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A review of several versions of "The Thief and the Cobbler"

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

It's a little tough to summarize this one in a blurb, but let's see what I can do.  Despite the controversial edits made to it by various studios, the final cut of The Thief and the Cobbler that is most commonly available retains enough of the film's charm and magic to be a worthwhile watch.  If you can find it, you should definitely seek out one of the more complete versions.  And above all else, try your best to watch it for the film that is rather than to cap off the story about the film it isn't; I think you'll have a much better time with it.

My Rating (Miramax Cut): 2 / 5 *

* Although I would give this a 3 / 5 if you disregard The Thief entirely. More on that later.

My Rating (Recobbled Cut): 4 / 5 *

* One point docked on a technicality, since this cut is still incomplete and parts of it are incredibly rough.  If you're looking at it purely from story and forgive it for the fact that they're basically trying to make a film out of footage that doesn't exist, then this is totally a 5 / 5.

The Part Where I Skip a Lot of Back Story

There's a better than even chance that you're already familiar with this movie - or at least its troubled past.  I'm obligated to bring it up.

But I'm going to pretend that this movie doesn't have a history for a little while.  If you haven't heard about this movie before or if you haven't seen it, you can ruin the experience by going into it with strange expectations.  You only get to watch a movie out of context one time, and forever after that the experience will be transformed by what you bring to the table.  This is the type of film where a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

If you haven't seen the movie, don't read any of this yet.  Instead, try to seek out the film - any version of it - and watch it once, by yourself, without any other foreknowledge, from beginning to end.  Draw your own conclusions and opinions, make your own notes, and then come back here.  I can't guarantee you'll like what you see, but you'll be grateful to have experienced it "fresh."

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

To put it simply, this is a movie about how two seemingly insignificant people with no major strengths or talents, the titular Thief and Cobbler, manage to change the fate of a kingdom through chance encounters. The specifics of the plot change a little bit between the different versions of the film, but the overall story has actually been pretty well preserved over time.  Below is a virtually one-size-fits-all plot summary:

The film takes place in a magical Arabian kingdom, where a prophecy holds that the land will remain protected and safe from danger as long as three golden orbs remain on top of a minaret in the center of the king's palace.  The benevolent King Nod watches over his people and enjoys a blissful peace.

His vizier, ZigZag (who appears to have been the primary source of inspiration for both Jafar and the genie's designs in Aladdin), is arriving in town to bestow gifts upon King Nod in the hopes that he might be able to wed Nod's daughter, the beautiful princess YumYum.  (Yeah... the names are not great.  Let's ignore those for now.)

By total chance, a bumbling Thief happens to be prowling the streets that same morning.  After stealing some random stuff, the Thief goes into Tack the Cobbler's shop in hopes of picking his pocket.  Unfortunately, the pickpocketing goes awry and both the Thief and Tack end up tumbling out into the street, spilling some of Tack's shoe tacks onto the ground right in front of ZigZag.

ZigZag steps on one by accident and accuses Tack of having purposefully put it there to injure him.  He commands that his guards take ZigZag to Nod's castle for immediate execution.  However, Princess YumYum, skeptical of ZigZag's wild claims, shows compassion and breaks her shoe, claiming that she needs Tack's cobbling skills to fix it.

Meanwhile, the Thief follows Tack to the palace and catches a glimpse of the three golden orbs.  He immediately makes it his new mission to steal them.

But right around the same time the Thief is making good on his quest, one of King Nod's soldiers returns home from a terrible battle / slaughter at the hands of the infamous One-Eyed Army.  Nod is thrown into a panic when he realizes that not only is the One-Eyed Army advancing on his kingdom, but the golden orbs are missing.

ZigZag seizes on the opportunity to play Nod's own fears against him and tries to use the missing orbs as a bargaining chip to win YumYum's hand in marriage.  When Nod spurns him, ZigZag goes to visit the One-Eyed King to forge a different alliance.

