Moriarty’s DVD Blog! A Word About That New THIEF & THE COBBLER Disc....
Published at: Nov. 11, 2006, 7:02 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Quick show of hands... how many of you know the work of Richard Williams?
I guarantee you all at least know ROGER RABBIT, his single most iconic contribution to the history of animation. No matter what, when you talk about the evolution of the art form, you have to deal with the accomplishment of ROGER RABBIT. No matter what you think of the script or the plot of ROGER, and I’ve heard from plenty of people since it was released who just don’t care for it, you can’t deny the remarkable level of artistry in the movie, or the milestone of seeing all of Hollywood’s classic animated characters together. And as much as Robert Zemeckis is responsible for the film as a whole, it’s Richard Williams you have to thank for the mind-bogglingly great hand animation.
Williams is a grand lunatic, a man who spent much of his career chasing a dream even at the expense of other opportunities. If he had ever really embraced the system and played it, he may well have become a major commercial force, or at the very least, an interesting stylist for hire. Instead, his story makes me sad almost to the same degree that his work makes me happy.
One of the reasons he was great was because he knew he was part of a tradition, and he knowingly surrounded himself with some of the giants of the business. One guy in particular was Art Babbitt, one of the guys who was there at the start with Walt Disney, who worked on “Three Little Pigs” and Mickey Mouse shorts and SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO and FANTASIA and DUMBO. Another of them was Ken Harris, who was an enormous talent part of the Termite Terrace team, who worked on some of the best known Warner Bros shorts like “What’s Opera Doc?” and “Duck Amuck” and who also worked on such projects as THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS. It was another Christmas project that brought Harris into contact with Williams, who was directing his remarkable take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. That was released in 1971. Around that time, Harris and Williams started improvising sequences of a story about a thief. They were liberally adapting some actual Arabian folk stories originally.
But when Babbitt joined the animation production house that Williams was building, he developed a new character and did some test animation to show to Williams. The character was a cobbler, and Williams loved what he saw. For a while, the men all developed new characters to bounce off one another. Zig-Zag, a bizarre blue magician/vizier, was created and animated by Williams, while there was a King created by Babbitt. They developed the film sequence by sequence, playing off each other, and the result was, by all accounts, a piece of pure animation. Williams was doing work for films like the PINK PANTHER features (he did the memorable opening title animation sequences for a few of the films) and the TV special “Ziggy’s Gift,” based on the popular ‘70s cartoon character, but he took all the money his company made and turned it all back into the development of this film, this THIEF & THE COBBLER that was starting to take shape. He ended up in the director’s chair for 1977’s RAGGEDY ANN & ANDY by default when someone else dropped out, and the result is a strange but beautifully-animated film that has an oddly familiar synopsis: all the toys in the room of a child are alive when she’s out of the room, but they’re just toys when she’s around. She gets a new toy and leaves it in her room, and the other toys all introduce themselves. She doesn’t believe she’s a toy, though, and through a series of circumstances, she ends up knocked out the window, lost out in the world, and it’s up to the favorite toy in the bedroom to go out, find the new toy, and bring it back. The film’s filled with cloying songs that only occasionally work, but there is some amazing work in the film. If you do a YouTube search, you’ll find some scenes including one featuring The Greedy that is ungodly when you remember, everything you see had to have been animated by hand. We’re used to seeing computers do it all these days, but there was a time when any sort of three-dimensional camerawork had to be accomplished by hand. There’s not a computer anywhere more precise than Williams at his very best, and he would draw sequences that theoretically shouldn’t have been possible, just to accomplish what no one else could.
After Williams was brought on as the director of animation on ROGER RABBIT, he found his personal project sidelined a bit, but in the best possible way. The film’s success launched him to a new visibility, and it brought him his second and third Academy Awards. Perfect timing for him to get his dream film finished finally... right?
After all, word had gotten out inside the industry about this remarkable thing that Williams was doing, and people had seen bits and pieces. It was a screening of the workprint that got Williams the ROGER RABBIT job in the first place. I have no doubt that much of what you saw in ALADDIN (a very entertaining and well-made film in its own right) was inspired at least in part by THE THIEF & THE COBBLER. There are some disconcerting similarities, and THIEF was well-known within the animation community well before ALADDIN was developed.
