“The Thief and the Cobbler” is a masterpiece of animation but a novice’s play at storytelling. It is bursting with character and expression but predictable and narratively uninteresting, simple as a young kids’ film. Yet the film holds numerous layers of artistry one would rarely dare to express to an exclusively young audience. In fact, its artistry makes it one of the most captivating films I have ever seen. The passion behind its creation is tangible in every second of buttery-smooth animation, and the non-narrative aspects of the writing—characters, humor, visual gags—are consistently delightful. It’s a film I unabashedly adore, but on paper, its broader issues sound immense. So, how do we solve this riddle? If the film is so flawed in clearly discernible ways, how can I so love the whole?
First off, the plot of the film is, again, exceedingly simple: There’s a fantastical Arabian city of gold protected by fate, a thief that steals the golden balls (yes, they only call them “balls,” yes, it’s pretty funny). A cobbler named Tack joins the kingdom’s princess, YumYum, to protect the city from both a comically evil army called the One Eyes and the turncoat evil Grand Vizier ZigZag, whose skin is inexplicably blue. It probably does sound quite juvenile from that description (I still can’t get over how odd YumYum is as a name), but there is far more going on, just not in terms of plot.
“The Thief and the Cobbler” was never finished or even released. It did have two releases under different titles, but neither versions held true to the unique (and sometimes bizarre) vision of the director and lead animator Richard Williams, and it is precisely what they avoid that I find most interesting about the original. All fans of the film had available to them was, for a long time, a workprint: an unfinished version of a film put together in a form that would represent the final edit. The workprint is finished in the most important ways: It’s fully voiced, well-edited and has all the completed animation the original team had made, even if some shots are just pencil animation. While plenty of the shots are, sadly, only storyboards or animatics—that is, a series of key pictures rather than full animation—these do represent the minority. Finally, the workprint has, in recent years, been heavily touched-up by a dedicated fan named Garrett Gilchrist (whose “Recobbled” cut of the film is available on YouTube) that softens a lot of the workprint’s overly bright colors (which were either a somewhat-off choice by the color artists or merely a symptom of the original tapes) and has been upscaled to a tolerable resolution, among other improvements.
The film is roughly an hour and 40 minutes, yet the golden balls are stolen—remember this is the inciting incident—40 minutes in. However, the moment-to-moment writing is generally quite brilliant. Dialogue and character dynamics, like that between Tack and YumYum, are simple and charming. A personal favorite gag of mine are the brigands the main characters encounter in the desert, who are drawn comically large, and no two of whom look the same. They’re inexplicably Irish and very convincingly voiced, and their characterization is that fun kind of comical idiocy that is almost wholesome in its innocence, ironic given they’re supposed to be a band of robbing bandits. But by far the best form of character writing is that of ZigZag, the Grand Vizier with eyes for the crown, voiced by Vincent Price, who gave an incredibly flavorful performance elevated by the character’s inexplicable penchant for speaking in rhyming couplets, lines which were impressively written, since couplets can easily end up sounding awkward.
By far, the aspect of “The Thief and the Cobbler” that stands out the most is its animation and visual style. The film’s production spanned 29 years before leaving William’s hands in the ‘90s, taking its time both due to snags in funding and the artists’ immense care for creating the most refined and most ambitious animation they could (Wikipedia). The work was un-economized unlike most animated films—which can be quite limited in time and budget—and the final product is stunning, especially to those familiar with how difficult and tedious hand-drawn animation often is. The film’s motion is enchantingly smooth and lively, even when it’s slow. No detail was spared in the pursuit of artistry; numerous characters have constant sources of extra movement, like long billowing clothes, a swarm of flies that follows the titular Thief as if it’s a part of his own being or ZigZag’s wonderfully absurd coiled shoes that smoothly unwind and wind up again with every step.
The film’s visual style also interestingly interacts with the animated movement. Marc Hendry on YouTube has a great video detailing various aspects of the film’s visuals, such as its continuous use of intricate background and optical illusions. A shot might open with an environment largely made up of flat, intricate patterns that characters then walk into or over to reveal the physical form hidden by illusion. As Hendry puts it, “Over the course of the film, this creates a hypnotic effect, and it’s a visual treat every time they present you with an illusion like this and then solve it by revealing the perspective with animation.” This creates shots that are more visually engaging by default than most traditional backgrounds that try to emulate real space. Finally, the most delightful characterizing flair in the film is, to me, the way expressions are formed for the protagonist Tack, who is both mute and whose mouth is rarely visible. Instead, he always holds one or couple literal tacks in his mouth that continually shift to create the exact lines of a smile, or a frown, or a side-mouthed concentration with the head of the tack as a dimple. It’s perhaps one of the most charming character design ideas I’ve seen done in animation.
This also brings me to my ultimate answer for why I love this broken film, which is that its goal, unlike most cinema, is not to tell a story, but to string together all these effects of character, visual style and animation into a dazzling whole. That’s why unimportant scenes drag on for minutes, and it’s also why those very scenes feature some of the most ambitious animation: They are the reason for the film’s existence. Other aspects, like the splendidly fun dialogue of characters like ZigZag, are a result of passionate and creative people making the film they wanted to make, a film that had no apparent need for a perfect script. I’ve sometimes imagined the drawn-out animated sequences as standalone short films, and, aside from the context that the narrative offers, I think I would have no technical issues with those sequences in that setting. So, one could almost say that “The Thief and the Cobbler” is a series of masterfully animated shorts justified by a simple narrative with some fun characters and crafty dialogue. Importantly, this art of immediacy isn’t truly shallow; it’s like the film equivalent of a painting, where whatever narrative might be drawn from it is hardly the point, and one must merely watch.
The Persistence of Vision is a documentary all about the insane story of this movie’s production, a must watch if you’re a fan.