In the meantime, Nod sends YumYum and Tack on a quest to the desert to find a witch who can help them protect the city.  The Thief follows them in the hope of stealing more precious gems along the way.  They encounter some brigands, some other shenanigans ensue, and then Tack gets a clue from the witch about how to defeat the One-Eyed Army.

Finally, the movie comes to a climax back at the kingdom.  The One-Eyed Army advances with a bunch of massive implements of war, and Tack faces off against them in a final, heroic stand.

Now I Wonder About Racism and Stereotypes

I hate to start getting into my film discussion by opening with this, but I have to ask.  Is this movie racist?  I can't tell.

Mainly I'm wondering about the Thief, as he's wearing a hat that looks like a stylized yarmulke and he's got a huge nose.  Is he supposed to be a terrible Jewish caricature?  And if he is, why aren't more people pissed off about that?  Or am I being overly sensitive and reading too much into it?

Who knows, maybe that says more about me being a dick than it does the filmmakers.

This film has a unique style and sensibility to it, but it leads to some uncomfortable moments when it comes to depictions of race.  Characters with darker skin are painted coal black as if from a minstrel show, Tack is nearly an albino until the very end when he suddenly turns brown, and I don't even know what the fuck ZigZag is supposed to represent.  Is "blue" a slur for any particular group other than the chronically depressed?

I don't have any answers here.  I'm really just kind of confused and wondering if maybe I'm a little too wracked by white guilt to watch this.

The Part Where I'm Amazed at the Animation

Alright, so, let's talk about the really good stuff.  This movie has some of the most incredible animation you'll ever see.  It's made all the more impressive by the fact that it's entirely hand-drawn - no CGI here.

The movement itself is incredibly smooth and liquid thanks to the director's insistence that it be drawn with a higher frame rate than that used in contemporary animation, This means that even the simplest moments, like watching the Thief unscrew a shower drain, are a joy to watch.  The animation easily stands up next to the most tech-laden CGI features of today.

There's also some amazing pan and/or zoom shots that I have a hard time believing were done by hand.  I remember seeing previews for Disney movies from the early to mid '90s where they'd reuse certain shots in the promotional materials over and over.  At the time, they were cutting edge moments that made use of the best that CGI had to offer.  Two examples that come to mind immediately: the swoosh-pan up to the chandelier during the dance scene in Beauty and the Beast and the part in The Lion King when the camera zooms over the African landscape onto Simba, then pulls back as he runs toward the camera while being chased by hundreds of hyenas.  These shots, while perhaps more grand in story content, are about on the same level of detail and visual flair as seemingly throwaway moments in The Thief and the Cobbler when the camera is just following somebody down a flight of stairs.

My point is, it's a really well-done film.

It also features some unique perspective tricks that I've never seen in film before.  Much of the film is presented with either a completely flat perspective, or even no perspective, which gives the movie a chance to play a lot of strange games with the action.  The best example would be the prolonged foot chase between Tack and the Thief in the palace; there are moments where the characters are running against a plane of basic geometric shapes, and identical-looking blocks various turn out to be both tiles on the floor and nearly-bottomless pits that they can fall into.

There's more than a few brilliant little moments with impossible geography out of an M.C. Escher drawing.  One shot in particular shows ZigZag walking down an impossible staircase while Tack walks up, and the two completely avoid each other's line of sight simply because there's no proper depth in the shot.

This might sound like the movie is confusing to watch.  Admittedly, it kind of is sometimes.  But for the most part, it's not very tough to follow.  The result is a a terrific visual experience that remains wholly original and unique.

Now Let's Talk About the Back Story

Okay, we can't go very long without talking about this, so let's rip the bandage off and get into it.

The Thief and the Cobbler currently holds the record for the longest production in the history of film, at a total of 31 years.  During that time it went through various backers, plots, and production supervisors.  For a pretty good overview on this wild and storied history, check out the Wikipedia article, or go see the documentary Persistence of Vision.  I'm just going to give you the Cliff's Notes version here.

