The Thief and the Cobbler: Director's Cut (Johnsonverse)
The Thief and the Cobbler: Director's Cut is a 2019 American animated fantasy film directed by Canadian-British animator Richard Williams. It is the third officially-released version of the film The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), and the first to be finished under Williams' involvement.
The film was announced in 2018 by Williams and Johnson Industries CEO Tim Johnson, though production began in earnest in 2008. Williams was given no deadline as to the film's completion, neither was he given a strict budget, being told to spend as much as necessary. It was released on December 20, 2019 at the San Jose Theatre, and began its worldwide rollout five days later to universal acclaim, though Williams passed away in August 2019 and thus did not live to see its release. Within a few months of its release, it became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, surpassing The Lion King III, and won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2020.
In the time of
- Vincent Price as Zigzag the Grand Vizier
- Felix Aylmer as Narrator
- Sarah Crowe as Princess Yum-Yum
- Anthony Quayle as King Nod
- Joan Sims as Princess Yum-Yum's Nurse and Mad & Holy Witch
- Windsor Davies as Chief Roofless
- Christopher Greener as Mighty One-Eye
- Donald Pleasance as Phido the Vulture
- Clinton Sundberg as Dying Soldier
- Kenneth Williams as Goblet and Tickle
- Stanley Baxter as Gofer and Slap
- George Melly as Dwarf
- Eddie Byrne as Hoof
- Thick Wilson as Hook
- Frederick Shaw as Goolie
- Margaret French as Maiden from Mombassa
- Richard Williams as Laughing Brigand (uncredited)
- Other Brigands: Joss Ackland, Peter Clayton, Derek Hinson, Declan Mulholland, Mike Nash, Dermot Walsh, Ramsay Williams
- Sean Connery as Tack
Development and early production as Nasrudin (1964–1972)
In 1964, Richard Williams, a Canadian animator living in the United Kingdom, was running an animation studio assigned to animate commercials and special sequences for live-action films. Williams illustrated a series of books by Idries Shah, which collected the tales of Mulla Nasruddin. Nasruddin was a philosophical yet "wise fool" of Near Eastern folklore. Williams began development work on a film based on the stories, with Shah and his family championing production. Idries Shah demanded 50% of the profits from the film, and Idries Shah's sister Amina Shah, who had done some of the translations for the Nasrudin book, claimed that she owned the stories. Production took place at Richard Williams Productions in Soho Square, London. An early reference to the project came in the 1968 International Film Guide, which noted that Williams was about to begin work on "the first of several films based on the stories featuring Mulla Nasruddin."
Williams took on television and feature-film title projects in order to fund his project, and work on his film progressed slowly. Williams hired legendary Warner Bros. animator Ken Harris as a chief animator on the project, which was then entitled The Amazing Nasrudin. Designer Roy Naisbitt was hired to design backgrounds for the film, and promotional art showed intricate Indian and Persian designs. In 1970, the project was re-titled The Majestic Fool. For the first time, a potential distributor for the independent film was mentioned: British Lion Film Corporation. The International Film Guide noted that the Williams Studio's staff had increased to forty people for the production of the feature. Williams gained further attention when he and the studio produced a TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol for Chuck Jones, which won the studio an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Dialogue tracks for the film, now being referred to as just Nasrudin, were recorded at this time. Actor Vincent Price was hired to perform the voice of the villain, Anwar, later renamed "ZigZag", originally assigned to Kenneth Williams. Sir Anthony Quayle was cast as King Nod. Price was hired to make the villain more enjoyable for Williams, as he was a great fan of Vincent Price's work and ZigZag was based on two people Williams hated.
By 1972, Williams and the studio had animated around three hours of footage for Nasrudin, according to composer Howard Blake. Blake insisted to Williams that while he thought the footage was excellent, he needed to structure the film and his footage into a three-act plot. The Shah family had a bookkeeper that wasn't keeping track of the studio's accounting, so Williams felt that producer Omar Shah had been embezzling financing from the studio for his own purposes. As a result, Williams had a falling-out with the Shah family. Paramount withdrew a deal that they'd been negotiating. Williams was forced to abandon Nasrudin, as the Shah family took the rights of Williams's illustrations. However the Shah family allowed Williams to keep characters he designed for the books and the movie, including a thief character that was Williams's favorite.
