973, Williams made an announcement about the status of his project:

Nasruddin! was found to be too verbal and not suitable for animation, therefore Nasruddin as a character and the Nasruddin stories were dropped as a project. However, the many years work spent on painstaking research into the beauty of Oriental art has been retained. Loosely based on elements in the Arabian Nights stories, an entirely new and original film entitled The Thief and the Cobbler is now the main project of the Williams Studio. Therefore any publicity references to the old character of Nasruddin are now obsolete.[1]

The film went through many name-changes before becoming The Thief and the Cobbler – other names included The Thief Who Never Gave Up[12] and Once....[11] One can see within the Once... logo old character designs as well as characters that were later removed from the film.

By 1973, Williams had co-written a new script with his wife Margaret French. Nasruddin was replaced by a cobbler named Tack. Many characters and scenes that did not include Nasruddin himself were retained. While the story's focus and tone was shifted and simplified, several characters, including Anwar/Zigzag, were all carried over to the "new" film, which Williams was promising as a "100 minute Panavision animated epic feature film with a hand-drawn cast of thousands."[1]

The characters were renamed at this point. In the Nasruddin! years, Phido's original name was "Brutay", making Zigzag's last words "You, too, Phido?" a reference to the famous "Et tu, Brute?". Zigzag speaks mostly in rhyme throughout the entire film, while the other characters speak normally (the thief and Tack do not speak at all, except for one line for Tack at the very end). In an interview with John Canemaker in the February 1976 issue of Millimeter, Richard Williams stated that "The Thief is not following the Disney route." He went on to state that the film would be "the first animated film with a real plot that locks together like a detective story at the end," and that, with its two mute main characters, Thief was essentially "a silent movie with a lot of sound."[1]

While Williams would continue to simplify the dialogue, the script would not change structurally. The scene numbers of the 1973 script by Margaret French correspond to those on the final photography in 1992.[16]

Prolonged production (1972–1986)

Williams worked on the production as a side project in-between various TV commercial, TV special, and feature film title assignments, such as the 1977 feature Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. Because he had no money to have a full team working on the film, and due to the film being a "giant epic", production dragged for decades.[11] In order to save money, scenes were kept in pencil stage without putting it into colour, as advised by Dick Purdum: "Work on paper! Don’t put it in colour. Don’t spend on special effects. Don’t do camera-work, tracing or painting …. just do the rough drawings!"[17]

Upon seeing Disney's The Jungle Book,[4] Williams realised that he was not very skilled in animating and that he needed to actually learn the art, if he wanted to hold the audience's interest:

I was a graphic artist in animation … thought I was ever so clever, until one day I realized I didn’t know a damned thing. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for more than 15 to 20 minutes. I thought I had better go and study ‘how you do it’. So we did … and it was a nasty shock to realize when you thought you were wonderful and were covered with awards, that you didn’t know how to do it, at all.[17]

Richard Williams (right) and Art Babbitt, working on a scene. During its production, the Thief was featured in several TV features, such as the 1987 Animating Art.

Williams hired veteran animators from the golden age of animation, such as Art Babbitt, Ken Harris, Emery Hawkins and Grim Natwick to work on the film in his studio in London and teach him and his staff:[12][18] Williams learned also from Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Ken Anderson at Disney, to whom he made yearly visits.[19] Williams would later pass their knowledge to the new generation of animators.[4]

As years passed, the project became more ambitious. Williams said that "The idea is to make the best animated film that has ever been made – there really is no reason why not."[11] The film features very detailed and complex animation, such as scenes where the entire picture is animated by hand to move in three dimensions: this was achieved without computer-generated imagery.[3][6][10] Additionally, almost the whole film has been animated "on ones", meaning that the animation runs at full 24 frames per second, as opposed to the cheaper and more common animation "on twos" at twelve frames per second.[3][10][15]

Williams continued to invent scenes for the Thief character (which was designed as a caricature of Williams) to keep Harris working. British illustrator Errol Le Cain created inspirational paintings and backgrounds, setting the style for the film.[20] During the decades that the film was being made, the characters were redesigned several times, and scenes were reanimated. The Mad Holy Old Witch was designed as a caricature of animator Grim Natwick,[21] by whom she was animated. Animation drawings of the Mad Holy Old Witch (redrawn to evade copyright) were later used in Williams's 2000 book The Animator's Survival Kit.

