Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

They butchered Richard Williams' The Thief And The Cobbler, but its surreal beauty survives online

Earlier today we wrote about the death of Richard Williams, the Oscar-winning animator behind Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Among Williams’ many accolades (including several Academy Awards and BAFTAs) there’s one that’s far more sour, though: The Guinness record for the longest film production ever, for his long-labored-over masterpiece, The Thief And The Cobbler.

(Whether the film actually deserves said credit is a point of some academic debate; you could argue that Orson Welles’ The Other Side Of The Wind surpassed it with its release last year, while Terry Gilliam’s various attempts to get a Don Quixote movie off the ground stretched over a roughly comparable 30-or-so years.)

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In any case, Williams worked on the film—inspired by the Arabian Nights, and merging Golden Age slapstick with incredible visual precision—for the better part of his career, using the clout from Roger Rabbit to finally secure funding in the early 90s. In the end, though, budget issues and delays saw Williams forced off his own opus, which was then completed by another director, hacked down, filled with extraneous dialogue, and released (as Arabian Knight) in a half-hearted, cynical effort to catch the tail-end of Aladdin fever.

Luckily, we live in an era where “lost” films don’t necessarily have to remain so, and so it’s been a delight today to dip into the beauty of clips from The Thief And The Cobbler that have been circulating from fans online. (Many of them taken from Recobbled, animator Garrett Gilchrist’s 8-year effort to recreate Williams’ original film, which you can easily view on YouTube.) Looking at the clips, it’s easy to see just why Cobbler took so much time, energy, and money to make: In an era before all but the most rudimentary computer-assisted animation, Williams and his artists created some of the most ludicrously beautiful and jaw-dropping animated vistas imaginable. Take, for instance, this surrealist sequence, in which the heroic Tack pursues the titular Thief through a perspective-daunting checkerboard nightmare:

(Here are some of the pencil drafts for that same sequence, showing just how elaborately planned each frame was):

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Or take the show-off-y brilliance of his character work, as with this simultaneously scary and goofy sequence with Vincent Price’s villain:

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Or this hellish, Rube Goldberg-y look at the interiors of a rampaging war machine, with the Thief as the hapless, Wile E. Coyote-esque victim blithely wandering through:

It’s dazzling stuff, and while it’s hard not to be haunted by the specter of what might have been, we’re indebted to Gilchrist, not just for his restoration work, but for hosting all of it (along with much of Williams’ other work, as well as a documentary about him, The Thief Who Never Gave Up) on his YouTube channel. You can watch the beginning of the Recobbled cut here.

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