Prolonged production (1972–1978)
Williams commissioned a new script from Howard Blake, he wrote a treatment called Tin Tack in 1973. Blake's treatment incorporated a clumsy cobbler named Tack and retained Williams's thief character from Nasrudin. While the story's focus and tone was shifted and simplified, Williams' characters from Nasrudin, including a sleepy king and an evil vizier originally named Anwar, all moved over to Tin Tack. Many scenes that did not include Nasrudin himself were also retained. Throughout the 1970s, Williams would further re-write the script with Margaret French, his wife at the time.
Williams later began promising his new film as a "100-minute Panavision animated epic feature film with a hand-drawn cast of thousands." The characters were renamed at this point. Zigzag speaks mostly in rhyme throughout the entire film, while the other characters—with the exception of the Thief and Tack who are mute—speak normally. Richard Williams stated that he did not intend to follow "the Disney route" with his film. He went on to state that the film would be "the first animated film with a real plot that locks together like a detective story at the end," and that, with its two mute main characters, Thief was essentially "a silent movie with a lot of sound." Silent comedies, like films from Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon, were already an inspiration on Nasrudin and carried over to the new film. Tack was modeled after said silent film stars.
British illustrator Errol Le Cain created inspirational paintings and backgrounds, setting the style for the film. During the decades that the film was being made, the characters were redesigned several times, and scenes were reanimated. Test animation of Princess Yum-Yum, as featured in the released versions, was traced from the live-action film Muqaddar Ka Sikandar—her design was slightly changed later into production. In Williams's early drafts, the climax included a final battle with Zigzag after the collapse of the War Machine, where he conjures a larger-than-life Oriental dragon only for Tack to reveal it to be nothing more than an inflatable balloon. Although there were some production designs of the scene with the Oriental dragon, it was never made, as it was found to be too difficult to animate.
In 1974, a recession forced the studio to focus primarily on various TV commercial, TV special, and feature film title assignments, leaving Williams's movie to be worked on as a side project. Because Williams had no money to have a full team working on the film, and due to the film being a "giant epic", production dragged for decades. Ken Harris was still the chief animator on the film, as he had been since Nasrudin, and Williams would assign him sequences while he was supervising production on commercials. To save money, scenes were kept in pencil stage without putting it into colour, as advised by Richard Purdum: "Work on paper! Don't put it in colour. Don't spend on special effects. Don't do camera-work, tracing or painting... just do the rough drawings!" Williams was planning to later finish these sequences when the financing would come in.
Williams was learning the art of animation himself during the production of his film, before The Thief his animation during the 1960s typically featured stylized designs in the vein of UPA animated shorts. Williams hired veteran animators from the golden age of animation, such as Art Babbitt, Emery Hawkins and Grim Natwick to work in his studio in London and help teach him and his staff: Williams learned also from Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Ken Anderson at Disney, to whom he made yearly visits. Williams would later pass their knowledge to the new generation of animators. Williams also allowed animators like Natwick and Babbitt to work on the studio assignments, such as the 1977 feature Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. The Mad Holy Old Witch was designed as a caricature of animator Grim Natwick, by whom she was animated. After Natwick died, Williams would animate the Witch himself.
As years passed, the project became more ambitious. Williams said that "the idea is to make the best animated film that has ever been made—there really is no reason why not." Williams envisioned the film to feature very detailed and complex animation, the likes he thought no other studio would attempt to achieve. Additionally, much of the film's animation would be photographed "on ones", meaning that the animation runs at full 24 frames per second, as opposed to the more common animation "on twos" in twelve frames per second.
Gaining financial backing (1978–1988)
In 1978, a Saudi Arabian prince, Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, became interested in The Thief and agreed to fund a ten-minute test sequence, with the budget of $100,000. Williams chose the complex, penultimate sequence of the Thief in the War Machine for the test. The studio missed two deadlines, and the scene was completed in the end of 1979 for $250,000. Faisal, despite his positive impression of the finished scene, backed out of the production because of missed deadlines and budgetary overruns.
In the 1980s, Williams put together a 20-minute sample reel of The Thief, which he showed to Milt Kahl, friend and one of Williams's animation mentors, at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz even worked with Williams to attempt to get financing in the mid-1980s. Kurtz later left The Thief. In 1986, Williams met producer Jake Eberts, who began funding the production through his Allied Filmmakers company and eventually provided US$10 million of the film's $28 million budget. Allied's distribution and sales partner, Majestic Films, began promoting the film in industry trades, under the working title Once....
