Sometimes referred to as "the greatest animated film that never was," The Thief and the Cobbler was an animated movie nearly 30 years in the making. Creator Richard Williams never got the chance to complete his magnum opus; the movie was eventually taken away by its completion bond company and handed over to producer Fred Calvert to finish.
Two versions—one for Australia made by Majestic Films and one for the United States by Miramax—were finally released in 1995, after being in and out of production for three decades. The edited film added new scenes and music to help make it more marketable, but it hampered Williams's original vision. The commandeered film was never a commercial success, but it is often seen as a triumph in traditional animation. Many animators today are still inspired by the movie and Williams’s work. Thanks to Kevin Schreck’s documentary, Persistence of Vision, we now know the story of this ill-fated movie and its turbulent history.
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE A SERIES OF SHORTS.
Long before the plot of The Thief and the Cobbler was conceived, Williams was working on illustrating a series of short stories by Idries Shah called The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin. The books were based on popular Eastern folklore of a satirical Sufi, a wise fool who travels to exotic lands. While working on the shorts, Williams one day decided to turn them into a full-length feature film. He created a world for Nasrudin to explore and created new characters. The thief made an appearance in this work in progress, but with a more sideline role: He would silently follow the main character around and steal his belongings when he wasn’t looking.
Shah agreed to the movie, provided his family received half of the profits. Shah's brother, Omar Ali-Shah, became the producer of the movie. Williams worked hard on animating the story and eventually accumulated over three hours of footage. He showed what he had to Howard Blake, his story development artist and composer, who thought the progress was beautiful, but lacked a plot. The movie, at that point, was just a series of shorts with nothing connecting them together. Blake explained that characters needed to be developed and go somewhere. When Williams mentioned that the Shahs would be resistant to the idea, Blake saw there was a problem.
These problems came to a head when it was rumored that Ali-Shah was embezzling money and a copyright infringement lawsuit loomed overhead. Williams broke their deal and the Shahs left with Mulla Nasrudin. The thief was Williams’s original character, so he became an integral part of the new story (the movie’s working title was The Cobbler, the Thief, and the Grand Vizier).
2. THE MAIN CHARACTER WAS BASED ON SEVERAL SILENT FILM STARS.
Williams gave his characters a heavy dose of dumb luck. He modeled his characters on famous silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. “[Williams] was doing the story about worthwhile people who aren’t the smartest, maybe, while they do everything, but it’s better for them to succeed than the damn villain,” said John Culhane, who was the development artist from 1969 through 1974. Williams and Culhane visited the British Film Institute to watch movies of Chaplin and Harry Langdon to get inspiration. Tack, the main character, retains these qualities.
3. THE MAIN CHARACTERS WERE GOING TO BE MUTE.
While fans might remember Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Winters voicing Tack the Cobbler and The Thief, respectively, that was not always the intention. Williams had planned to keep both characters entirely silent, save for one line: At the end of the movie, Tack would tell Princess Yum Yum, “I love you.” The single line was meant to be voiced by Sean Connery. Instead, Williams's wife’s friend performed the line. Eventually actor Steve Lively voiced Tack in the Majestic Films version and Broderick voiced the lead in the Miramax version.
“We had had difficulties with the formula,” said Philip Pepper, lead animator from 1990 through 1992. “This was a film that didn’t go along with all that stuff. It was great to watch the rushes where you see all this acting—fantastic acting—this incredible unfolding of ideas without the cheesy dialogue.”
Williams was also completely against musicals, despite them being the norm for family animated films. As we know now, after the film was taken away from Williams, music was also added to the finished movie to appeal to a wider audience.
4. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT GAVE THE MOVIE ITS BIG BREAK.
Legendary director Steven Spielberg caught wind of Williams's work and offered him the role of animation director on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Upon accepting the position, Williams told Spielberg, “I’m your living pencil. Tell me and I’ll draw it.”
When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released in 1988, it was the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget of $70 million (almost $149 million in today's dollars). The hard work and oodles of cash paid off. The movie was met with critical acclaim across the board; Roger Ebert gave it four stars and wrote, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit is sheer, enchanted entertainment from the first frame to the last—a joyous, giddy, goofy celebration of the kind of fun you can have with a movie camera." Williams won two Oscars for his animation direction: Best Effects, Visual Effects and a Special Achievement Award.
The success of the movie proved that Williams could manage a large team and a large budget. Warner Bros. promised to give him the money he needed to finish The Thief and the Cobbler, as well as an equal amount to promote the film (around $25 million)—so long as the movie was finished on time. As long as Williams stuck to the approved schedule and budget, Warner Bros. would stay out of it.
Before Warner Bros., the studio’s animators would all have a small scene by their desks, which they would work on when they had time in between advertising jobs. With a full budget, the animators could now focus all their attention on the film. The experience working on Roger Rabbit helped Williams craft The Thief and the Cobbler; working with real-life backgrounds gave him a better understanding of how to animate moving backgrounds.
5. EXTREMELY TALENTED ANIMATORS LENT THEIR SKILLS.
Some of the talent found in Williams’s studio included legendary animators like Ken Harris (Merrie Melodies, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), Roy Naisbitt (Balto, Space Jam), and Art Babbitt (Fantasia, Dumbo). Babbitt (known for his work on Disney movies) gave lectures to the studio’s animators while the studio was shut down for a month. The students described the seminars as grueling, with condensed homework and group evaluations.
