Review: “The Thief and the Cobbler” (Miramax Version – a.k.a. “Arabian Knight”)
Produced by: Richard Williams, Imogen Sutton
Written by: Richard Williams and Margaret French (screenplay)
Art Direction by: Roy Naisbitt
Music by: Robert Folk, Jack Maeby (songs)
Starring: Vincent Price, Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals, Jonathan Winters, Clive Revill, Toni Collette, Eric Bogosian
Now here’s an animated film that deserves the Blade Runner treatment. With a production spanning three decades, the film widely and originally known as The Thief and the Cobbler found its way to audiences in multiple versions and distributions: there’s the unofficial workprint version, the Majestic Films cut known as The Princess and the Cobbler, the Miramax version released in theatres as Arabian Knight, and, finally, the Garrett Gilchrist-led restoration project known as The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut, which can be found on your local internet bittorrent site and YouTube. The funny thing about all these different versions is that none of them are actually the completed project. “How could that be?” you might ask. The simplest way to explain why boils down to one word: hubris.
You see, director and animator Richard Williams began production of The Thief and the Cobbler all the way back in 1964, but the film wasn’t even really in relatively releasable form until 1993 — after he had already been forced out of his own project. The history of this film seems, from my research, to be a bit muddied, but the basic background of the film production is that Williams continued to insist that he was making one of animation’s greatest masterpieces… and then let it get to his head. He funded his work through various investors (once even producing the film with Paramount under the title Nasruddin!) and by working on other studios’ productions.
His biggest break came two decades after production began (already a long time, mind you), when he won two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This feat caught the attention of Warner Bros. who agreed to fund Williams and allow him to release the film under their banner. But Williams, a perfectionist to the nth degree, used this time with the studio to continue tinkering rather than completing the film. While Williams was arguably a victim of the studio mucking with his project, that Warner Bros. was interested at all in funding this already decades-old project was miraculous enough, and it could be said that Williams squandered his time there.
By the time 1991 rolled around, Williams was well over budget and the film still unfinished. What he had managed to get together and show off to the studio execs did not impress. Warner Bros. grew tired of waiting and backed out of the production, leaving the film in the hands of The Completion Bond Company, which ousted Williams and had the film fast tracked to completion under Fred Calvert. In turn, Fred outsourced work to several other animation houses across the world, producing a final and Disney-influenced version within 18 months of being hired on. The film continued to flail about for a while more before finally securing a U.S. release some several months later under Miramax, which had ironically recently been bought by Disney. Miramax continued to further edit the already butchered film into their own version, releasing it to theatres under the title Arabian Knight in 1995 and featuring brand new celebrity voices by Matthew Broderick, Jennifer Beals, and Jonathan Winters, joining the deceased Vincent Price, the only remaining voice actor from the original version, as the villain.
I’m actually quite certain that I remember once seeing a trailer for this film way back when it was probably still being funded by Warner Bros. under its original title. It was either in theatres or on some VHS. Imagine my surprise, however, when years later I was again seeing the same footage being advertised under an entirely new name! As a kid with very little knowledge about studio politics, this was very confusing. “Didn’t this already come out? Is this a sequel?” I remember asking myself.
Unfortunately, like much of the world, I would go on to forget about this film, whatever its name was, and it would remain that way until the day when my family got the internet, when some random browsing brought the film back to my attention, but I remained completely in the dark as to how the final film actually turned out as I kept forgetting about it soon after. Luckily, Netflix came in to save the day recently, throwing the film into their list of suggestions. Unluckily for me, it was the Miramax, non-widescreen edition, so in reading this review, please keep in mind that it is this version of the film that I am reviewing…
The story is set long, long ago, as most fantasy stories are, in a time before the days of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and the Arabian Knights. The film takes place in the city of Baghdad, which is protected by three golden balls placed at the highest point of the city palace. Were the balls ever to be removed, however, the city would be attacked by the evil One-Eye and his army of monsters. In this city lives a young, quiet cobbler named Tack, who is one day nearly robbed by an ambitious but clumsy thief. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the cobbler’s tacks rolls beneath the foot of the passing Grand Vizier Zigzag. The thief escapes, and the furious Zigzag attempts to sentence Tack to death, only for the beautiful Princess Yum-yum to come to the cobbler’s rescue. As Tack and the princess begin to fall in love, the thief manages to steal the golden balls, allowing One-Eye’s army a window of opportunity to attack the city. After Zigzag defects to the army, it is up to Tack and Yum-yum to save the city before the army reaches its gates.
