There’s not much I can add to the The Thief and the Cobbler’s legend except to say “yes, it’s that movie.”

It’s the troubled masterpiece of Canadian-British animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, etc). He was an obsessive perfectionist/auteur in an industry with little tolerance for either of those things. It’s said that The Thief and the Cobbler took thirty years to make, but that’s not quite true. The film was never finished. The Thief and the Cobbler took thirty years to not make.

This adds to the film’s aura: strictly speaking, it doesn’t exist. But its legacy mainly rests on the fact that it has possibly the best 2D animation ever seen in a feature-length workprint.

It’s 90 minutes of an animator making cel sheets his bitch. The film is beyond technically impressive and approaches “insane”. Richard Williams storyboards things you’re never supposed to do in 2D animation and then does them twice, backward, wearing Persian slippers. Revolving POV shots. Crowd scenes. Textured fabric. You name it, this movie has it. The only computers involved were the ones that processed the bankruptcy and liquidation of his studio.

Any animation nerd can quote favorite moments by heart. Tack tumbling out of his workshop, with dozens of individually animated tacks spilling from his pockets into Zigzag’s path. The Thief crawling through the palace sewer system, with pipes bulging out comically. Zigzag climbing a spiral staircase. Tack fighting the Thief for Yum-Yum’s shoe inside the MC Escherian palace. The Thief getting thrashed by polo players, with the ball implausibly following him around like a target-seeking missile. The dolly shot of One-Eye’s camp, zooming out from the middle of his iris.

And of course, the destruction of One Eye’s massive war machine, which is so excessive and overstimulating that you’ll snort coke just to calm down. It’s not just animation for animation’s sake, either. The film has a lot of style, and evokes the mythical Orient far more effectively than, say, Aladdin (which comes off as American teenagers at a Vegas hotel by comparison). The Thief and the Cobbler looks the way a Persian carpet would if the stitches could move.

Margaret French’s story (a simple fairytale) isn’t that interesting when stripped of its visuals. It’s a good example of how technique itself can be art: instead of animation being used to tell a story, a story is used as a scaffold for animation itself. Which is fine, although it requires a shift of thinking for people used to stories being paramount.

The characters are stock archetypes: Tack is a silent film hero, the Thief is a silent film villain, Nod is a sleepy king, One-Eye is a barbarian invader. Zigzag (with a cel-sheet chewing performance by Vincent Price) is a hilarious camp villain. The characters’ behaviors are as simple as their movement is intricate: this is a movie simple enough for the smallest child to understand.

The tale of the movie’s production is long, harrowing, and (ultimately) tragic. After decades of tinkering on the film (with a few injections of cash from such parties as the House of Saud), Williams finally received full financing in the late 80s. This lifeline became a noose. When he failed to deliver the film on time, the project was taken away from him, and auctioned off in a lowest-bidder situation to whoever would get it done cheaply.

That someone was Fred Calvert, who “finished” the film in 1993. I don’t mean he completed The Thief and the Cobbler. I mean he slapped together a film-shaped object for as little money as possible, which incidentally contains some of Williams’ animation.

Calvert is defined by The Thief and the Cobbler‘s destruction the way Richard Williams is defined by its creation. Fans universally regard him as having ruined the movie. He’s the ultimate bad Hollywood stereotype: the studio hatchet man. The movie’s final gag (which involves the thief ripping the film from the reel and stuffing it into his pocket) seems eerily prophetic.

Yes, it’s hard to excuse what Calvert did. His new scenes look as shoddy and cheap as a Saturday morning cartoon: they stick out like twine and tissue paper holding together fine damask curtains. Calvert didn’t “edit” Williams’ footage so much as randomly guillotine it into shape. Important parts of the story are now gone: we don’t see Zigzag attempting to feed Tack to Phido, which lessens the poetic justice of Zigzag’s death. The brigands have nothing to do in Calvert’s version, while in Williams’ workprint we see at least see them fighting in the final battle. Scenes of soldiers dying were shortened or cut (for violence?), which leaves us wondering where One-Eye’s army went.

Calvert added four songs, because animated musicals were big that year. We shall not speak of these songs, because they make getting crapped on by an elephant seem like a joy.

In September 1993, the film saw limited release in South Africa (why?) and Australia (why?). It was released again in August 1995 after a further round of destructive edits and general stupidity. (Fun fact: the green women were cut because they could be interpreted as One-Eye’s sex slaves…an edit personally requested by Harvey Weinstein!).

Neither release made money. The total production budget was in excess of $25 million, and although the movie’s box office profits are unclear due to the film’s complicated release history, they couldn’t have reached a million dollars. Shovel twenty five million dollars down a garbage disposal unit, and then sell a small piece of beachfront real estate in Florida. Congrats: you’re financially ahead of the Thief and the Cobbler.

Calvert minimized his role in the disaster, saying he never had creative control over The Thief and the Cobbler, and that most of the bad decisions (such as the songs) were forced on him by higher-ups. True or false? Who knows? Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.

But Calvert can be defended a little, too. At least he can say he delivered a finished film. Mangled and butchered though it was, his movie exists. Richard Williams couldn’t finish his after thirty years and God knows how many millions of pounds. Look at the work print: it still wasn’t close to being done. The princess was still half-animated. Critical scenes did not exist.

Calvert made some defensible decisions. He tightened up the story. The main villain (One-Eye) is established right at the start, instead of coming out of nowhere in the second act, and he has a better voice and a better death (his concubines throw him into the burning wreck of the machine, instead of sitting on him). The Thief’s characterization is more defined: he now has a fetish for golden things specifically, instead of just stealing everything he can. Detours (such as the maid from Mombasa) are cut, and the movie is better for it.

Blame should go to Williams as well as Calvert. The perfectionism that made The Thief and the Cobbler great also dug its grave: why did he waste so much time animating superfluous scenes of the Thief? They’re fun, but they’re not the movie. There’s enough effort on the screen to make three animated films, it just wasn’t used efficiently. He was his own worst enemy. There’s a saying in Hollywood that if the audience leaves praising the set design, the film is a bomb. The Thief and the Cobbler’s workprint is all set design.

Transhumanists speak about “paperclip maximizing”, conveying the idea that a superintelligent AI need not be malicious to screw us over. It might merely want to build as many paperclips as possible, until they cover the planet. No matter how benign or innocuous your goal (“make paperclips!”), it will destructive in the hands of a machine, because it can’t understand the big picture.

Williams was a human paperclip maximizer. He seems to have been guided by an imperative to make pretty animation, so he made more of it, and more of it, and more of it, and never knew when to stop. This would be fine, if he was spending his own money. But once outside financing gets involved, there’s only so long you’ll be allowed to chase a dream. If you owe a bank five dollars, that’s your problem. If you owe a bank five million, that’s their problem. Money always comes with strings attached, and when the sums are large, the strings become golden handcuffs.

The Thief and the Cobbler is a story of glory and grandeur, of madness and excess, of ruin and shadow and devouring flame. It’s also a film about a cobbler.

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