In 1978, a Saudi Arabian prince named Mohammed Feisal became interested in The Thief and agreed to fund ten minutes as a test, with the budget of $100,000. Williams chose the complex War Machine scene for the test. He missed two deadlines, and the scene was completed in the end of 1979 for $250,000. Feisal flew to London for a screening, and despite his impression with the finished scene,[15] he backed out of the production because of missed deadlines and budgetary overruns.[10]

The Thief gains financial backing

In 1986, Williams met producer Jake Eberts, who began funding the production through his Allied Filmmakers company and, according to the 30 August 1995 edition of The Los Angeles Times, eventually provided USD$10 million of the film's $28 million budget.[1][22] Allied's distribution and sales partner, Majestic Films, began promoting the film in industry trades, under the working title Once....

In the 1980s, Williams put together a 12-minute sample reel of The Thief, which he showed to his friend and animation mentor Milt Kahl in San Francisco. After hearing about the rather enthusiastic reaction the screening of The Thief, Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg decided to take a look for themselves and were so impressed that they asked Williams to direct the animation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.[3][10][15][23] Williams agreed in order to get financing for The Thief and the Cobbler and get it finally finished. Disney and Spielberg told Williams that in return for doing Roger Rabbit, they would help distribute his film.[24] Roger Rabbit was released in 1988, and became a blockbuster. Williams won two Oscars for his animation. The success of Roger Rabbit proved that Williams could work within a studio structure and turn out high-quality animation on time and within budget.[1]

Because of his success, Williams received funding and a distribution deal for The Thief and the Cobbler with Warner Bros. Pictures: They signed a negative pickup deal in 1988. Williams also got some money from Japanese investors.[10][15]

Beginning on full production (1989–1992)

With the new funding, the film finally got into full production in 1989. Williams scoured the art schools of Europe and Canada to find talented artists.[23] It was at this point, with almost all of the original animators either dead or having long since moved on to other projects, that full-scale production on the film began, mostly with a new, younger team of animators, including Richard Williams's own son Alexander Williams. In a 1988 interview with Jerry Beck, Williams stated that he had two and a half hours of pencil tests for Thief and that he had not storyboarded the film as he found such a method too controlling.[1]

As an example of Williams's animation quality, several scenes were animated by hand to move in three dimensions – this was achieved without CGI. This uncolourised scene exists only in Williams's original, unfinished version of the film and was cut along with many other ones in the two released versions.

Discipline was harsh. "He fired hundreds of people. There's a list as long as your arm of people fired by Dick. It was a regular event." cameraman John Leatherbarrow recalls, "There was one guy who got fired on the doorstep." Williams was just as hard on himself: "He was the first person in the morning and the last one out at night," recalls animator Roger Vizard.[23]

At this time, Eberts encouraged Williams to make changes to the script. The subplot involving the character of Prince Bubba was removed, resulting in the loss of the following characters: Princess Mee-Mee, Yum-Yum's twin sister played by Catherine Schell, and the aforementioned Prince Bubba, who had been turned into an ogre, and was played by Thick Wilson.[25] Some of Grim Natwick's animation of the Witch had to be discarded.[1]

Funders pressured Williams to make finished scenes of the main characters for a marketing trailer. The final designs were made for the characters at this time. The shot of Princess Yum-Yum in the trailer was traced from the live-action film Muqaddar Ka Sikander[26] – her design was slightly changed for the rest of the film, resulting her to be slightly "off-model" in the scene.[25] Tack was modelled after silent film stars Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon. Movement 1 of the symphonic suite Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was used in the trailer.

