The (Possibly) Great Unfinished Films – The Thief and the Cobbler
The Thief and the Cobbler (1993); The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut (2006)
Dir. Richard Williams
The Thief and the Cobbler is in so many ways the very archetype for cult fandom, one of those impossibly true stories of a passion project getting yanked around for over a decade, only to be unceremoniously dropped in a brutally truncated fashion to an audience of none. This just begs for a cult reappraisal, the very backstory that seems almost guaranteed for such a fate these days.
Yet, The Thief and the Cobbler, while the subject of a small but passionate following, does not seem to extend very far past animation buffs, and even then it seems a far cry from other cult oddities of the sort, such as the films of Jan Svankmajer or René Laloux (whose Fantastic Planet may or may not have influenced some architectural nuances of Williams’ piece). Maybe the tone of the film in question figures greatly into the equation; The Thief and the Cobbler by no means intends to be some great avant-garde, expressionist achievement. By all accounts, its director, Richard Williams, seems to be shooting for the bleachers, as in its core, The Thief and the Cobbler is as traditional Hollywood entertainment as they come, an heir apparent, if not to the most classic of Disney films, than at least to the slight but underrated legacy of Don Bluth (if anything, it seems to eerily predict Disney’s late 90s-early 2000s work, most notably The Emperor’s New Groove). This, in its essence, is an uphill battle for cult admiration, as no one can quite envision an immense fan outcry for, say, The Jungle Book, if it were in an alternate universe some neglected passion project left for dead by Disney. Cult fans tend to like their curiosities in any variation of one flavor: strange. And strange, the jerkiness of the fan-created cut aside, is not the word to accurately describe The Thief and the Cobbler.
For some time now, I have had a casual obsession with The Thief and the Cobbler, but more so for its stunning cult of admirers, those folks who unwittingly took on the task of putting a massive sketchbook together and binding it into something resembling coherence. Alas, however, there was frankly always the underlying dread that the film itself would be a crushing disappointment, another casualty of ambition left unfulfilled.
Ironically, the best assets The Thief and the Cobbler has going for it are its wonderfully dated qualities. Its animation is indeed stunningly timeless, but its quaint traditionalism seem almost revelatory now, in the age of the pop-culture takeover in films of its similar ilk. More time passing between this and Aladdin, while once its greatest curse, may even prove to be its most lasting gift, as I dare anyone to tell me which proves a more fulfilling and relevant viewing experience.
Williams may be a crowd-pleaser through and through, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of more subversive territories. Let’s not forget, this is the man that drew Jessica Rabbit. Take for instance a sequence involving the titular Thief, who’s greatest quest to conquer is to steal the “Three Golden Balls”, which lie atop the greatest shaft, er uh, temple in the land, and bring undying unity and safety to the town, so long as they remained attached. Lest you think my perpetually juvenile mind is reading into this harmless kid’s film too much, I direct your attention to one of those unfinished sketches thrown into the mix, wherein the Thief steals the balls, and proceeds to hide them in his frock whilst tightrope walking. Looks a bit like a swinging scrotum, does it not? Ah, but any even casual admirer of animation will tell you that this is a time-honored tradition…
The animation is deliriously creative, and mind-boggling, at times, a phantasmagoria of impossible shapes and architecture; the lazy man’s comparative reference would be Escher, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t seen a more appropriate use of that simile in animated film. The floors shift like a perpetual puzzle, corridors become slides, and staircases begin where the last ones ended. This is nothing new in animation, nor has it seen its last appropriation (see Tarsem’s The Fall or Inception), but Williams manages to achieve a particular nimbleness in his movements that prove more giddy with invention than with a penchant for simply showing off (and speaking of now-trendy visual effects, check out the climactic Rube Goldberg sequence; he may have a hit on his hands after all). Williams’ sense of uniformity and symmetry is quite impressive as well, particularly in the moments involving a massive mechanical army, a kind of play on Disney’s sly piece of propaganda, Education For Death, itself a response to Reifenstahl’s haunting symmetry. All of this is commonplace now in any science fiction story, the little hero against the allegorical Nazi army, but the level of detail and scope is impressive regardless of the feeling of déjà vu.
All in all, if it seems like I haven’t exactly delved into the meat of the filmmaking itself, i.e. the emotional involvement and storytelling, it’s because frankly, there isn’t much to tell. The Thief and the Cobbler is completely banal on those fronts, at times cripplingly trite in its fable-making, particularly in moments involving the unbearable Princess (wise they left her name out of the title). Williams is in fact the ideal cult figure after all, a man whose inimitable talent in animation is perhaps too profound to be spearheading a massive self-made project like this one. His work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is some of the finest ever done by an animator, but that one had a remarkably clever storytelling mechanic provided by Robert Zemeckis. The Thief and the Cobbler is unparalleled on the visual front, a masterpiece of composition and movement, but the storytelling is simply there to keep the money shots coming, and in that aspect we are not viewing one of the great visionary works of our time going unfinished.
What we do have here, however, is quite possibly the finest fan restoration ever committed to film, a remarkable study in cultdom that treats its material with not only reverence for what could have been, but positing itself as a potentially fascinating study on the art of editing itself. How does one edit a film together to cohesion when one wasn’t involved in any aspect of production itself? Not to mention one that only had a fleeting shot at cohesion in the first place? What Williams’ film lacks in inherent narrative “sense” is purely the fault of the screenplay itself, because one marvels at the success achieved by Garrett Gilchrist in this “Recobbled” cut. In its own strange way, viewing The Thief and the Cobbler in its jarring unfinished state serves as a reminder of the visual splendor of the partially completed cut. It certainly never allows your gaze to wander too far from its complexity. I hesitate to say that the film is better off including the myriad of sketches and preliminary animations that Gilchrist puts in for continuity, but it sure makes for a fascinating viewing and study, completely unique to my eyes (not counting the released abomination of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote). The film has a plethora of history to it, only some I have recounted here; a delay in proper production until 1989, botched releases (Miramax’s Arabian Knights, the Australian cut, featuring the aforementioned ill-advised title of The Princess and the Cobbler), and eventual disownership of Williams himself.
What stands out here though is that we have the rarest of the rare in unfinished film lore; a (relatively) happy ending. A truly remarkable study in the technique of animation, if not advancing the art of storytelling, saved by a passionate fanbase that sees a film deserving of study. The Thief and the Cobbler never seemed particularly destined for mass consumption, it had too much of that cultish allure, the peculiar passion project from an industry workhorse. The critic in me wishes that Williams had the gumption to take this film to avant-garde heights, the play up the experimentation in form that would match the visual design, but in the end, the animation ultimately trumps any passionate criticism I may have against it. Luckily there were those who felt the same way, and have given it a most fascinating second life, one that begrudgingly argues for a future in fan-based participation. In discreet moderation, of course.