The Thief and the Cobbler, also published under the titles of Princess and the Cobbler and Arabian Knight, is an animated movie that is notorious for its long and terrible production history, defilement of an award winning creator's magnum opus, and several really shitty releases.
The Notorious Production
A story for you: Once upon a time, there was Canadian-British animator named Richard Williams. Some of his work included the 1971 Christmas Carol movie, the 1977 Raggedy Ann and Andy movie, and Who framed Roger Rabbit (on which he was the director of animation). He did more than that, including some voice acting, TV movies, the opening animation sequences in live-action movies like Casino Royale, and he won a couple Oscars, Academy Awards, and an Emmy or two.
But Williams had a dream. He had a Magnum Opus. He was going to create a self-funded, hand drawn, intricately detailed, grand fantasy epic inspired by the Arabian Nights. This film was going to be unique; it was going to be a near-silent film with only a few of the characters speaking. It was going to be directed towards adults-- not raunchy, but mature and elegant. it was going to serve as a love letter to Middle Eastern art. It was going to have 24 fps rather than the industry standard 12. And it was going to be his baby. It was going to follow the stories of Mulla Nasrudin, based on a series of books by Idries Shah that Williams had actually illustrated previously.
Production started in 1964, and it was almost entirely self funded, as the animation studios at the time thought such a film would be unmarketable. Paramount almost got involved, but before they could seal the deal, the Shah family and Williams had a falling out. The three hours of completed animation they had was claimed by the Shah family, as Idries was the one who collected the stories and his sister was the one who translated them, giving them the intellectual property rights as well as the rights to the illustrations Williams had originally sold to them.
In 1972, Williams began production of what would become The Thief and the Cobbler, at this point just titled Thief. Because Williams' studio was mostly centered around small animated works like commercials, the Thief was put on the side. At one point, there was a freaking Saudi Arabian prince, Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, involved in the project. Al Saud was interested in the film, which Williams was aiming to be the Greatest Animated Feature Ever, and gave the studio 100k for a ten minute test sequence. They missed two deadlines and used 250k, and while the test was impressive, Al Saud backed off.
The script was rewritten several times during this period. Subplots were cut, characters-- who had already had to be changed from their Nasrudin origins-- had to be changed again. Spielberg was so impressed with what Williams had, he had him do Roger Rabbit, and Disney was in talks to distribute Thief. That fell through, Disney started work on Aladdin, Spielberg went to the UK, and Williams was left struggling to fund the film.
After twenty years of work, there was about twenty minutes of completed film.
After Roger Rabbit was a success in 1988 and Disney had bailed, Williams decided that he'd try shopping the film around again, and Warner Bros. became involved. However, in 1992, with only 15 minutes of the film left to do, the Completion Bond Company who'd insured the film's financing took over for Warner Bros and booted Williams from the project. Why did they do this? Because in the time it took for Williams' film to stew for twenty years, then finally almost, get done, Disney had written and completed another story set in the middle east with inspiration from the Arabian nights-- Aladdin. Disney is a monster. The completion Bond Company were freaked that they'd have to compete with Disney and took the Thief and the Cobbler movie to workshop it some more.
The film was given to Fred Calvert to work the film in a Korean animation company. Suddenly the near-silent and mature film characters were given voices. And, hey! That Disney story was a pretty big hit-- let's include some stuff from that! Let's have characters make anachronistic references to pop culture! Let's have relly shitty musical interludes even though this was never meant to be a musical!
It has been pointed out by many that Aladdin clearly borrowed inspiration from Williams' original idea, and then the bastardized version cribbed off Aladdin, thus making this a strange case of animation inbreeding.
Calvert's version, Princess and the Cobbler was released in 1993.
In a demonstration of just how cruel irony can be, the Disney-owned company, Miramax got the rights to the film, edited it even more, including cutting several of the surviving long, atmospheric animation sequences, and released it as Arabian Knight.