In Williams's script, the climax was even longer (and slightly different) than in the workprint or final films: After the collapse of the War Machine, Zigzag, at Mighty One-Eye's goading, conjures a larger-than-life Oriental dragon (which dwarfed even the War Machine), which is about to flatten Tack, who once again trusts on his tack to bring down the dragon, revealing it to be nothing more than an inflatable balloon (filled with acrid fumes, which permeates the atmosphere and makes everyone cough, even Mighty One-Eye; That can still be heard in the workprint). Enraged, Mighty One-Eye is going to kill a frightened Zigzag just before meeting his own doom (the same one as in the workprint), but Zigzag is pursued by Tack, Yum Yum and the Brigands and hides from them just before inadvertently meeting his own doom (also in the workprint). Although there were some production designs of the scene with the Oriental dragon, it was never made, as it was found to be too difficult to animate.[23]

Richard Williams loses control of the film (1992)

The film was not finished by the 1991 deadline that Warner imposed upon Williams;[23] the film had approximately 10 to 15 minutes of screen time to complete, which at Williams's rate was estimated to take "a tight six months" or longer.[6][10][16] Meanwhile, Walt Disney Feature Animation had begun work on Aladdin, a film which bore striking resemblances in story, style and character to The Thief and the Cobbler; for example, the character Zigzag from Thief shares many physical characteristics with both Aladdin's villain, Jafar, as animated by Williams Studio alumnus Andreas Deja, and its Genie, as animated by Williams Studio alumnus Eric Goldberg[27][28]

Seeing it as potential competition to Thief '​s commercial viability, television animation producer Fred Calvert was asked to do a detailed analysis of the production status in early 1991.[6] He had already travelled to Williams's London studio several times to check on the progress of the film, and his conclusion was that Williams was "woefully behind schedule and way over budget."[1] Williams did indeed have a script, according to Calvert, but "he wasn't following it faithfully." Williams was asked to show the investors a rough copy of the film with the remaining scenes filled in with storyboards in order to establish the film's narrative.[10][23] Williams had avoided storyboards up to this point, but within two weeks he had done what the investors had asked. "They had to twist his fingers to do storyboards, he refused to do them."[23] Williams made a workprint which combined finished footage, pencil test and storyboards which covered the 10 to 15 minutes left to finish.[6] This workprint has been bootlegged, and copies exist.[6][23]

This rough version of the film was shown to Warners, and not well received. During the screening, the penultimate reel of the film was missing, which can't have helped matters. By September 1992, Warner had lost confidence and backed out of the project. Earlier that May, The Completion Bond Company had seized control of the film, ousting Williams from the project.[10][23] According to Alex Williams, executive producer Jake Eberts also abandoned the project;[6] his comments on record claiming that the altered versions were superior to Williams's version indicate that Eberts had also lost confidence in Williams. Additionally, according to Richard Williams himself, the production had lost a source of funding when Japanese investors pulled out due to the recession following the Japanese asset price bubble.[29]

Garrett Gilchrist, the filmmaker who would later restore the film as The Recobbled Cut, was critical of this decision, citing it as an example of a trend at the time of animated films being tampered with by studio executives: "They didn't appreciate what they had with The Thief and the Cobbler. They wanted something that could compete with Disney, and they had something which could compete with Disney, and they threw it away because they didn't get it".[30]

Production under Fred Calvert (1992–1993)

Sue Shakespeare of Creative Capers Entertainment had previously offered to solve story problems with Terry Gilliam and Williams, and proposed to allow Williams to finish the film under her supervision. However, her bid was rejected by Completion Bond in favour of a cheaper one by Fred Calvert.[31] Calvert was assigned by the Completion Bond Company to finish the film as cheaply and quickly as possible. Calvert, previously a producer of extremely low budget television animation, was not a fan of Williams or of the film. "I really didn't want to do it," Calvert said, "but if I didn't do it, it would have been given off to the lowest bidder. I took it as a way to try and preserve something and at least get the thing on the screen and let it be seen."[22] However, animators who were working with Williams felt that Calvert had happily seen an opportunity and taken it.