If any of the elements sound a bit familiar, it’s because a great deal of this film’s plot had been allegedly stolen by Disney to be used in Aladdin. From the princess who aspires a life less ordinary to the pet bird-owning evil Grand Vizier (who design-wise resembles a combination of Disney’s Genie and Jafar), it’s easy to see the influences. What’s so amusing about the scenario is that, by the time the film was finally released, The Thief and the Cobbler also borrowed much from Aladdin, as it now featured songs and anachronistic jokes about modern pop culture. Voices were also given to the originally silent thief and cobbler, voiced in this version by an enthusiastic but unfunny Jonathan Winters and a very sleepy-sounding Matthew Broderick, respectively.
It all works about as well as one would have expected it to work. That is to say, it’s pretty terrible. The thief’s dialogue primarily feels as though we are hearing his inner deluded monologues, but, again, the anachronistic jokes just fall flat, and his thieving antics are seemingly inspired by Wile E. Coyote but lack the brilliant timing. And while Tack’s dialogue is primarily relegated to expository voiceover, one of the outsourced studios was apparently hired to animate new footage for when he’s required to actually speak or, yes, sing on screen, as well. What with the various stages of completion some of the shots are in, not to mention the various eras that parts of the film were made in, the addition of several other studios’ animation to the film gives the film a very inconsistent look. The film will swing from acceptable, wide-eyed Disney-influenced art direction to cheap, stiff, and out of focus crap that looks like an abandoned Hanna-Barbera bootleg. The characters sing some really cloying love ballads, though I admit the not-so-bright brigands in the desert got a mildly amusing one to perform. Overall, though, this is a film that’s in really bad shape and one that’s especially disappointing because what remains of Richard Williams’ original animation is often visually gorgeous.
Sequences such as the perspective-playing chase sequence in the palace between the thief and cobbler and the astoundingly smooth and intricate animation of One-Eye’s army are well worth the effort of getting through the rest of this film. It’s a shame that the film transfer on Netflix was such a murky one — and in 4:3 aspect ratio, too! Aside from the engaging visual style of the original art, the animation technique used is unique in that the film (at least Williams’ work) was done in the full cinematic 24 frames per second, rather than the cheaper standard of 12 fps that most other animated films use. This means that an animation cel was created for each frame of film, rather than doubling up the same cel across two frames to cut corners. The result is that certain sequences are so smooth that your jaw will drop when you find out that absolutely none of the film was completed using computer animation:
(Second video from the Recobbled Cut for emphasis)
This is also likely just one of the many reasons why the film went so over budget.
For all its hidden joys, it’s hard to place the blame on the studios alone, as The Thief and the Cobbler still holds the record for the longest production period for any released feature film, but, again, even then, it wasn’t ever truly finished. Warner Bros. and The Completion Bond Company get a lot of flack for their treatment of Williams and the film, but the fact of the matter is that Williams was completely unreasonable in his artistic goals. For Warner Bros. to take on this burden of a production was yet another squandered chance. Williams was reportedly working off of a basic framework of a plot, but he cared more about the animation spectacle than he did about creating an engaging story, forcing it to match the ideas he had rather than the other way around. Having been cut down even further by Miramax and saddled with the uninspired vocal performances of its celebrity voice cast, the film is unfortunately reduced to being just a tragic bit of animation history.
The resulting film is a sometimes dazzling unfinished work, filled with ridiculously named (Yum-yum and Zigzag — really?) but otherwise boring characters acting out a fairly generic plot in often beautiful styling. Perhaps the Recobbled Cut will fair better once I get around to it, and perhaps one day Disney will step up and complete that restoration project Roy E. Disney wanted to do long ago, possibly turning it into something magical. The fact of the matter is that no project that takes this long to complete will ever live up to the hype. Taken together with its history, I would definitely encourage anyone interested in film or animation to watch this, and a restored home video release with multiple versions included would be a must buy, for sure. As it stands, however, the Miramax version of the film just feels like the bastard child ofAladdin and Wile E. Coyote shorts.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5