The film in all its incarnations were commercial failures. Williams was heartbroken about it, but has said in interviews that he's never seen any of the released versions. Regarding the films, Williams has said, "I'm not interested [in seeing them], but my son, who is also an animator, did tell me that if I ever wanted to jump off a bridge then I should take a look."
To put into perspective the development hell this project went though, consider that not one, but several voice actors for this film didn't see the end of the movie. Kenneth Williams, Sir Anthony Quayle, and Vincent Price were all involved in this movie, and all of them actually passed away before the final version. This film broke the Guinness world record for how long a film had been in/out of production by eleven years; the previous record was only 20 years, where as this one was 31.
Okay, Okay, But What About The Actual Movie?
Another story for you:
Once upon a time there was a golden and prosperous city called Golden City. it is ruled by the sleepy and benevolent King Nod, and protected by some golden balls that are stabbed into the tallest tower in the city. What do the balls actually do? Shut up, it's magic. There's apparently a prophecy that if balls are ever removed, the city would fall to their enemies, an army of evil cyclopses called "One-Eyes" led by their leader, One Eye.
Tack is a poor cobbler. The Thief is a thief, and the aforementioned "won't-shut-the-hell-up-Robin-Williams-wannabe" character. The two meet when the Thief sneaks into Tack's place, the two tousle, and Tack manages to offend King Nod's Vizier, Zigzag, who's passing by. Tack is taken to the palace to be executed, but the king's daughter, Princess Yum-Yum (Jesus God, these names) convinces the king to spare his life and to let him be of use, fixing one of her shoes.
Zigzag the vizier is upset by Yum-Yum and Tack hitting it off, as he intends to pull a Jafar and take over the kingdom by marrying Yum-Yum. The Thief breaks into the palace, gets Tack into trouble, then steals the magic balls. Immediately, One-Eyes head over to the kingdom to wage war. Nod realizes at one point that Zigzag is evil, and fires him, prompting Zigzag to defect to the One-Eyes' team. Tack and Yum-Yum have to leave and see a prophetic witch to learn how to defeat the evil and regain the balls. It ends with Aladdin and Jasmine-- I mean Tack and Yum-Yum married and the Thief running off into the sunset after making a fourth wall breaking joke, sorta like another character.
Restoration Attempts: The Recobbled Cut
Despite the extensive Development Hell this film has gone through, despite the atrocious voice acting and wedged-in song numbers, the plot elements that don't make sense, and despite the shamelessly ripped off Aladdin elements, the animation in this movie actually is gorgeous. Williams had set out to create a movie that functioned on ridiculously intricate backgrounds and patters inspired by Middle Eastern art and architecture, and in the places where he was involved, it shows.
At a 2000 film festival, Williams showed Roy Disney a workprint of the original film, which Roy liked. He became the first person to start the restoration process, seeking out any animation scraps, story boards, artwork, or anything else that was part of the project. While the Warner Bros. and Completion Bond Company had tossed what they didn't like out, a lot of stuff fell into the hands of people who worked on the project who saved their work privately. In 2003, the project was put on hold when Roy left Disney, and then it was canceled after his later death.
Enter film maker and fan Garrett Gilchrist and "The Recobbled Cut," a fan-made restoration of the film that uses incomplete animation sequences from Williams' original work, original voice work, story boards, and cuts out the shit Calvert added in when trying to make the film marketable to Aladdin fans.
The Recobbled Cut has been re-released three times as of this writing, in 2006, in 2007, and in 2013. As the cut becomes more and more popular, more and more artists or family of artists who were involved with the original projects have come forward donating what they have, which Gilchrist incorporated into the film. While it isn't the masterpiece Williams intended, it is definitely closer to his intended vision that the Miramax or Calvert bullshit. The Recobbled cut lets the film focus on what it was always meant to; the gorgeous and surreal artwork.
Don't watch Thief and the Cobbler. Don't watch Princess and the Cobbler, and definitely don't watch Arabian Knight.
Go watch the Recobbled Cut.