Editor Harry Keramidas was hired to look at Williams's film and cut it down, over a period of about three weeks.[32]

Fred Calvert's changes to the film were much more extreme. His version would be called "The Princess and the Cobbler," adding songs, rewriting all the dialogue, omitting vast amounts of footage and reducing the character of The Thief.[33] Calvert felt he was improving the film - something that film critics and animation historians would harshly disagree with.[34]

Calvert said later: "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 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 Goldberg-ing his way through. I don't think he was able to step back and look at the whole thing as a story." [1] The various short scenes of The Thief going up pipes do not quite add up to five minutes, and were retained in Calvert's versions.

Some of the deleted Thief scenes were included as part of Calvert's end credits. Steve Lively recorded a voice and narration for the previously mute character of Tack, and several other characters that already had vocal tracks prepared for them were re-voiced. Four songs were added: "She Is More", "Am I Feeling Love", "Bom Bom Bom Beem Bom (That's What Happens When You Don't Go to School)" and "It's So Amazing". Adult content was also toned down: In the scene where the dying messenger warns the king, the spike (from the flagpole) sticking out of his chest was removed. References to The King's sexual interest in a Maiden from Mombassa were also removed.

It took Calvert 18 months to finish the film.[23] The new scenes were produced on a very low budget, with the animation being produced by freelance animators in Los Angeles (some from Kroyer Films, who is also credited), former Williams animators working with Neil Boyle at Premier Films in London, and Don Bluth animators[23] working under Gary Goldman in Ireland.[1] The ink and paint work was subcontracted to Wang Film Productions in Taiwan, who themselves outsourced most of the work to their satellite studio in Thailand; additional ink and paint work was done at Varga Studio in Hungary and at The Magic Brush in Hollywood. Some work was also done in Korea.[35] The end results have been widely seen as "obviously and pitifully inferior" in quality to Williams's original scenes.[3][6][36]

Williams has never seen Calvert's versions of the film, saying "I'm not interested, but my son, who is also an animator, did tell me that if I ever want to jump off a bridge then I should take a look." Needless to say, Calvert's versions do not reflect Williams's vision in any way. Williams did not publicly discuss the film for twenty years after production shut down.[37]


After the movie was completed, Allied Filmmakers, along with Majestic Films, reacquired the distribution rights from the Completion Bond Company. Calvert's version of the film was distributed in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler.

In December 1994, Miramax Films, then a subsidiary of Disney—who had, of course, released Aladdin two years earlier—bought the rights in the U.S. Until Miramax agreed to distribute the film, it was refused by many other American distributors. "It was a very difficult film to market, it had such a reputation," Calvert recalls. "I don't think that they were looking at it objectively."[23] Miramax recut the film even further[38] and released their own version entitled Arabian Knight, which featured newly written dialogue by Eric Gilliland, Michael Hitchcock, and Gary Glasberg, and a celebrity voice cast that was added several months before the film's release.

The voice cast consists of Matthew Broderick as Tack and Jonathan Winters as the Thief. Tack and the Thief's dialogue was added over nearly every scene of the film; Williams' version had been largely dialogue-less. The character of the Old Witch was entirely removed (save for a few lines of dialogue and ghost-like image), as was most of the climactic battle sequence which served as the film's centerpiece. The first lines of Tack's narration now refer to "Aladdin and Ali Baba." The Thief's first line of dialogue references Robin Williams, saying "Good morning, Arabia!" Later, Tack says, "Who needs a Genie when you've got a Tack?" The various references to Aladdin made the film look like a cheap imitation.

Arabian Knight was quietly released by Miramax on 25 August 1995. It opened on 510 screens,[1] and grossed US$319,723[22][23] (on an estimated budget of $24 million) during its theatrical run.

