On August 25, 1995, one animated movie premiered in American movie theaters to exactly zero fanfare. It was lambasted by critics, complaining about the insidiously terrible songs and plot, and ignored by audiences as a poor knock-off of Aladdin. The funny thing was, this animated film started well before anyone at Disney ever heard of the name Aladdin! This box-office failure went by a few different names, but most know it today as The Thief and the Cobbler.
Regarded as a modern masterpiece of animation, the journey to the finish line was more perilous than a magic carpet ride over the sandy dunes of Arrakis! Holding the record for longest production in the history of animation —clocking in at 28 years — this decades-long project was wrought with obstacles that would crush an average person’s dreams. Trouble from a real-life Prince, movie studio takeovers, and yet – it persisted. Twisting the tale even more, what made it to the big screen was technically unfinished! Get ready for a story more in-depth than the original 1001 Arabian Nights, and filled with even more drama.
What is The Thief and the Cobbler?
The Thief and the Cobbler AKA Arabian Knight AKA The Princess and the Cobbler (and more names we’ll get to) has a simple plot that’s not as exciting as the story behind the film.
In a Middle Eastern city governed by a bumbling and sleepy king, three golden orbs sit atop a minaret. A prophecy claims the city will be destroyed if those balls are removed. A Thief and Cobbler, both mute, become entangled in royal affairs when the Thief tries to rob the palace, and the Cobbler is hired to repair a shoe from the King’s daughter, Princess Yum-Yum. Meanwhile, an evil vizier named Zigzag has snake-charmed the hapless King, attempting to usurp the throne and claim the Princess for himself.
The Thief can’t resist stealing the golden balls, but Zigzag intercepts and offers them to the King in exchange for the Princess’s hand in marriage. The King refuses, and Zigzag instead presents them to the One-Eyes, monstrous warriors intent on ravaging the city. Now, the Cobbler and the Princess must prevent the bad guys from destroying everything, with the Thief in tow attempting one more big score. What made this unremarkable mess stand out was the animation, courtesy of a quixotic artist named Richard Williams.
Who was Richard Williams?
Chances are you’ve already seen Richard’s work without knowing. This Academy Award-winning animator directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit, as well as many commercials and opening credits for movies like The Return of The Pink Panther. Known for his smoother-than-butter flow, whimsical style, and meticulous attention to detail, Williams spent nearly a third of his life creating his magnum opus between commercial gigs. Imagine coming home after a long day of drawing dozens of frames of Roger Rabbit, only to sit down at a different table and draw dozens more for another film! It sounds exhausting and nearly impossible. How did he do it? Dedication, and pure passion.
Around 1964, Williams began developing an idea inspired by adolescent memories of his mum reading bedtime stories from Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights. He envisioned a 90-minute animated movie told “in the language of a dream,” with a story more profound and ambitious than how Williams perceived Disney cartoons from that era. Richard, however, wasn’t expecting it to be almost 30 years before it was seen.
Making an (almost) masterpiece
“When you mastered a medium in the old days, you were a master painter, and then you did your masterpiece,” Williams once explained. “I’ve mastered this medium at last, and now I’m doing a masterpiece… if I can finish this.”
Williams seemingly felt little pressure despite openly declaring this work a masterpiece before it was even done. This was the same man who, moments after winning his second Oscar on the same night for Roger Rabbit, triumphantly declared, “The best is yet to come!”
When Richard first put pencil to paper on this labor of love, the project initially went by another name – Nasrudin. Williams drew illustrations for Idries Shah’s book starring a wise old fool from Islamic folklore and recruited Shah as a producer for the movie. Eight years later, the parties had a falling out related to money, resulting in the rights to the character returning to the author. While the animation was scrapped due to the fallout, the Shahs allowed Williams to keep the designs he made to use however he pleased.
A Royal Pain
Production resumed in 1972, with composer Howard Blake penning a new story for the movie now called Tin Tack. This revision featured a new character, a clumsy but earnest cobbler named Tack who wouldn’t say a word. The problem now became financial backing.
Fast forward to 1978, when a very real Saudi Arabian Prince named Mohammed bin Faisal took interest in the film — offering Williams’ studio funding to create a ten-minute-long proof of concept. Instead of doing a simple and pretty scene — Williams missed multiple deadlines and caused the movie to go over budget nearly threefold. The Prince closed his coffers to shift away from the whimsical world of animation and into the straight-laced land of banking. Undeterred, Richard kept chipping away at his massive project, never losing an ounce of hope.
Everything changed in 1987 when Disney hired Williams to direct Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Hand-picked by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, Richard made a sly deal with these filmmakers. In return for directing their risky venture, they would fund his. Williams believed he only needed three more years to finish his movie, a grave underestimation that led the film down a path it never recovered from.
Frame by Frame
Richard had a simple vision for his highly-detailed masterpiece. “The idea is to make the best-animated film that’s ever been made, and there really isn’t any reason why not.”
