Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Thief and the Cobbler

I remember at some point in junior high, not long after Disney’s classic Aladdin was released, coming across advertisements for an animated film called Arabian Night. For me at the time is was a transparent knockoff riding and my initial reaction was disgust. What about producing good original art? It saddened me to see so much money and talent dumped into derivative rip offs. Sadly, at the time I was not aware of the true tragedy of Arabian Night, and I use tragedy in the artistic sense of the word.

Arabian Night, rather than a case of Hollywood screwing up by producing a knock-off, was in fact the very opposite. A rare case of Hollywood taking a breathtakingly original idea, and a man’s life work, and…screwing it up. It was only until I very recently stumbled across the film trailer for The Thief and the Cobbler on You Tube that the true story of Arabian Night unfolded.

To quote the wikipedia article on the film:

Richard Williams' magnum opus, a painstakingly hand-animated epic inspired by the Arabian Nights and with the production title The Thief and the Cobbler, was begun in 1968 and was initially self-funded. As a largely non-verbal feature meant for an adult audience, The Thief was initially dismissed as unmarketable. After over twenty years of work, Williams had completed only twenty minutes of the film, and following the critical success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Williams sought and secured a production deal with Warner Bros. in 1990. However, the production went over deadline, and in 1992, with only 15 minutes left to complete, The Completion Bond Company, who had insured Warners' financing of the film, feared competition from the similarly themed Disney film Aladdin and seized the project from Williams in Camden, London. Completion Bond then had the animation completed in Korea under the direction of animator Fred Calvert. Calvert's product was released internationally in 1994 as The Princess and the Cobbler. Miramax then acquired rights to the project and extensively rewrote and reanimated the film to include continuous dialogue and to add several musical interludes. Miramax's product was released in 1995 under the title Arabian Knight.

Having not seen Arabian Knight, I can’t make any claims to the quality of that film, the (lost) backstory to the film is tragic – but what makes the story all the more magical and, yes, uplifiting is that fans of William’s work have pieced together much of William’s original vision from Arabian Night and the cutting and designing room floor to create a ‘recobbled’ version - a film much truer to Richard Harris’ original concept. A look at the trailer for the ‘director’s cut’ should convince you it’s worth watching. But better yet, the entire recobbled film is available on You Tube in 11 parts.

It’s really a lovely film in its novel and unusual approach to animation and its willingness to spend time experimenting on pain-staking details such as backgrounds, and optical illusional camera pans. The film is all the more remarkable on this front in the land of computer animation - that this is all hand done is really quite remarkable and charming.

Check it out, it’s a great film in its own right, with the added interest of its cematic history, and art vs. commerce narrative giving it that much more artistic pull.


  1. The only version I've ever seen in it's entirety is the Miramax "Arabian Knight". It's fairly similar to the "Princess and the Cobbler", except it's been Disney-fied. Dialogue was added for the Thief's part by voicing his thoughts. I've managed to find all versions of Williams' work. I think, to date, there are 6 versions.

  2. Wild. Yeah, I've been slowly watching Arabian Knight when I get time. It's almost pain inducing how much they've cheezed it up, but also really fascinating having watch the original 'vision' and how they've totally remixed it.

    Are you talking about 6 versions of the Thief and the Cobbler? Or of all of William's stuff? He's Canadian I think I recognize the art style from some 80s NFB shorts...

  3. Yeah. 6 versions of the Thief. I found it in an .iso floating around the net. I'll burn you a disc sometime once I find it on my HDD.

  4. It's a spectacular film, with some of the best animation ever made. It's a real tragedy that it was never finished as intended by Richard Williams.

    I'm making a documentary on the production and destruction of Richard Williams' "The Thief and the Cobbler," but the project needs funding. Please donate today at this Kickstarter link!:

    Thank you!

  5. Thanks for the info Kevin. Good luck with your project!