On 4 October 2013, Williams announced that a workprint of the film, subtitled "A Moment in Time", would be screened on 10 December 2013 in Los Angeles.[39] Williams's workprint from May 13, 1992 was screened at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with Williams in attendance. After the screening he discussed the origins of the film and its production history.[40] On June 1, 2014, "A Moment in Time" was screened in London, with many of the original crew present. Williams acknowledged the role that Garrett Gilchrist's Recobbled Cut (which he hasn't seen) had played in rehabilitating the film's reputation.[41]

Home media

The Miramax version of the film was released on VHS on 18 February 1997 as The Thief and the Cobbler (originally released in theatres as Arabian Knight).[6] A widescreen laserdisc was also released, and a Japanese-dubbed widescreen DVD of the 1995 release.

The first time that the Miramax version of the film appeared on DVD was in Canada in 2001 as a giveaway promotion in packages of Kellogg's Froot Loops cereal. This pan and scan DVD was released through Alliance Atlantis, which distributes many of Miramax's films in Canada. It came in a paper sleeve and had no special features, other than the choice of English or French language tracks.[42]

The "Princess and the Cobbler" edit was released on a pan and scan DVD in Australia in 2003 by Magna Pacific, according to some sites; however, it is severely cropped, and there are no additional features on the DVD.

The Miramax version was first released commercially on DVD on 8 March 2005, in pan-and-scan format. This DVD was re-released by The Weinstein Company on 21 November 2006. Although the information supplied to retailers such as by retail distribution companies said that it would be a widescreen "collector's edition", this DVD was in fact the old 2005 pan-and-scan DVD in fancy packaging. The 2006 DVD has been found by most reviewers to be unsatisfactory, with the image quality being compared to "a VHS/Beta tape rather than a DVD... and one that’s seen better days".[43][44] The Digital Bits gave it an award for being the worst standard-edition DVD of 2006.[45] Although the second DVD of the Miramax version of this film was the same DVD as the first one; this DVD featured trailers and promos for Weinstein Company-produced family films, including Hoodwinked and Arthur and the Invisibles.

The Miramax version was re-released on DVD on 3 May 2011 by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment, an independent DVD distributor who made a deal to release 251 titles from the Miramax library until the deal expired in 2014.[46] This version was also released on DVD in the United Kingdom on 13 February 2012.[47] The film had previously never been released in any form there,[48] where the majority of the production took place.

Lionsgate, who has recently acquired the 251 Miramax titles from Echo Bridge in 2014, plan to re-release the film on DVD in the US once again on October 7, 2014.[49]


Although the film's executive producer Jake Eberts found that "It was significantly enhanced and changed by Miramax after Miramax stepped in and acquired the domestic [distribution] rights,"[22] the Miramax version of the film was a commercial failure.[38] Critical response to this version was negative. Film website [28]

Alex Williams, son of the original director, criticised changes made by Calvert and Miramax, called the finished film "more or less unwatchable" and found it "hard [...] to find the spirit of the film as it was originally conceived".[6] Similarly, Jerry Beck felt that the added voiceovers of Jonathan Winters and Matthew Broderick were unnecessary and unfunny, and that Fred Calvert's new footage didn't meet the standards of the original Williams scenes.[38] However, in 2003, the Online Film Critics Society ranked the film as the 81st greatest animated film of all time. In addition, the film won the 1995 Academy of Family Films Award.[51] For years, Richard Williams was devastated by the film's production.[52] However, in 2010, he did speak about The Thief and the Cobbler in an interview about his upcoming silent animation called Circus Drawings.[53][54] He later participated in a Q&A in a screening of the Director's Cut at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on December 10, 2013.[55]


The Secret of Kells, a 2009 animated film that based its style on traditional Irish art, had The Thief and the Cobbler as one of its main inspirations. In the words of Kells co-director Tomm Moore, "Some friends in college and I were inspired by Richard Williams's unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler and the Disney movie Mulan, which took indigenous traditional art as the starting point for a beautiful style of 2D animation. I felt that something similar could be done with Irish art."[56]

The Thief and the Cobbler's art style also inspired the Cartoon Network television series Samurai Jack.