Warner Bros. signed on to distribute the film after the success of ROGER, and Williams managed to find funding that came with the attachment of the Completion Bond Company, a decision that would pretty much destroy the film in the end. See, Williams does great work, but that quality requires time... much more time than studios are used to spending on a project. And he missed a few deadlines for Warner Bros., and as the release date of ALADDIN got closer, Warner Bros started to worry that they were going to get killed if they went second. So they did the unthinkable.
They took it away from him.
He had fifteen minutes or so to finish when they took it over. Fred Calvert (a TV guy whose body of work demonstrates no particular skill or inspiration) was hired to finish the film fast. That decision ended up costing Warner Bros another year and a half, and it gutted the movie. Calvert added shitty songs and dumped a lot of great material. His end result was so awful that Warner Bros. dumped it, and Miramax picked it up. They added “big star” voices to the film, turning these two silent characters into chatterboxes via running commentary voice-over work by Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Winters. Awful, awful stuff. Calvert and Miramax conspired to turn this marvelous little gem into something stitched-together and wholly shitty, a Frankenstein’s monster that is all the more frustrating because of the great work still contained in the film.
If you see this in stores, let me give you the lowdown on what you can expect to see. First, the packaging is pretty nifty. The outer sleeve of the DVD is a cardboard pop-up book. This isn’t the first time this has been on DVD, though. Hell, Miramax released it in March 2005, so it’s not even like there’s a reason for them to reissue it.
Oh, there was supposed to be a reason. See, we’d been hearing that there were plans to restore the Richard Williams version somehow. And to see this pop back up on the release schedule so quickly... well, it seemed like maybe there was some truth to the idea that we might finally get a look at what Williams wanted from this film.
This is not a restoration, though. At all. It’s the same 73 minute version that was called ARABIAN KNIGHT at one point and THE PRINCESS & THE COBBLER at another. It’s the same version with the songs and the crappy filler animation to cover up the scenes that were yanked out for no good reason.
If you see this in stores, let me make this very clear: do not buy it. If you’re an animation freak and you know exactly what this film, I know what the inclination is. Pick up the film, watch the great parts, and just skip the other bits when you put the disc in.
But I don’t want this version. This is the version we’ve been seeing all along. I want the Richard Williams version. I’d pay good money for that.
Or... I guess... I could just watch it on YouTube. I guess I could do that and then follow the links I found on the main page for that playlist. I guess if I did that, I might well realize just how frustrating this new release is, and I might be inclined to yell at the company who put this out, yell and ask them to please, for the love of God, work with the guy who created this “Recobbled Cut” of the film. I might, indeed.
If you haven’t seen the film, and you don’t want to watch the film on YouTube, it’s worth a Netflix rental for some of the amazing hand-animated sequences that have survived intact in the final film. There’s some stuff here that I personally don’t think anyone will ever top.
No one’s learning the trade these days, and if they’re not careful, sooner rather than later, that trade will be gone.
This double-dip actively pisses me off because I know that there’s more work to be done on this title, and instead of doing it, they’re just repackaging it and trying to make a little more money off something that they barely seem to respect. By now, with the home video market the way it is, you would think that The Weinstein Co. would recognize the value in this property if they treat it right.
Please, please, please, please. Please don’t buy this version. Make it clear to the Weinsteins that you want to see the movie the way the director intended, and if they won’t make that version legally available, then you’ll have to see it some other way.
I wish there was something available now like that YouTube workprint, something legal that I could own, because I’d love to study the way Williams did this. I’d love to be able to look at every set-up, ever scene, every image. I’d love to be able to look at this film and see just that skeleton crew that spend the first ten years together, see all the blood, sweat, and tears that they put into the film.
But what I’m tired of is this film, re-released like you’re doing parents a favor. This isn’t some generic children’s film. No matter what cover you slap on this thing, people are going to know right away that what they’re watching is uneven. Why not spend a little money up front and then look like heroes for finally giving Williams his dream? As it stands now, this is a sad lesson in what happens when you trade your dreams for financial security. Williams is a genius, but this film in this particular edition is just not good. It’ll bore your kids and it’ll actively annoy you in other places. Its importance is as a piece of history for animation fans, but even there... that YouTube link has more value, and it’s free (for now).
Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles