The Thief and the Cobbler
Directed by Richard Williams

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Introductory Note
Richard Williams devoted the greater part of his adult life, over a quarter of a century (from the mid 1960s until the early 1990s), to making The Thief and the Cobbler. Regrettably, the studio financing the project in its later phases grew uncomfortable with his slow progress and took the project away from him. A new director was put in charge, and he threw out much of the material Williams had produced, abandoning that man's vision, and then created something entirely different with material of his own. Fortunately for lovers of animation, an admirer of the original director's work, Garrett Gilchrist, has attempted to reconstruct the never released movie. Although it is impossible to say what Williams' final version of The Thief and the Cobbler would have been like, since he never completed it, Gilchrist has, at the least, given us something that resembles that unrealized film. That said, the sources of his version are variable. As a result, many scenes are pristine while others are of inferior quality. Some even consist, in part or whole, of unfinished animation or story boards. As inadequate as this approach is, since it gives the viewer only a taste of what could have been, it is the best version of the film we have. My review is, consequently, of this and not of the mutilated remnants of the movie that have been commercially released (as The Princess and the Cobbler and Arabian Knight).

Long ago, somewhere in the Middle East, in the Golden City, which, it has been prophesied, will never fall as long as three golden balls remain atop a particular minaret, a thief sneaks into the home of a humble cobbler named Tack. Unfortunately, Tack becomes entangled with the intruder, to whom he has sewn himself while still asleep, falls from his mat, and rolls onto the street, spilling his nails in front of the wicked grand vizier, Zig-Zag (Vincent Price), who steps upon one of them. Having arrested Tack for so attacking him, Zig-Zag brings the innocent youth before the land's ruler, King Nod (Anthony Quayle), in order that he might be condemned to death. Happily, Princess Yum-Yum (Hilary Pritchard) takes a liking to the boy and manages to save his life. The thief, meanwhile, after a few failed efforts to pilfer treasures from the royal palace, decides to steal the golden balls whose presence protects his city. When he succeeds, the king panics, even as an army of one-eyed warriors is approaching his realm.

Richard Williams' animated film The Thief and the Cobbler might not quite be a masterpiece, but it certainly comes close. It is inventively realized, visually spectacular, and full of magic.


The story the director tells is simple, predictable, and often episodic, but it is also engaging and entertaining throughout. The thief's various misadventures, many of which are like routines from silent comedies or children's cartoons, are always funny, as are Tack's troubles, though his are likely to arouse empathy for the character, instead of being simply comic as the thief's are. Tack is very much like Chaplin's Tramp, and he is just as appealing as an individual. These two are not the only interesting characters, however. Zig-Zag, cruel and villainous as he may be, is a delight to listen to (he always speaks in rhymes) and a pleasure to see. His various machinations, and the glee with which he puts them into motion, make him just as captivating as are any of the protagonists. His own efforts to get rid of Tack, marry Yum-Yum, and, failing this, to ally himself with the invading one-eyed warriors are, as a result, invariably amusing. None of the film's narrative threads (which are focused on these three) are anything special, but each is still a joy to watch unfold.


Although the story related in The Thief and the Cobbler is sure to keep the viewer entertained, the film's visual elements are what will awe him. Not all of these will likely inspire feelings of wonder, I must concede, but some undoubtedly will. What is more, even those that are not astonishing are still pleasant and attractive.


The character designs are, admittedly, simple and reminiscent of those that can be seen in certain children's cartoons from the 1960s, but they are generally appealing, nonetheless. Tack the Cobbler, with his round, open face, has a simple honesty about him. Zig-Zag, with his blue skin, oleaginous grin, and spidery hands, each of which has six fingers (each with an extra joint), is deliciously malicious. The thief is a vile, rodent-like thing around whose head a swarm of flies constantly swirls. King Nod is an apparently honest, but utterly useless individual who seems more interested in sleep and sensual pleasures than in governing his kingdom, and his daughter, Princess Yum-Yum, is charming, vivacious, and actually sexy. Even if the designs used to give life to these individuals are not inspired, they do add to the film. Happily, these are not the only persons in the movie who are likely to appeal to the viewer. Some of the supporting characters are just as good as they are. For example, the members of the band of robbers the heroes eventually befriend are captivating grotesques, each of whom has a huge, hirsute nose, a bulging, obese torso, and maimed or missing limbs, while the witch they seek out to save the Golden City is, with her crooked body, swinging pendulous breasts, and demented capering, even better.


The film's backgrounds, however, provide it with its best visual elements. Many of these are truly stunning. The majority appear to have been inspired by images from Persian paintings. The ways spaces are constructed, perspectives are distorted, and objects and animals, whether buildings, plants, or horses, are stylized are all reminiscent of Persian art. Thanks to this approach, the viewer really is transported to some strange, exotic land and allowed to immerse himself in it. That said, these details are not the film's only visual delights. Williams includes various fantastic, and fantastically complicated, war machines, wonderful visual jokes, homages to a number of silent films, and a wild chase through an abstract checkerboard palace that was obviously inspired by the works of Escher. I cannot even begin to express how astonishing and how unique much of the film's animation is. It is quite unlike anything I have seen anywhere else.


It is a real shame that Williams was not allowed to finish The Thief and the Cobbler. I cannot say that the movie is a masterpiece, or even that it would have been had it been completed, but it does sometimes come close to being such. It is certainly a singular work and is invariably both impressive and enjoyable.

Review by Keith Allen

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