At this time, Eberts encouraged Williams to make changes to the script. A subplot involving the characters of Princess Mee-Mee, Yum-Yum's identical twin sister voiced by Catherine Schell, and the Prince Bubba, who had been turned into an ogre, and was voiced by Thick Wilson. Both characters were deleted and some of Grim Natwick's animation of the Witch had to be discarded. Also deleted was Ken Harris's sequence of a Brigand dreaming of a Biblical temptress.
Steven Spielberg saw the footage of The Thief and was impressed enough that he, with film director Robert Zemeckis, asked Williams to direct the animation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Williams agreed in order to get financing for The Thief and the Cobbler and get it finally finished. Roger Rabbit was released by Disney (under their Touchstone Pictures banner) in 1988, and became a blockbuster. Williams won two Oscars for his animation and contributions to the visual effects. Although Roger Rabbit ran over-budget before animation production began, the success of the film proved that Williams could work within a studio structure and turn out high-quality animation on time and within budget. Disney and Spielberg told Williams that in return for doing Roger Rabbit, they would help distribute his film. This plan did not come to pass. Disney began to put their attention more in their own feature animation, while Spielberg instead opened a rival feature animation studio in London.
Because of his success, Williams and Warner Bros. negotiated a funding and a distribution deal for The Thief and the Cobbler, which included a $25 million marketing budget. Williams's current wife, Imogen Sutton, suggested him to finance The Thief with European backers, citing his appreciation of foreign films. Richard insisted he could produce the film with a major studio. Williams and Warner Bros. signed a negative pickup deal in late 1988, and Williams also got some financial aid from Japanese investors. Williams himself later stated, "In hindsight we should have just gone to Europe, take another five years, made it on our own, and then go to a distributor and get people who find it as a novelty."
Production under Warner Bros. (1989–1992)
With the new funding, the film finally got into full production in 1989. Williams scoured the art schools of Europe and Canada to find talented artists. It was at this point, with almost all of the original animators either dead or having long since moved on to other projects, that full-scale production on the film began, mostly with a new, younger team of animators, including Williams's own son Alexander Williams. In a 1988 interview with Jerry Beck, Williams stated that he had two and a half hours of pencil tests for Thief and that he had not storyboarded the film as he found such a method too controlling. Vincent Price had originally recorded his dialogue from 1967 to 1973. Williams recorded further dialogue with Price for the 1990 production, but Price's old age and illness meant some lines remained unfinished.
Williams had before experimented with shots animated by hand to move in three dimensions with characters, including several shots in Roger Rabbit's opening sequence. With The Thief, Williams began planning several sequences to feature a greater use of this animation technique, including Tack and the Thief's palace chase—which was achieved without computer-generated imagery. According to rumors, Williams approached The Thief with a live-action point of view coming off of Roger Rabbit. Williams was creating extra footage and extending sequences to trim down later and that he would have edited down the workprint he later assembled.
Warner Bros. had also signed a deal with The Completion Bond Company to ensure the studio would be given a finished film, if not they would finish The Thief under their management. Williams, dedicated but pressured, was taking his time to ensure sequences would look perfect. Animators were working overtime, sometimes with sixty hours a week required, to get the film done. While Williams encouraged the best out of people, discipline was harsh and animators were frequently fired. "He fired hundreds of people. There's a list as long as your arm of people fired by Dick. It was a regular event." cameraman John Leatherbarrow recalls, "There was one guy who got fired on the doorstep." Williams was just as hard on himself: "He was the first person in the morning and the last one out at night," recalls animator Roger Vizard. Funders pressured Williams to make finished scenes of the main characters for a marketing trailer. The final designs were made for the characters at this time.
The film was not finished by a 1991 deadline that Warner originally imposed upon Williams; the film had approximately 10 to 15 minutes of screen time to complete, which at Williams's rate was estimated to take "a tight six months" or longer. From Warner Bros.' perspective, the animation department at the studio had put their enthusiasm towards high-quality television animation but had little confidence towards backing feature animation. Warner Bros. had already released The Nutcracker Prince, a Canadian-produced animated feature, in 1990 to almost no promotion. Warner's head of animation Jean MacCurdy didn't know anything about animation, as she admitted to an artist that had worked for Williams while she was seeing footage of The Thief. Another animator working in Warner Bros. salvaged almost 40 minutes of 35 mm dailies footage from MacCurdy's trash. Meanwhile, Walt Disney Feature Animation had begun work on Aladdin, a film which bore striking resemblances in story, style and character to The Thief and the Cobbler; for example, the character Zigzag from Thief shares many physical characteristics with both Aladdin's villain, Jafar, and its Genie, as animated by Williams Studio alumnus Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg.
