While exploring the Internet we often find ourselves stumbling upon something we can’t help but feel we should have known about. An exceptional recipe, our next favorite craft project, or a shiny new hit song. This week I discovered something new and exciting. An animated film that was billed as a genre defining project that had been over three decades in the making, yet had never been finished.
Which piece of pop culture delight could this possibly be, you ask? Well, just a legendary endeavor titled The Thief and the Cobbler. You win this one Internet. I clicked through to view a trailer for a documentary about “the untold story of the greatest animated film never made.”
So here’s the story. Talented artist Richard Williams began work in 1964 on what was to be his defining masterpiece of animation. What followed was a 31 year journey that involved some of the best animators in the world, a budget that ballooned to more than 28 million dollars, missed deadlines, and “evil” studio executives behaving as you might expect them to.
The film was never completed. Or, at least not in the form which it’s creator intended. Instead, a version of The Thief and the Cobbler was released in 1993 and again in 1995 that was heavily edited. Scenes were reorganized and a collection of uninspiring songs added in for good measure. The result? A box office bomb with $669,276 in ticket sales, poor reviews, and questions about similarities to Disney’s Aladdin.
At this point, I felt compassion for the creatives involved in this sad story. The animated sequences shown in the trailer about the making of The Thief and the Cobbler looked pretty amazing. Even more, the visuals were impressive because they were made entirely by hand (no fancy computer technology or assistance was used).
Then I learned that an unofficial restoration of the film existed. Indy filmmaker Garret Gilchrist had gathered test sequences, finished scenes from collectors, story boards, and more. Garret put together a cut of the film made “as Richard Williams had originally intended.” This I had to see.
I couldn’t help but think, wow, Thief is indeed a beautiful thing. You can’t help but like the intricate illustrations and the attention to detail. The characters are pretty interesting. The hero is very gentle and doesn’t speak much and so must emote through other means. The sense of motion and movement is astounding.
Then there is the story. On this, I am at a loss to how fan boys and girls can extend so much love to the film. The story just isn’t good. Okay, look it’s really sad that such a beautiful piece of work had a terrible adventure along its way to being crafted. That said, the STORY HAS TO WORK! John Lasseter, another well-respected animation legend, has spoken at length on the importance of story; saying that Dumbo (his favorite film of all time) creates a strong and emotional connection with viewers because of it’s tight story and how it works with a main character who doesn’t speak.
In my view, the characters in Thief just feel contrived. The story and characters get smooshed into odd predicaments. Everything in the film becomes a vehicle used simply to keep things moving along to another amazing visual sequence where exquisite levels of even more hand drawn detail can then be displayed. Yes, it’s really beautiful and creative—but, we need more than technical interest to stay engaged with a film. There are also problems here with cultural stereotypes and sexual innuendo.
The final scene (spoiler alert) of Thief is the epitome of creative over indulgence where a single shoe tack is shot by the Cobbler like an arrow resulting in a Rube Goldberg inspired sequence where an entire battalion of bad guys and their war machines are taken out by a cascade of action and slap-stick antics that goes on for ten minutes.
I truly wanted to fall in love with The Thief and the Cobbler. Especially after everything I learned about the people involved in production of the film. I searched for critical reviews to see if others agreed with what I felt. The majority of the reviews I found contained love and respect for the people and the project as well as hate for the studios and how the project was brought to a conclusion. While I still love and admire the animation talent and mastery demonstrated by Richard Williams in Thief, I’m left feeling that the end result is an example of letting the wrong details become the focus of what could otherwise have been an amazing and much loved film.