The original and primary director, Richard Williams, eventually managed to deliver a rough cut of the film in 1991.  This version, the workprint, was incomplete and used animatics and storyboards to fill in the gaps where animation had not yet been completed.  His backers gave him a little more time to wrap up, but in 1992, when the movie was already 28 years in the making, he still could not deliver the film in a complete form.  Add to this some disagreements with the studio on how the final product should look, and Williams was fired from the production.

His successor, Fred Calvert, made some significant changes, but managed to keep the overall plot intact and made use of most of the animation that had been completed by that point.  In 1993, the first official version of the movie was released to non-US markets.  It was known in some countries as The Princess and the Cobbler, and I'm going to use that name when referring to this release from now on.

Later, Miramax bought the rights for distribution in the US, and Harvey Weinstein demanded that the movie be edited and recut even further.  On top of the changes Calvert had made, Weinstein added new voice actors, new dialogue, and cut even more footage out, resulting in an abridged version that was released under the title Arabian Knight.

For a long time, everybody bemoaned the sad fate of the film.  Williams's The Thief and the Cobbler was and still is a non-existent movie, as it never actually reached a final stage of production under his leadership.  Fans and critics pondered at what the movie would be like if he actually was allowed to take it past the finish line, and it remained a tragic fable about the cruelty of movie studios.

For awhile, anyway.  In 2006, a fan named Garrett Gilchrist re-edited footage from the two officially released versions along with archived footage he obtained from private collectors and, using Williams's workprint as a guide, released a restored version of the movie as the "Recobbled Cut."  This version was updated a few more times as more footage and assets became available to Gilchrist, and the entire cut was made available online.

There's basically four versions of the film that exist now, but I've only had the time to really watch two (and some change).  I also watched them in probably the goofiest possible order: I watched the first forty minutes of the Arabian Knight version, then the entirety of the Recobbled version, and then the second half of the Arabian Knight version.  This wasn't intentional - it just kinda worked out that way.

I'll get to some recommendations on how you should watch the film eventually, but first let's talk about all the different edits.  And I'm going to begin with an unpopular opinion.

The Part Where I Kinda Defend Studio Interference (Sorta)

I don't want to be a shithead about this, but I feel like studios get a bad rep too much of the time when they try to make changes to movies.  Sure, there are definitely times when the quality of a film is compromised, but I feel like more often than not the studio's notes are justified.  Or at least justifiable.

Let's be honest.  Williams had already taken twenty-eight years just to get a workprint to his backers, and the version they saw wasn't even complete, despite being a year past schedule and millions of dollars over budget.  In any context, that's bad news.  So it's not like the studio was arbitrarily being a bunch of jerks when they fired him - they had a good basis.

And it's not like studios are full of imbeciles who don't understand film.  Most producers at least have a general sense of what makes a movie entertaining, if not artistically "pure."  For example, how about The Godfather?  Robert Evans contributed significantly to the casting and script choices and was an undeniably powerful influence on the final product.  Surely his involvement would constitute "studio meddling."

Or what about Star Wars?  The first film was, by many accounts, a dense and profoundly boring slog until the producers overwhelmed Lucas with notes and his wife fixed everything.  Contrast that story to the prequels, where Lucas had total control over the final cut, and you start wishing he had to report to a studio.

My point isn't that studio changes are always good.  It's just that film is a cooperative form of story-telling and the people higher up in the production staff usually have a good reason for suggesting a change besides marketability.  Sometimes there's just a legit issue with the film.

I think it's important to keep that in mind because there are some spots in the film - even the Recobbled edition - that don't totally work and could actually use some editing.  It's hard to say whether these spots are rough because Williams's original vision was flawed or if he just hadn't had a chance to finish smoothing them out, but I think some notes might've been in order.

The best example I can think of is the desert sequence.  It's long, runs out of steam, and introduces a bunch of brigands who end up not really doing a whole lot.  (There was a planned sequence where they would have killed the One-Eyed King at the end, but even then, they just feel like weak characters.)  The movie has this great, snappy pace that suddenly conks out, and then we keep cutting back to ZigZag being evil, which interrupts the pacing even more.