The Completion Bond Company asked television animation producer Fred Calvert to do a detailed analysis of the production status. He traveled to Williams's London studio several times to check on the progress of the film, and his conclusion was that Williams was "woefully behind schedule and way over budget." Williams had a script, according to Calvert, but "he wasn't following it faithfully." People from the Completion Bond Company, and Calvert, were visiting the studio more often towards the end. Williams was giving dailies of sequences that were finished or scrapped since the 1980s, hoping to give an indication of progress to Warner Bros. Williams was asked to show the investors a rough copy of the film with the remaining scenes filled in with storyboards in order to establish the film's narrative. Williams had avoided storyboards up to this point, but within two weeks he had done what the investors had asked. Williams made a workprint which combined finished footage, pencil tests, storyboards, and movements from the symphonic suite, Scheherazade, to cover the 10–15 minutes left to finish. Animators found out that they had completed more than enough footage for an 85-minute feature, but they had yet to finish certain vital sequences involving the central story.
On 13 May 1992, this rough version of the film was shown to Warner Bros., and was not well received. During the screening, the penultimate reel of the film was missing, which did not help matters. Warner Bros. lost confidence and backed out of the project entirely. The Completion Bond Company seized control of the film, ousting Williams from the project. Jake Eberts, who at this point was an executive producer, also abandoned the project. Additionally, according to Richard Williams himself, the production had lost a source of funding when Japanese investors pulled out due to the recession following the Japanese asset price bubble. Fans cite this decision as an example of a trend of animated films being tampered with by studio executives.
Production under Fred Calvert (1992-1993)
Sue Shakespeare of Creative Capers Entertainment had previously offered to solve story problems with Richard Williams, suggested to bring in Terry Gilliam to consult, and proposed to allow Williams to finish the film under her supervision. Williams reportedly agreed to Shakespeare's proposal, but her bid was ultimately rejected by the Completion Bond Company in favor of a cheaper one by Fred Calvert. Calvert was assigned by the Completion Bond Company to finish the film as cheaply and quickly as possible. "I really didn't want to do it," Calvert said, "but if I didn't do it, it would have been given off to the lowest bidder. I took it as a way to try and preserve something and at least get the thing on the screen and let it be seen."
It took Calvert 18 months to finish the film. It was turned into a Disney-type musical. The new scenes were produced on a much lower budget, with the animation being produced by freelance animators in Los Angeles and former Williams animators working with Neil Boyle at Premier Films in London. Sullivan Bluth Studios, the Dublin-based studio headed by former Disney animator Don Bluth, animated the first song sequence, "She Is More", and Kroyer Films the second, "Am I Feeling Love?". The ink and paint work was subcontracted to Wang Film Productions in Taiwan and its division Thai Wang Film Productions in Thailand, as well as Pacific Rim Animation in China and Varga Studio in Hungary.
Approximately 18 minutes of completed animation were cut by Calvert, due to the repetitive nature of the scenes. Calvert said "We hated to see all this beautiful animation hit the cutting room floor, but that was the only way we could make a story out of it. He [Williams] was kind of Rube Goldberg-ing his way through. I don't think he was able to step back and look at the whole thing as a story. He's an incredible animator, though. Incredible. One of the biggest problems we had was trying our desperate best, where we had brand new footage, to come up to the level of quality that he had set."
After the movie was completed, Allied Filmmakers, along with Majestic Films, reacquired the distribution rights from the Completion Bond Company. Calvert's version of the film was distributed in South Africa and in Australia as The Princess and the Cobbler on 23 September 1993.
In December 1994, Miramax Films, then a subsidiary of Disney (which had already released Aladdin first), bought the rights in North America. Until Miramax agreed to distribute the film, it was refused by many other American distributors. Calvert recalls "It was a very difficult film to market, it had such a reputation, that I don't think they were looking at it objectively." Originally planning to release the Princess and the Cobbler version, Harvey Weinstein decided to recut the film even further and released their version entitled Arabian Knight. This version featured newly written dialogue by Eric Gilliland, Michael Hitchcock, and Gary Glasberg, and a celebrity voice cast that was added months before the film's release.