Restoration attempts

Several low-quality video copies of Richard Williams's workprint have been shared among animation fans and professionals.[6][23][38] The problem in creating a high-quality restoration is that after the Completion Bond Company had finished the film, many scenes by Williams that were removed disappeared – many of these had fallen into the hands of private parties.[35] Before losing control of the film, Williams had originally kept all artwork safe in a fireproof basement.[11] Additionally, there are legal problems with Miramax.[35]

At the 2000 Annecy Festival, Williams showed Walt Disney Feature Animation head Roy E. Disney his workprint of The Thief, which Disney liked. With Williams's support,[38] Roy Disney began a project to restore The Thief and the Cobbler.[35] He sought out original pencil tests and completed footage. Roy Disney left the Walt Disney Company in November 2003, and the project was put on hold.[38]

In 2006, a filmmaker, artist, and fan of Williams's work named Garrett Gilchrist created a non-profit fan restoration of William's workprint, named The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut. It was done in as high quality as possible by combining available sources, such as a heavily compressed file of Williams's workprint and better-quality footage from a Japanese widescreen DVD copy of Arabian Knight. This edit was much supported by numerous people who had worked on the film (with the exception of Richard Williams himself, who initially wished not to have anything to do with the film), including Roy Naisbitt, Alex Williams, Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, Tony White, Holger Leihe, Simon Maddocks, Neil Boyle, and Steve Evangelatos, many of whom lent rare material for the project. Some minor changes were made to "make it feel more like a finished film", like adding more music and replacing storyboards with some of Fred Calvert's animation.[36] This edit gained positive reviews on the Internet. Twitch Film called it "the best and most important 'fan edit' ever made".[52]

The Recobbled Cut has been revised several times with better-quality footage. The "Mark 2" version released in 2006 incorporated parts of Fred Calvert's animation from a timecoded widescreen VHS version of The Princess and the Cobbler. The "Mark 3" version released in 2008 incorporated 21 minutes from a 49-minute reel of rare 35mm film, saved from Jean MacCurdy's trash at Warner Bros. by an animator.

The HD "Mark 4" version was released in September 2013. This version incorporated materials donated by animator Simon Maddocks, including a high quality PAL VHS of the original workprint, as well as rare pencil tests not seen in any previous version, including two VHS tapes made by Fred Calvert when he started production on The Princess and the Cobbler that contain shots not in the released version. All video was filtered and improved by Christoph Nass. Over an hour of 35mm footage was transferred and restored in high definition, resulting in about 30 minutes of the film now being in full 35mm HD quality. All materials were restored frame by frame by Garrett Gilchrist during a period of over two years, including many special effects to get the material up to standard. Gilchrist described this as the most complex independent restoration of a film ever undertaken.

Original Thief animator Andreas Wessel-Therhorn was commissioned to draw new material for the hands at the beginning of the film. Artists Chris Fern, Hailey Lain and Garrett Gilchrist contributed new artwork, including new material with the Brigands.[13][57][58] Certain scenes, like the wedding ending, had to be redrawn frame by frame by Gilchrist due to flaws in the footage.


Persistence of Vision is a 2012 documentary by Kevin Schreck, about Richard Williams and the doomed production of The Thief and the Cobbler, which the film calls "the greatest animated film never made." It has received many awards at festivals and has gotten a very positive critical reception. Garrett Gilchrist and Helge Bernhardt of the Recobbled Cut and Richard Williams Archive provided rare materials to Schreck for his production, which was funded via Kickstarter.

See also

Other animated movies with long production histories

  • The Overcoat, an upcoming Russian animated film, in production since 1981
  • Le Roi et l'oiseau, a French animated film, produced in two parts (1948–52, 1967–80), initially released in recut form, eventually finished as per director's wishes


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External links

  • The Princess and the Cobbler at the Internet Movie Database
  • Arabian Knight (The Thief and the Cobbler) at Box Office Mojo
  • The Thief and the Cobbler at Rotten Tomatoes
  • PageThe Thief and the CobblerEddie Bowers' – A website about Richard Williams's The Thief and the Cobbler with articles, clips from the workprint, pictures, and the history of the film.
  • The Thief Blog – A blog where people who worked on the film recount their memories of the film's production.
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