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Ahead of Aladdin, watch the lost film that helped shape it

Ahead of Aladdin, watch the lost film that helped shape it


Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler has a complicated history

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There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut (Mark 4), a 2013 Garrett Gilchrist recreation of Richard Williams’ unfinished feature film. Begun by Williams’ London-based studio in 1964, then seized by a financier and farmed out to another animation company for completion in 1992, The Thief and the Cobbler tells the story of an ancient Arabian city governed by a decadent king and a corrupt vizier. When a wily thief crosses paths with a kind-hearted cobbler named Tack, the encounter launches a chain of events that leads to Tack falling for the king’s daughter, and the city falling under siege by a tribe of one-eyed monsters. The fourth and most complete of Gilchrist’s “recobbled” cuts (which attempt to restore as much of Williams’ original vision as possible) uses footage from a much-bootlegged work print, combined with some original Gilchrist art, rare clips provided by animators who worked on the project, and pieces of the compromised 1993 theatrical version.

Why watch now?

Because Aladdin opens this weekend.

After the massive box-office success of the live-action The Jungle Book in 2016 and the live-action Beauty and the Beast in 2017, Walt Disney Studios seems to have gone all-in on the idea of remaking its own animated classics, replicating those films’ most memorable images and musical numbers with actors and CGI. This year has already seen a new Dumbo, with The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp still to come, plus Mulan and The Sword in the Stone in 2020.

And this week brings Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, and co-written by Ritchie, John August, and Vanessa Taylor, who adapt the 1992 animated original fairly closely. Will Smith takes on the role of Genie (voiced by Robin Williams in the cartoon), who helps a resourceful thief and a compassionate princess outwit an evil vizier.

Some animation fans may note the irony of Disney squeezing more money out of a movie that sometimes comes perilously close to ripping off The Thief and the Cobbler. The 1992 Aladdin is loosely based on the ancient story of Aladdin and his magic lamp, from One Thousand and One Nights, and there are elements in Disney’s version that aren’t in Williams’ film, such as the Genie. But both movies feature an evil vizier with a pet bird, and a rotund king with a beautiful daughter. And Aladdin and his pet monkey share characteristics with both Williams’ thief and cobbler. There’s an uncanny similarity in visual design between the two films — and the two viziers in particular.

The Thief and the Cobbler was hardly a secret project. Williams started working on an early version in the 1960s, after illustrating a series of books drawn from folklore about the Sufi “holy fool” Nasrudin. Richard Williams Productions was already a successful UK animation studio then, renowned for its visually striking commercials, movie credits, and animated TV specials. For decades, Williams plowed a lot of his profits into paying employees to work on what would become The Thief and the Cobbler. Over the years, he talked extensively about the film to reporters, and showed demo reels to potential investors. (One of those presentations led to his studio getting hired to do the Oscar-winning animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.) Several Williams staffers found other jobs after working with him — including two who worked on Aladdin.

Granted, The Thief and the Cobbler takes a very different approach from Aladdin. In the late 1980s, Williams struck a deal with Warner Bros. to finance the completion of his dream project via a bond company. But by the time the studio saw an early cut of his work, Walt Disney had scored big with the musical fairy tales The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, neither of which resembled Williams’ quirky collection of Arabian vignettes. When Warner pulled out of the project, the bond company hired another animation studio, headed by Fred Calvert, to finish it. A version released by a new distributor overseas added cutesy songs, plus dialogue for the previously mute Tack. Then Miramax acquired that cut and tampered with it further, jettisoning more of the purely visual comedy, and hiring Jonathan Winters to give the once-mute thief an internal monologue.

Who it’s for

Animation connoisseurs and anyone obsessed with “lost films.”

Like Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind or Terry Gilliam’s first attempt at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Williams’ unfinished The Thief and the Cobbler is the stuff of legend among cinephiles. But while Gilliam eventually got a second chance to make his movie, and while Welles’ film was eventually pulled together posthumously by simpatico colleagues and released on Netflix, the original The Thief and the Cobbler will never be salvaged, because Williams and his animators never completed all the sequences they needed.

Still, Gilchrist’s “recobbled” cut — not endorsed by Williams, by the way — does look like a half-masterpiece. In his commercial work, Williams had a reputation for “wow,” always delivering finely detailed images and fluid motion beyond what even Disney was doing. His film strings together moment after moment of that wow, with dazzlingly complicated shifts in perspective achieved entirely with pen and ink, plus some lovingly crafted silent comedy and a fun voice performance by a rhyming Vincent Price as the villain (recorded mostly between 1967 and 1973).

Where to see it

Gilchrist’s cut of the The Thief and the Cobbler — along with an impressive assemblage of Richard Williams’ other animation work — is available for free, with ads, on Gilchrist’s YouTube channel, TheThiefArchive. There’s also a fascinating 2012 Kevin Schreck documentary about the making of The Thief and the Cobbler called Persistence of Vision, available to rent or buy on Vimeo.