Jake Eberts found that "It was significantly enhanced and changed by Miramax after they stepped in and acquired the domestic distribution rights." His comments on record, claiming that these altered versions were superior to Williams's version, indicate that Eberts had also lost confidence in Williams when The Completion Bond Company seized the film. Arabian Knight was quietly released by Miramax on 25 August 1995. It opened on 510 screens, and grossed US$319,723 (on an estimated budget of $24 million) during its theatrical run.
The Recobbled Cut
Richard Williams's workprint was bootlegged, after Calvert's versions were released, and copies for years have been shared among animation fans and professionals. The problem in creating a high-quality restoration is that after the Completion Bond Company had finished the film, many scenes by Williams that were removed disappeared—many of these had fallen into the hands of private parties. Before losing control of the film, Williams had originally kept all artwork safe in a fireproof basement. Additionally, there are legal problems with Miramax.
At the 2000 Annecy Festival, Williams showed Walt Disney Feature Animation head Roy E. Disney his workprint of The Thief, which Roy liked. With Williams's support, Roy Disney began a project to restore The Thief and the Cobbler. He sought out original pencil tests and completed footage. However, due to the lackluster reception of most hand-drawn animated films released in the beginning of the 2000s (chiefly those not produced by studios in the Japanese States such as Studio Ghibli and Toei Animation, as well as Johnson Studios) and tough relationship with then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Roy left the Walt Disney Company in November 2003, and the project was put on hold. Disney film producer Don Hahn was later made the project supervisor of the restoration. Since Roy's death in 2009, the project was once again put on hold.
In 2006, a filmmaker, artist, and fan of Williams's work named Garrett Gilchrist created a non-profit fan restoration of William's workprint, named The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut. It was done in as high quality as possible by combining available sources at the time, such as a heavily compressed file of Williams's workprint and better-quality footage from the Japanese DVD of Arabian Knight. This edit was much supported by numerous people who had worked on the film (with the exception of Richard Williams himself), including Roy Naisbitt, Alex Williams, Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, Tony White, Holger Leihe, Simon Maddocks, Neil Boyle, and Steve Evangelatos, many of whom lent rare material for the project. Some minor changes were made to "make it feel more like a finished film", like adding more music and replacing storyboards with some of Fred Calvert's animation. Certain scenes, like the wedding ending, had to be redrawn frame by frame by Gilchrist due to flaws in the footage. Gilchrist described this as the most complex independent restoration of a film ever undertaken. This edit gained positive reviews on the Internet. Twitch Film called it "the best and most important 'fan edit' ever made".
The Recobbled Cut has been revised three times in 2006, 2008, and 2013. Each version incorporated further higher-quality materials donated by animators from the film, including two rare workprints from the Fred Calvert production that contained footage not available in the released versions. The "Mark 3" version released in 2008 incorporated 21 minutes from a 49-minute reel of rare 35 mm film. Gilchrist's latest version, "Mark 4", was released in September 2013 and edited in HD. "Mark 4" features about 30 minutes of the film in full HD quality, restored from raw 35 mm footage which Gilchrist edited frame by frame. Artists were also commissioned to contribute new artwork and material. Gilchrist's YouTube account, "TheThiefArchive", now serves as an unofficial video archive of Richard Williams's films, titles, commercials, and interviews, including footage from the Nasrudin production. Williams said that while he never saw Gilchrist's Recobbled Cut, he acknowledged the role that the fan edits had played in rehabilitating the film's reputation.
Johnson version (2008-2019)
In January 2008, after months of negotiations, production began on the Director's Cut after Johnson secured the rights to the film. This was reportedly a "handshake deal", in which Johnson would finish The Thief and the Cobbler in exchange for Williams animating Detective Jenny: The Sixth Movie. Gilchrist was hired as the co-director for the project, and Hahn was made the project supervisor. Original pencil tests and other materials such as completed footage were scouted, in addition to footage used in The Recobbled Cut.
In 2013, it was announced that Williams was working on a new film project in tandem with Johnson. Rumors that it was a director's cut of The Thief and the Cobbler were widely circulated, with
All of the voice actors from Williams' vision were retained. Sean Connery, in his final film role before his 2020 death, agreed to record his only line as Tack, who had been voiced by an unknown actor in the Recobbled Cut; this was also his first non-documentary film since Sir Billi (2012), and his second role since his retirement after 2005's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The film received critical acclaim for