Here's a really specific change that could have made it a little better.  Right before the desert sequence begins, ZigZag goes to the One-Eyed King to make a deal, and then the King demands that ZigZag be thrown "to the alligators."  We cut away to the Princess meeting the brigands.  This cut is good - it leaves us on a tense note with ZigZag and gets us into the Princess's quest.  After the brigands are introduced, we cut back to ZigZag for about thirty seconds to see him talking to some alligators and charming them.  We cut away again to a scene where the Thief is up to some more shenanigans, then the desert sequence wraps up, and then we finally cut back to ZigZag returning to the One-Eyed King on an alligator-drawn sled.

The initial cutaway to the desert and the final reveal of ZigZag's return are good, but that weird little scene in the middle kinda sucks.  It's too short to build up much tension and it interrupts the flow of the scene with the brigands.  A better way to do it would have been to briefly show ZigZag being tossed into the alligator pit immediately after the King makes his demand, and then ZigZag sees the alligators approach, then you don't see him until he comes back later using them to pull his sled.  Or... just don't show that middle bit at all.  Either way you end up with a better punchline for ZigZag's reappearance and you keep the desert sequence whole.

I don't want to point out other examples of rough patches because I'll come across as an asshole (and also it'll get boring), but my point is that the Workprint / Recobbled editions are not without faults.  I'll even admit there were a couple of bits - not many, but a few - that I actually preferred in the Arabian Knights version simply because they were punchier and more suspenseful.  Tack's escape from his prison cell, for example, was quite a bit more active in the Knights version, and this works well considering that the scene is paired with the chaos and fury that erupts when the Thief steals the golden orbs.

But the changes I'll defend are fairly minor.  The stuff that really gets people wound up about this film is a hell of a lot more severe.

A Summary of the Major Changes

I'm not going to go over everything.  There's so much to cover and better scholars than me will give you a good point-by-point breakdown on the history of development and the differences between versions.  Consider this more of a primer.

So here's a list of just some of the major things I noticed, with general thoughts on each.

1) The pacing is significantly faster in the Arabian Knights version.

This is both good and bad.  At times the pace is right where I want it, but there's plenty of times when the film needed the brakes on so we could get a chance to really savor the moment.  What was shocking to me was that some of those sequences weren't especially slower in the Recobbled cut, so it looks like the film was just always meant to be a little bit quick.

2) Several songs were added, including a wretched dance number for the brigands.

Bleah.  This was awful.  Shouldn't have been added.

3) The Witch sequence was practically cut out entirely.

This is a huge problem.  The desert sequence is problematic already since the brigands are boring, the overall progress to the top of the witch's mountain is slow, and the editing loses some steam, but getting rid of the Witch just makes the whole thing pointless on top of it.

You hauled your ass all the way out into the desert just to hear some random voice say, "Attack" and then you went home?  Really?  What a crock.  This prophecy sucks, man.

4) The final battle sequence was severely cut.

This is a shame.  The battle sequence in the Recobbled cut is hypnotic, beautiful, and strange.  The power of the One-Eyed army and its technology is put on full display even as it is overpowered from within, and it's an incredible set piece with some of the best animation in the film.

In the Arabian Knights cut, it's just kind of a footnote.  Like, "Oh, yeah, and then we killed the bad guys.  The End."

5) Much of the violence and sexual innuendo was cut out.

Eh.  I'm neutral on this one.  It's a kid's movie, and America hates sex, so... yeah, the King's concubine was going to disappear one way or another.  The real problem is that losing the violence meant taking out the final One-Eyed army segment along with it.  See the point above.

6) The Princess was given new dialogue and some animation was rearranged to turn her into a sort of quasi-rebellious type.

I'm not really sure how to feel about this.  I think I'm neutral overall.  Basically they added some voiceover of the Princess complaining to her nurse about how she doesn't like being marginalized at the palace, and she wants to be a hero.  Later, when she talks to the King, she demands to go on the quest to meet the Witch.