Williams managed to snag Harris when having a conversation with Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones. He impressed Jones by being able to cite the specific scenes that Harris had animated. Jones pointed out that the now-retired animator would be traveling near Williams and suggested that he write him a fan letter. The two met and struck up a friendship. “We got on so well, that I sat him down—and his wife went off to Italy or somewhere—and three months later, he’s still at the desk,” Williams recalled on Skwigly podcast.
6. NEW ANIMATORS WERE BROUGHT ON AS WELL.
Williams did not want all of the movie's animators to be too influenced by other styles or movies. He avoided animators who had a Disney or TV background, so that they could easily adapt to his style. People from all over the world were flown into London to work on the movie.
7. STUDIO EMPLOYEES WERE WARY OF LENDING THINGS OUT.
In the 1970s, Williams and Culhane would storyboard by covering large corkboards in layers of artwork that they ripped from art books. They were looking for visual inspiration from Middle Eastern artwork and Leonardo da Vinci's war machine sketches. The duo was always on the prowl for more books, but no one wanted to lend them anything from their collections, for fear that the books would get sliced up. An assistant once dropped off a book but warned Williams not to damage it. Moments after she left his office, she returned to find him with scissors in hand over her book. She confiscated it and scolded Williams, who replied “Oh, you have this silly, middle class idea of books!”
8. WILLIAMS WAS A PERFECTIONIST.
Williams was a genius, but sometimes his vision took a toll on the people around him.
“He had a terrible reputation,” said special effects artist Chris Knott. “He could be the best of the worst. Usually for good reason. He had very high standards, which he applied to himself above all, and to everyone else. And if you didn’t ... cut it, then he wasn’t very backward about letting you know what he felt.”
Williams expected a lot from his employees and never settled for anything that wasn’t perfect. A common phrase of his was “there’s the door.” Warner Bros.'s strict schedule put stress on everyone: Animators were expected to work 60 hours a week and did not receive any time off. Often the hours would be from eight in the morning until midnight. One animator only got to visit his wife, who had meningitis, during his lunch breaks. Another had a pregnant wife and refused to do the full 60 hours, so he was fired immediately and escorted from the building.
Despite the long hours, production was still slow. The movie was Williams’s baby and he wanted each scene to be exactly right. One painter spent three months on a single scene—the one of Zig Zag playing cards—which was then scrapped when Williams decided to change the colors. Another scene—the opening scene of the arrowed-up soldier—started as a 15-second shot and ended up as a full minute-long scene.
9. WE CAN THANK THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER FOR ALADDIN.
Watching both movies, it’s impossible not to notice the striking similarities between The Thief and the Cobbler and Aladdin. “Disney just stole it," said Pepper. "It’s as plain as the nose your face." Many of the outfits, imagery, and character designs were very similar. Williams had been working on his movie for 20 years and dozens of animators had passed through and taken some ideas with them; it seemed only natural for the movie to blend into others. The studio recognized this natural thievery as a problem, but had no other option than to trudge forward. The Thief was meant to beat Aladdin into theaters, but it missed the deadline, greatly upsetting Warner Bros.
10. THE PLOT KEPT CHANGING.
Even with Warner Bros. breathing down Williams's neck, production was slow. The story underwent many rewrites, with the final screenplay being written by Williams's then-wife, Margaret French. Toward the end of production, Williams began to storyboard, which greatly concerned his animators. Despite all the completed footage, there were many gaps in the story that needed to be filled in.
Warner Bros., already annoyed about Aladdin, started checking in on the studio. Seeing that the movie would not be finished, they turned it over to the production's completion bond company on May 15, 1992. Animators were told to go on vacation and to be out of the office for a few weeks. They came back to cleared desks and empty shelves. A week later, they held what was probably an extremely sad wrap party.
11. IT WAS THE FINAL MOVIE FOR SEVERAL PEOPLE.
The Thief and the Cobbler
appears as the most recent job on many people's IMDb filmographies, including actors Kenneth Williams, who died in 1988; Sir Anthony Quayle, who died in 1989; and Vincent Price, who died in 1993.
12. IT HOLDS A WORLD RECORD.
The ambitious 2014 movie Boyhood took 11 years to make and holds the record for the longest continuous production for a live action movie. This is, of course, no match for The Thief and the Cobbler, which took 31 years to complete, starting in 1964.
13. YOU CAN WATCH THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER AS IT WAS (SORT OF) INTENDED.
If you’re curious to see what the movie would have been like if it had been finished by Williams himself, you probably never will. But you can see something close. In 2006, USC film grad Garrett Gilchrist—a major fan of the film—took it upon himself to recreate the movie using all the materials he could find, including a 1992 Williams workprint and a Japanese widescreen DVD. Called The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut, the reconstructed film removed the musical numbers and returned the original voice actors. You can watch the recut on YouTube, although some portions might be blocked in certain countries.
Persistence of Vision (2012), directed by Kevin Schreck
Images courtesy Miramax via YouTube