This is the article I ran in Animato! #35...it may shed a little light
on the background of the film
An Arabian Knight-mare
The story of Richard Williams' epic film The Thief and The Cobbler is
a cautionary tale for all creators
by G. Michael Dobbs
The recent cancellation of plans to release the 1995 Miramax film
Arabian Knight on home video is the latest sad twist in the history of
Richard Williams' The Thief and The Cobbler. The award-winning
Canadian animator had been working on his dream project for almost 30
years only to see the film completed and substantially altered by
others. Now animation fans won't even have the opportunity to see what
did remain of Williams' vision. At a time when almost every G-rated
animated film priced at $20.00 or less is snapped up by parents, the
decision to indefinitely postpone the video release makes no economic
sense for Miramax and its parent company, Disney. But then, much about
this production makes little sense.
The history of live-action motion pictures is filled with examples
of films which have been abandoned before completion (Von Sternberg's
I Claudius, Welles' It's All True) and films that were severely
altered by distributors ( Gilliam's Brazil, Welles' The Magnificent
Ambersons). Animation, though, has seldom had these kind of stories.
The nature of the process of producing commercial animation is one of
careful planning. Commercial animation has seldom ever had the kind of
wheeling and dealing that has characterized live-action film
production. The Thief and The Cobbler is an exception.
The animated feature Arabian Knight was released with little fanfare
by Miramax Films last summer. There was no mention that the film was
the brainchild of the man who directed the animation for Who Framed
Roger Rabbit, and one easily could conclude the film was some sort of
cheap knock-off of Disney's Aladdin. Hardcore animation fans
recognized the film for what it really was, the much-delayed The Thief
and The Cobbler.
This is a story with no winners, as the outcome is that Williams'
prize project will never be seen as he intended, the reputation of an
animation professional has been shredded, and another non-Disney
animated feature has died at the box-office.
Richard Williams is a bit of a conundrum. His work has won an Oscar
and an Emmy, and although he was the animation director for Who Framed
Roger Rabbit, he has little name value to the general public. A
Canadian who went to Great Britain with animation producer George
Dunning in the mid-Fifties, Williams set up his own studio in 1958 and
produced animation for commercials and independent shorts.
His big break came when he was selected to produce animated titles
for The Charge of The Light Brigade in 1968. His production of A
Christmas Carol received the Academy Award in 1972. Williams became
better known to American audiences through the fantastic shorts that
made up the titles for the revived Pink Panther series in the
Williams began work on T&C in 1964 when he had planned to do a film
about a children's book character named Mulla Nasruddin. Williams had
already provided the illustrations for the book. An early reference to
the project came in the 1968 International Film Guide. Williams
received great praise that year for his title animation work in films
such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Charge
of the Light Brigade. The book notes that Williams was about to begin
work on "the first of several films based on the stories featuring
Like director Orson Welles, Williams would take on an outside
assignment in order to put money into his own project, so work went
slowly on his film as reflected by subsequent editions of the
International Film Guide. In 1969, the Guide noted that animation
legend Ken Harris was now working on the project which was now
entitled Mulla Nasrudin. The illustrations from the film show
impressive and intricate Indian and Persion designs.
In 1970, the project was re-titled The Majestic Fool and for the
first time, a distributor for the independent film was mentioned,
British Lion. The International Film Guide noted that due to the
increase in production for the small studio, the staff had increased
to 40 people.
The Academy Award Williams won for A Christmas Carol undoubtedly
strengthened his position in completing his feature which was now
being referred as Nasruddin!. He began recording the dialogue tracks
for the film, and hired Vincent Price to perform the voice of the
villain, Anwar (later re-named Zigzag).