But... in the original version, the King actually respects her already and outright asks her to go to the Witch.  And the Princess is active in saving Tack's life and fighting Zigzag in both versions, so it's not like she was a bystander, anyway.  I guess I can appreciate the intent behind this change, but it's a strange as hell way of going about it.  How do you empower a character that's already powerful?

7) New dialogue for Tack and various other characters.

The new dialogue gives all of the characters a slightly different spin than they previously had.  Tack's dialogue is more of a narration in the past tense.  This is a problem for the same reason that all expository narration is a problem: it presumes that the audience is too stupid to understand what they're watching.

But the more curious changes are made to the minor characters.  YumYum's nurse, for example, was previously a silent-but-strong type who surprises you with sudden acts of violence, but she was turned into a kooky old lady character, sort of like the foul-mouthed granny cliche.  (Except sub the foul mouth with beating people up.)  And the King himself transforms from being a calm, but still somewhat active leader to being a doddering old fool.

The overall effect is that Arabian Knight is a much dumber film.  Everything is made more broad and predictable.  But it's not necessarily bad... except for one thing.

See, there's one other major change I haven't talked about yet.  Let's take a closer look at...

The Worst Thing Anybody Has Ever Done to a Film in Post-Production

Two words: Jonathan Winters.

Holy shit.  I can barely even begin to explain how much of a detriment he is to the Arabian Knight version.

Listen, I've got nothing against Jonathan Winters as a comedian or an actor.  I barely know the guy's work, but I'm sure his career is respectable and admirable.  I'm also positive that if Winters fully knew how his performance was going to be used in the final product, he would at the very least have apologized for it after the fact, if not outright refused to do it.

But I can think of no other way to ruin a movie as thoroughly or as pointlessly as Harvey Weinstein did by dubbing Winters' voice track for the Thief over Arabian Knight.  The other changes that I talked about?  They're not all great, but I can at least see where they were coming from and the end result still has merit.  But Winters's dialogue?  This is just an exercise in pure insanity.

What's so bad about it, you ask?  Well, first of all, you've got to understand is that the Thief is a mute character.  His mouth never opens except for when he screams or grimaces.  He simply does not speak. So... right off the bat we have a problem.

You guys ever hear that Patton Oswalt bit about how he was asked to do voice-overs for cartoons, and he found out that he couldn't change any lines or contribute to story in any way?  In his bit, the producer who hired him explains that the animation is already finished, so Patton asks, "What do you want me to do, then?"  And the producer answers, "We just want you to shout funny jokes over top of the footage." Then Patton goes on to explore this idea in other mediums, up to and including silly voice-overs for footage of Auschwitz.

His idea of a comedic Holocaust reel, if put into reality, would still be funnier than Winters' voice track.

For example, look at the first scene where the Thief sneaks up on the Cobbler and tries to steal his wallet.  Right off the bat, he makes an anachronistic joke about how "it looks like a college kid lives here" or something equally dumb, and you're already groaning and not laughing.

But where it gets even worse is that the actual jokes here are all visual - there's some slapstick with the Cobbler sleep-cobbling and sleep-sewing, and it gets the Thief in a tight spot.  But Winters isn't content to let you get away with just seeing that joke.  Instead, he actually says, "Oh no!  He's sewing in his sleep!  Oh no!  He just sewed my robe to his by accident!  And now I'm stuck!"

I can't imagine who Weinstein thought his audience was that he felt this joke needed to be explained.  Blind people who also have dementia and who are also stupid?  I really don't get it.

I guess they thought the Thief needed dialogue - or, excuse me, internal monologue, as a throwaway line early on tells us that he's a man "of few words, but many thoughts" - to give you more insight into his character.  But that's redundant.  He's a thief.  You need to know his motivation?  He likes to steal things.  What else do you really need by way of characterization?  The Thief is a classic, one-track mind cartoon character in the vein of Tom and/or Jerry.

