Friday, 3 February 2012

The Thief and the Cobbler

The usual reaction to the production story of this film is one of great sympathy to a genius of an artist and anger towards idiot corporate busybodies who don’t understand artistic vision. But personally, my own thoughts tend towards disappointment – this could have been one of the best animated films of all time, widely-known and admired, pushing traditional animation a long way…had it been finished in the 70s. As it is, it’s a missed opportunity, a terrible waste, being only a curio for animation aficionados and a few who were exposed to a butchered version as kids. Such a shame.

If I thought that Puss ’n Boots had some odd plot similarities to Disney’s Aladdin, I had another thing coming altogether when it came to seeing this: in a city with domes and minarets very similar to those of Agrabah, the sinister, goateed, rubber-lipped Grand Vizier plots to betray the sultan and marry his beautiful daughter, and only a low-born commoner can stand in his way. And while Aladdin was released before this film finally saw a commercial release, it had been in production for decades before that and Disney animators were undoubtedly aware of it, which is more than I can say for Puss ’n’ Boots. Again, if this had come out and blown minds in the late 70s or early 80s, Disney’s film would be seen as an affectionate tribute to a masterpiece, Jafar a nod to Zigzag. Now it only looks like a cruel company stomping upon the little man and ripping him off.

This film was the baby of Richard Williams, Canadian-born but based in England from his early 20s and an animator of celebrated short films, he begun conceptualising this project in 1964, starting production in 1968 and tightening it up into what was recognisably The Thief and the Cobbler by 1973. Self-funding with money made on other commissions, his progress was painfully slow and Williams kept missing deadlines and therefore failing to secure proper funding, so the film languished, even with voices recorded and the legendary Art Babbitt contributing. Eventually the extant footage impressed Spielberg and Zemekis enough that Williams was hired as animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, doing a memorably excellent (though supposedly creatively stifled) job – and providing the voice for Droopy in one of his best-known scenes. But again, deadlines and budget were pushed to breaking point and the film was nearly shut down. Part of Williams’ deal was that The Thief and the Cobbler would get funding and distribution – but of course he didn’t make deadlines again and Aladdin was about to make the film look like a rip-off, so it was snatched away from Williams, Fred Calvert rushing the remaining scenes and adding cheesy songs, making everything more kid-friendly for what is now a very much derided version. In 1994, Miramax got hold of the film and further spoiled it, adding awful voice-overs, with Matthew Broderick doing his Simba voice.

Thankfully, fans got hold of the workprint thrown together by Williams for investors and now we can watch the Recobbled Cut, assembled by a fan named Garrett Gilchrist, preserving the vision, story and pacing Williams intended – but of course relying on footage from many sources, from high-quality DVD releases to grainy old VHS recordings and even the hasty storyboards drawn just for the workprint. It really is cobbled together – but shows what this film so nearly was.

In 1978, an Arabian prince offered to fund the film, based on the results of a ten-minute experiment. Of course, the deadlines flew by and the budget for the ten-minute piece ballooned from $100,000 to $250,000. Imagine if Williams had stuck to his budget, secured funding and finished the film around 1980. How beautiful and stunning it would have been! There are sequences here far in advance of anything else at the time, which look like good CG but were rendered by hand. There are clever hallucinogenic chase scenes and some of the most brilliant Rube-Goldberg-esque sequences with characters in them I’ve ever seen – especially the thief’s misadventures at the end. But it was not to be. Genius doesn’t work that way, sad to say.

The film is a fascinating melding of styles. The cobbler Tack is drawn greyscale (but for his eyes) until he goes out into the dessert sun, and is very much a Chaplin- or Harry Langdon-esque figure, mute but childish and instantly likeable. The thief looks like a crude goblin, always followed by a swarm of flies, and while he is also mute, his often frenetic scenes are more like Keaton, mixed with Road Runner (which makes sense given that Ken Harris animated him). Zigzag looks like a UPA character, while his attendants are weirder still, right out of zany cartoon strips, while Babbitt adds Disneyesque designs. The witch…well, the Witch looks like Ren and Stimpy doing Fliescher – the latter part probably thanks to the work of Grim Natwick.

So much here is superlative. Tack chasing the thief in a psychedelic sequence; the war machine and its destruction; the thief’s misadventures recovering the balls at the end. And perhaps more than anything else Vincent Price’s unforgettable performance. The plot would just about work, and the animation would make it worth it, completed. Tack is adorable and though I wish she wouldn’t keep sneering, Yum-Yum is likeable too. It would have been eccentric in pacing, story, character and humour, but that would be no defect. As it is…it’s a missed opportunity – and Miramax’s version is awful: the songs are dull and noticeably cheap in their animation, and Tack speaking…well, if Sean Connery’s bizarre deep voice in the original isn’t weird enough, the way he talks in Yum-Yum’s chambers is plain disturbing (Gilchrist actually painted out his mouth). Between this and the other eccentric classic in production forever, I’d go for Le Roi et L’Oiseau. If this were finished, though…

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