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The Forgotten: Thieved and Cobbled

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Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler is, in many ways the animation equivalent of Welles' Don Quixote. Williams, a successful animator making a lot of money in title sequences (Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, the original Casino Royale) and commercials, decided to make the world's greatest animated feature film, funding it himself. "The golden rule in film-making is OPM, Other People's Money. But I never had OPM. I only had DM: Dick's Money."

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For somewhere between twenty and thirty years, Williams worked on his masterpiece, employing many of the great animators who had worked at Disney in the studio's golden age. Then, he got the job of directing the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The film's success made Williams suddenly bankable, and The Thief and the Cobbler acquired a studio deal. Williams carried on making it at the leisurely pace he had been used to, missed a deadline, and the studio took his film away from him, with fifteen minutes still to be animated.

The remaining scenes were farmed out to Korea to be completed as expeditiously as possible, but not content with that, the studio re-recorded several of the character voices (ditching Anthony Quayle's performance as King Nod: Quayle had died in the decades since recording it, and never lived to hear of his performance's ignominious fate), deleted a whole character and many beginnings and ends of scenes, and imposed their own score. The film received a minimal release and attracted little comment.

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The movie exists in various forms, including an even more bastardized Miramax cut which imposed voices on mute characters, and in a bootleg of Williams' cutting copy which, though peppered with un-animated storyboard sketches, or unpainted pencil animation, gave the best idea of the filmmakers' intentions. Now there's the Recobbled Cut, which combines the best possible elements of every video release and the cutting copy, to get something closer to Williams' intentions (and Anthony Quayle is back in).

The film is both astonishing and exasperating. Williams, as titles designer, had probably found his ideal job: he shows no skills with story and character, but awesome skills of design and technique. Tragically/hilariously, much of the film's most impressive imagery could be duplicated with far greater ease today using computers: his Arabian Nights scenario features a cast clockwork War Machine which malfunctions and demolishes itself in an incredible set-piece hinging for its impact on the staggering detail of its rumbling soldiers and bristling gun emplacements. Landscapes which whirl past as if viewed from a magic carpet, and stroboscopic patterns showing the influence of Middle Eastern art, make for amazing sequences.

A slapstick polo match distends the first act for no discernible reason, save for purely formal play with balls: balls are important in this film. The MacGuffin is a set of golden balls, and the evil Zigzag (voiced by Vincent Price, in rhyming couplets) makes testicular puns. The other villain is a barbarian chief called One-Eye. In its insistent play with balls, eyes and eggs, the film seems to be echoing, perhaps even consciously, Georges Bataille's The Story of the Eye.

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"You've just wasted thirty years of your life," was the reaction of an animation producer I know when he saw the cutting copy, citing the film's lack of narrative structure, suspense, logic, and character development. On the other hand, if it was a waste, it was a heroic one, and it yielded results at least as astounding as they are unsuccessful. My producer friend, on the other hand, has never even attempted to make the greatest animated feature film, or the greatest anything.

And what of Williams? What does an artist do when his life's work is taken away and butchered? He has apparently begun again. I don't want this to be true, but an Oscar-nominated animator told me, "He's started another feature film. He's making it all by himself. We asked if he wanted help. He said 'No, at the level of sophistication I'm dealing with, anybody trying to help would just slow me down.' He's done five drawings."

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

I remember seeing a version of this on TV years. Can’t remember what version played (it was on local TV, so maybe it was the butchered Miramax version), but certain scenes did stick out to me, and the animation still amazes me in some parts.
I wrote up a take of this film and its particularly fascinating fan reception and reconstruction a while back, not to mention the aforementioned testicular motif. Kudos on the write-up of this brilliantly animated film, it’s great to have a bit of insight on where the filmmaker himself stands on this mess. Here’s to Williams finishing his next project on his terms. http://febriblog.wordpress.com/2010/09/01/the-possibly-great-unfinished-films-the-thief-and-the-cobbler/
Thanks. Any version of this film seen on TV, distributed on VHS or laserdisc, or given away with Froot Loops packets, will be one or other of the butchered versions, but all versions contain mostly Williams and his team’s original work, with only the soundtrack messed up. But they’re also heavily cut and feature 15 minutes of studio-inserted Korean work. So if all you can find is a truncated version, you will at least be seeing some incredible animation.

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