And in some cases, his "explanations" actually make the movie more confusing.  There's one particular moment that's so incredibly bad and misguided that I still can't believe it was really added.  I feel like I must have dreamed it because it's so arbitrary.

While the Thief is sneaking up through a sewage pipe to break into the castle, he starts... getting yelled at by his mom?

How?  What?  No, really, what is actually happening right now?

So... is he having an auditory flashback to an argument he had with his mom and the film decided that the best time to clue us in on this back story was while he was stuck in a sewage line?  Is he imitating his mom's voice and arguing with himself just for his own fun and amusement?  Is his brain switching into his mom's voice and yelling at him in his own head because he's a psychopath?

Or are we supposed to believe that his mom is actually stuck in the shit pipe with him?  Which would mean that she was already in the pipe because she wasn't seen entering?  Which means she's just hanging out in the fucking sewer all day waiting for her thief son to come up and visit?!  What the hell, Weinstein!?  Do you even have a mother?

Winters' voice track is so heinous that eliminating it from the movie automatically bumps up the score by a solid point.  You know how you can easily make Arabian Knight watchable?  Cut Winters out.  Simple.  You still have a weaker film than the other versions, but it's at least not horrible.

Where You Can Watch, and Why

The one great thing about a film with as complicated and tragic a history as The Thief and the Cobbler is that it encourages film enthusiasts, collectors, and editors to work harder at preserving every scrap of its history they can.  Pair this with the amazing interconnectivity and archival powers of the Internet, and you practically have everything at your fingertips.

It's amazing that I can so flippantly chuck 50+ years of film history aside and just say, "Look for it on Youtube."  Can you believe that's even a possibility?  Really, just stop and think about that.  Let that sink in.  This film is the poster child of Production Hell, a metaphor for unattainable dreams, the epitome of the struggle between artistic integrity and crass commercialism.  Entire generations have experienced heartbreak and frustration in the time it's been brewing.

And you can just do a few quick searches on Google and watch everything about it in the course of a single afternoon.  That's a hell of a ride.

Anyway, I highly recommend that you check out this movie.  If you're just interested in a fun adventure, then you won't be disappointed.  But if you're even remotely interested in film, if you have any desire at all to see how editing can change a film, if you are at all a fan of animation and the evolution of its techniques, if you are intrigued by corporate politics - you have to see this movie.  In any form.

I do not recommend that you watch it in the same way I saw it, though.  Depending on how much time you have, I'd suggest one of four possible ways:

1) If you have all the time in the world?  Watch the Arabian Knight version first, then the Princess and the Cobbler version, then the Thief and the Cobbler workprint, and then, finally, the Recobbled cut.  It'll be like peeling the layers off an onion and finding something sweeter and more potent at each turn.

2) If you want to see a pretty good comparison of the different versions, but you don't have the patience to sit through all of them, check out the Arabian Knights version first, and then watch the Recobbled cut.  You'll miss some of the more subtle changes, but the overall difference is going to smack you in the face like a sack of bricks.

3) If you're short on time and you don't have the patience to sit through incomplete scenes or animatics, go check out the 84-minute Princess and the Cobbler version.  I haven't watched the whole thing, but based on what I've seen, it's a pretty fair balance between the studio's demands and Williams's original intent.  But the important thing - and really, I can't stress this enough - is that it doesn't have Jonathan Winters.

4) If you don't mind about 10 minutes of rough, incomplete, or non-existent footage (communicated by way of storyboards) sneaking into your film and you only feel like watching one version?  Check out the Recobbled cut.

All versions are available in multiple formats online, so you can stream them all right now.  Below are some links that I found, but if one goes down, just keep digging.  I don't think you'll have to search too hard to find a new one:

The Thief and the Cobbler: Workprint Edition (The original, unfinished 91-minute version)

The Princess and the Cobbler (The 84-minute recut that's actually not as bad as you might expect)

Arabian Knight (The massively recut 72-minute version that's still somewhat watchable, but looks like total crap once you see any of the other versions)

The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Edition (The 91-minute restored version that's an ongoing work in progress)