What makes The Thief and the Cobbler so revered is its unrivaled design and craftsmanship. It was Disney paired with Persian miniatures, lovingly scribbled with Williams’ obsessive animation techniques which truly made his movie look astounding. Every inch of the film is rich in details, even for things that last mere moments. The most impressive part was how it was all achieved without a single computer!
The animated characters in Thief are deceptively simple-looking designs, whose basic shapes emphasize their expressive and emotive qualities. Watercolor backgrounds akin to Disney’s Pinocchio and Bambi add an ethereal feel to many scenes, while other backgrounds feature repeating geometric patterns popular in traditional Islamic architecture and design.
Then there are scenes that simply make your jaw drop. Chases down staircases become optical illusions like an M.C. Escher drawing, or tight shots that seamlessly pull out into a wide, filled with minuscule hand-drawn details that must’ve taken weeks for a five-second clip. The finale of the film is an animated Rube Goldberg experiment that’s a feat of wonder (this was what Richard’s team made with the Prince’s money), complicated for no reason other than Richard liked it that way. Every character had that smooth signature Williams flow, but the director went a step further for one who steals the show – and no, it’s not the Thief! Zigzag stands out for his bizarre look, with shoulders like the wings of a buzzard, and six fingers with extra joints. This rhyming sorcerer looks like the lovechild of Aladdin’s Genie and Jafar! Richard saw this master manipulator (voiced by Vincent Price who recorded his lines in the ‘80s) as a puppet without strings, unhindered by physics or anatomy. Zigzag is unsettling and creepy, but a hypnotizing cast member who must have been everyone’s favorite to draw.
Thief and the Cobbler: What Went Wrong?
After three years with consistent studio backing, Thief remained over budget and nowhere near completion. This was becoming an expensive disaster for Williams’ investors, a problem they’d be forced to remedy. Richard had everything he needed to finish the job, so what went wrong?
Much of the blame seems to fall on the shoulders of this auteur. Richard’s compulsive perfectionism drove his staff up the wall, while also increasing their costs. “If a scene worked out nicely, he’d make it longer,” explained Michael Schlingmann, lead animator from 1990 to ‘91, giving an example from the movie’s first act. “The dying soldier started off as a 15-second shot, then 20, then 30 and it ended up a minute long. He would see the line tests and say ‘It’s too nice to stop it here,’ and extend it. And that happened to many scenes.”
When Thief was first conceived, Richard desired to make an animated movie with meaning, protesting Disney’s childish narratives. During the decades Williams toiled on his epic, Disney movies evolved and matured, while his movie didn’t. The Lion King was Shakespeare with lions, Beauty and The Beast had gorgeous CGI and breathtaking songs, and The Thief and the Cobbler had astonishing animation but little else to compete. Richard and his crew drew scene after scene with little continuity. The storyboards happened very late in the process, and when we say late – remind yourself how many years this took to make. They created scenes instead of stories, resulting in stockpiles of segments that barely connected with each other.
In 1992, the bond company backing the film seized it from Richard, fearful it never would be completed. Williams and his team were fired, and animator Fred Calvert was placed in charge of salvaging the finished pieces into something theaters could show sooner rather than later. By then, the Disney Renaissance was in full swing, and to keep up with the times, Thief shifted into a musical, with meaningless songs inserted to fill a quota. New scenes were added to tie a revised plot together while the remaining work was outsourced to cheap animators overseas, producing art inferior to what Williams had made.
The problem now was that Aladdin had beat them to the punch, and there wasn’t room for two seemingly similar animated films in movie theaters.
The Thief Who Never Gave Up
18 months later, the film was as done as it would be, and ready for a 1993 release in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler. Miramax soon scooped it up (then owned by Disney to further insult Richard’s anti-Disney aspirations), chopping it up more, adding unnecessary celebrity voiceovers, and renaming it Arabian Knight ahead of its 1995 release in the U.S.
After nearly 30 years, the self-proclaimed “mammoth ego trip of Dick Williams” cost a whopping total of 24 million dollars, and grossed under $700K. Williams closed his animation studio in London and moved him and his family back to his homeland of Canada while creating The Animator’s Survival Kit series, the best guide for anyone pursuing professional animation.
While Thief wasn’t the success Williams longed for, it inspired future animators and artists to quest like he had to make their dreams come true. In 2013, Garrett Gilchrist released The Recobbled Cut, a fan project that restored and compiled the finished sequences alongside incomplete pencil tests, storyboards, and even singular illustrations provided by the original production team, offering the closest version of Richard’s original vision to fans for free.
One of the movie’s working titles was The Thief Who Never Gave Up, the most autobiographical name of them all. Even after the traumatic results of Thief, Richard wasn’t through. His final film, Prologue, based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, earned an Oscar nomination in 2015 by releasing a finished portion as a short, a proof of concept for potential investors. This, now, would be his true magnum opus! Sadly, Williams passed away in 2019 before Prologue was completed, but his unyielding ambition and relentless passion are lessons we can all learn from. “Do it for the love of it; that’s all there is.”