The latest in my series of “things I decided to watch after listening to Imaginary Worlds”, The Thief and the Cobbler is also the start of a new category of viewing for me – animated films that took decades to make. Seriously, if you think Nomura is taking his time with Kingdom Hearts III, then bear in mind that this film was in production for 29 years – and even then, the final version was, much like FFXV, an hastily cut together unfinished product.
In fact, by the time The Thief and the Cobbler was released – under the names The Princess and the Cobbler, and Arabian Knight – it had been pipped to the post by Disney’s Aladdin. Princess Jasmine, the Sultan, the Genie and Grand Vizier Jafar, all bear a striking resemblance to characters in The Thief and the Cobbler, but now a film started thirty years looked like it was the dodgy rip-off instead of the original.
I haven’t actually seen the commercial release versions of this film, although I am mildly curious about them. The version I saw is the ‘Recobbled Cut’, a mixture of finished animation and roughs from the ‘work print’, the aims to be as close to the original vision as possible.
The story takes place in a fictional Arabian kingdom known only as The Golden City, which is purportedly protected from harm by three golden balls atop its tallest minaret. The titular and nameless Thief sets his sights on acquiring said balls, and after much difficulty, he manages to claim them – seemingly dooming the city to fall to the ferocious One-Eye and his army. The city’s only hope now rests with the plucky Princess Yum-Yum, and the silent but dextrous cobbler Tack.
All in all, the story isn’t that much to write home about. The first half of the film does reasonably well at building up some tension – we know from the start that the precious golden balls are going to inevitably be stolen, so it’s just a question of when and how the deed will be done. Meanwhile, Tack’s adventures first lead him to inadvertently make an enemy of the scheming Grand Vizier, before he is saved by Princess Yum-Yum. Yum-Yum is a refreshingly spirited princess, who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself or berate her father for his interest in concubines. Tack, as a silent protagonist, is generally likeable, and Vincent Price puts in a good turn as Zigzag, the Grand Vizier. We can only hope that the greedy yet wordless yarmulke-wearing Thief is not meant to be a negative Jewish stereotype.
Once the golden balls are stolen, it’s up to Tack and Yum-Yum to save the day, by heading into the desert to find the one person who might be able to help them, an old witch. After recruiting some brigands to their cause, Tack and Yum-Yum do indeed find the witch, who dispenses a single riddle by way of advice before destroying herself and her tower. This section definitely feels somewhat pointless and anticlimactic, although fortunately her advice does inspire Tack to fire a single tack into the invading army, causing a massive chain reaction that does indeed save the day. The destruction of the army is a massively over-the-top set piece that is simultaneously amazingly impressive and somewhat lengthy and drawn out. I still can’t decide whether I was amazed by it or just slightly bored.
Story aside, the real reason to admire The Thief and the Cobbler – and the reason why it took so long to never get finished – is the effort put into the animation. Richard Williams was nothing if not ambitious, aiming for 24 frames-per-second (as opposed to the usual twelve for animated features) of the most detailed and complex animation possible. In the parts of the film which have been finished to this standard, these efforts really stand out. There are fantastic settings and backdrops, filled with geometric shapes and patterns worthy of the Alhambra Palace. The characters have an amazing fluidity of motion that brings a richness to their actions. An early scene in which Tack cobbles in his sleep is both beautiful and memorable. It’s just a shame that we never got a completed film in this style.
The Thief and the Cobbler is a curious jewel. Though its commercial release seems unremarkable, the stretches of beautiful animation and the incredible story behind the film’s production makes it an experience worth seeking out.