The whole focus of the film, though, was about to be changed. In a
promotional booklet released in 1973, it was announced that Williams
apparently decided that " 'Nasruddin' was found to be too verbal and
not suitable for animation, therefore Nasruddin as a character and the
Nasruddin stories were dropped as a project. However, the many years
work spent on painstaking research into the beauty of Oriental art has
been retained. Loosely based on elements in the Arabian Nights
stories, an entirely new and original film entitled 'The Thief and The
Cobbler' is now the main project of the Williams Studio. Therefore any
publicity references to the old character of Nasruddin are now
Like many publicity releases, this one didn't tell the whole story.
The writer failed to mention that while Nasruddin was out, "old"
footage and characters were indeed being retained. Price's
Anwar/Zigzag, the Thief himself, and the elderly nurse to the princess
were all being carried over to the "new" film which Williams was
promising would be a "100 minute Panavision animated epic feature film
with a hand drawn cast of thousands." Sequences from the old film
which made it into Williams' new film included the camel laughing at
the Thief at the waterhole, the wounded soldier riding to tell the
Golden City of the news of the One Eyes, and the princess' nanny
beating the Thief up when he tried to steal her bananas.
For the next several years, Williams continued to work on the film
while completing commercial assignments. He recorded a number of
British actors performing various voices during this period.
In an effort to become "bankable" (his word), Williams took on what
was supposed to be the part-time job of supervising a new feature film
based on the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories. Originally Williams'
contract called on him to work two weeks out of every month, an
arrangement he later described to animation historian Milt Gray in
Funnyworld as "silly."
The Raggedy Ann film proved to be a nightmare for Williams. While he
was being made responsible for the film, he had little control over
the production which was being bankrolled by the publishers of the
original stories and its parent company ITT. He was later removed from
the final stages of production, but received most of the blame for the
film's box office failure.
During the production of Raggedy Ann, Williams received a fair amount
of publicity and in an interview with John Canemaker in the Feb. 1976
issue of Millimeter, he gave a hint about his vision for T&C. "The
Thief is not following the Disney route. It's to my knowledge the
first animated film with a real plot that locks together like a
detective story at the end. It has no sentiment and the two main
characters don't speak. It's like a silent movie with a lot of sound."
A radical approach to be sure, but one must consider the animation
scene at the time. The Disney Studio was still floundering from the
loss of its founder, and the animated films which had stirred the
imagination of the critics and audiences were definitely not Disney.
Williams' old boss George Dunning had directed The Yellow Submarine to
acclaim and Ralph Bakshi's violent, profane and highly personal film
Heavy Traffic hadn't just made money, it was accepted with a fair bit
of hoopla into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. This indeed
was the time for yet another approach.
For the time, though, the pattern continued of Williams funding his
film with outside jobs, while he refined his vision of the project.
A little light was seen at the end of the tunnel when trade ads
appeared announcing that veteran Hollywood producer Gary Kurtz had
teamed up with Williams to complete the film. The ads announced that
The Thief Who Never Gave Up would be released in Christmas 1986, but,
of course, it wasn't.
Williams did meet the man in 1986, though, who would bring the film
to the screen. Producer Jake Eberts, whose company had financed films
such as Dances With Wolves and City of Joy, met with Williams and
began funding the production. According to an article in the August
30, 1995 edition of The Los Angeles Times, Eberts eventually put in
$10 million of the film's $28 million budget. Ebert wasn't exactly a
stranger to animation as he had co-produced Watership Down.
Williams continued to work on T&C , and reported in a 1988 interview
with Jerry Beck that he had 2 1/2 hours of pencil tests for T&C, and
that he hadn't used the storyboard method to make the film. Williams
felt the storyboard method of production was too controlling.
For a filmmaker who was producing this feature with his own
financing, this approach was certainly daring and allowed animators to
push themselves into creating remarkable scenes. It is not, though,
the best way to estimate costs.
Williams' bad experience on Raggedy Ann was compounded with his
experience with Ziggy's Gift, a Christmas special featuring the comic
strip character created by Tom Wilson. Williams also told Beck that,
even though the production won an Emmy, he didn't want to be a hired
hand again on a project.
Of course, he was just that on the film which brought him more
attention than anything else he's done to date, Who Framed Roger
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