A review requested by Robert Hamer, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It's important to get it read into the record, right up front, that in a very real and very important sense, The Thief and the Cobbler doesn't actually exist. Parts of it exist, and from these parts, we can generally extrapolate what the movie might have been like. This is indeed the major project of Garrett Gilchrist, the creator (we might more accurately say "curator") of The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut, available on YouTube at Gilchrist's invaluable channel TheThiefArchive, where he has gathered as much of the rare work of animator and director Richard Williams as could be managed without cease-and-desist letters (on the subject of which: if you live in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom, you might find the Recobbled Cut sometimes missing a part, but there are surely ways around that). But as the name makes clear, The Thief and the Cobbler is the main focus.

As well it might be! The Thief and the Cobbler is among the most important pieces of animation ever produced, or semi-produced as the case may be. The project began its extraordinary life in 1964, when Canadian-born 31-year-old Williams, owner of the UK advertising animation studio Richard Williams Productions, was hired to illustrate a collection of stories by Idries Shah adapting traditional folklore about the wise fool Mulla Nasruddin. Williams was so delighted by the character, and by the artwork he created, combining vaguely Persian motifs and minimalist, loose line drawings in a very 1960s idiom, that he decided to pour all of his energies into a Nasruddin feature. For the next eight years, that's just what he did: all of his projects were taken on to finance this dream picture, he hired the great Ken Harris (who had worked at Warner Bros. and MGM as a favorite of director Chuck Jones) to lead the animation team, and hired Vincent Price to record the lines of the film's villain. Much footage was produced, all of it generally regarded as quite beautiful, and in 1972, Williams found himself on the outs with the Shah family (he thought their bookkeeper was using his project to embezzle funds), and as a result, found that all of that footage was legally unusable.

Faced with such a major setback, Williams doubled-down, essentially: he was permitted to use some of the Nasruddin designs in the creation of a brand-new Middle-Eastern set fantasy film, and he at this time committed to making that film into, basically, the finest piece of animation the world had ever seen. He hired more and more of the greatest animators of the 1930s Golden Age, as much to serve as a teaching resource as to produce footage, and he made the decision that his film - first to be called Tin Tack, then Once..., then The Thief Who Never Gave Up, before finally settling on The Thief and the Cobbler in the 1980s - would be animated, from start to finish, at 24 distinct drawings per second.

This is an extraordinary thing, and worthy of some discussion. Generally speaking, big-budget traditional animation made in the United States is animated at 12 frawings per second, each drawing photographed in two consecutive frames of film ("on twos"). Animation in which each film frame is a separate drawing ("on ones") was reserved only for extremely complicated motions, or the most spectacular, show-stopping plot moments. This is for purely budgetary reasons: twice as many drawings means twice as much expense and twice as long to produce the same length of footage. The human eye can just barely make out individual drawings at 12 per second, and really only if you're looking for it; 24 per second is smoother and more flowing, but it's nothing critical if you're not just trying to show off.

Well, Richard Williams damn well wanted to show off, so an entire feature on ones it was to be. And in Panavision widescreen, meaning that the artists needed to fill a canvas somewhere between 40% and 50% larger than the typical animated widescreen (which remained narrower than American films generally until the 1980s, or perhaps even the 1990s). This is already an ambition close to madness, but the added wrinkle was that The Thief and the Cobbler was very nearly unmarketable: an animated fantasy adventure designed for an adult audience, whose two title characters have a grand total of one line of spoken dialogue between them, and with acutely stylised design, both of characters and backgrounds. Little wonder that Williams and his assembled dream team spent most of the 1970s and 1980s working on virtually everything but The Thief and the Cobbler, and adding a few frames here or there when the money presented itself. You can still see the ambition seeping through, even in the make-work projects: the 1977 Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure is a particularly striking example of a film whose elaborate virtual camera movements and character choreography aren't merely more complex than the film requires, they're perhaps more complex than the film can stand.

On and off, Williams and crew ran into money: one influx of cash from a Saudi prince was promptly turned into a hugely impressive and ambition ten-minute sequence that the prince loved very much. He loved less that it cost more than twice as much as he had offered, and that Williams turned it in late, and declined to finance more. And so it went, though as the '80s wore on, The Thief and the Cobbler achieved legendary status within the animation community. It was based on the small amount of completed footage, in fact, that Williams and his studio were given the job of creating the animation for 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It was this film's outrageous success that finally burst the doors open for Williams's dream project, with Warner Bros. agreeing to finance the rest of the project. Work proceeded at an extraordinary rate between 1988 and 1992, by Thief standards, but Williams was still missing deadlines, and his thoroughly idiosyncratic style was still quite unmarketable. Eventually, the Completion Bond Company, the legal muscle protecting Warners' interests, hired TV animation producer Fred Calvert to analyse the state of the production. At this time, Williams was ordered to produce a workprint of everything he had - everything - showing both the completed footage, the full animation that still needed ink and paint, and the scenes remaining to be worked on - or started.

This workprint was delivered in May of 1992, and now we may at last pause the history lesson and actually take a look at The Thief and the Cobbler, for Williams's 1992 workprint was soon bootlegged and passed around as something of a fetish object by animators and animation buffs, and you may still watch it today. It presents, in 90 minutes without credits, the story of the cobbler Tack, who lives and plies his trade in the Golden City ruled by King Nod (Anthony Quayle), until the day that he crosses paths with a nameless thief. Their mix-up results in Tack scattering shoe tacks in the path of the Grand Vizier ZigZag (Price), an unctuous and evil sort (but has there ever been a good vizier in a fairy tale?). Tack is very nearly executed, but he is saved by the intervention of Princess Yum-Yum (Sarah Crowe), and the two fall in love more or less on the spot. Meanwhile, the thief has stolen the three golden balls from atop the city's highest minaret, which are the symbol of the city's security. Given the king's recent nightmare promising doom at an invading army of one-eyed man-monsters, he is thrown into a terrified panic, and in short order, three different parties head out: ZigZag to betray the kingdom and take power; Tack, Yum-Yum, and her nurse (Joan Sims) to find a mysterious old witch who can offer advice to save the kingdom; and the thief to find and steal the huge ruby that shows the way to the witch.

It is, in faith, total boilerplate; if your engagement with the One Thousand and One Nights goes any deeper than knowing that something of that title exists, you already pretty much know the story. But then, storytelling is very much the least of Williams's interests here. The 1992 workprint reveals a movie intoxicated with animation as an expressive medium, and simply as a vehicle for graphic arts. Even more than the extravagant beauty of the character animation, what stands out most about the film is its powerful, geometric backgrounds. There's not a god-damn thing in the whole movie that even glances at the realism of Disney or anime backgrounds; where those disciplines, and all that descend from them (which is the overwhelming majority of animated features) are interested in suggesting the illusion of 3-D space in a 2-D plane of movement, The Thief and Cobbler is pretty much the exact opposite. It attempts to create 3-D movement in an environment that greatly respects the flatness of the sheet of paper. Golden City and its castle are made up of seemingly nothing but squares and rectangles, arranged in checkerboard patterns or other simple shapes. And throughout the first portion of the movie, we see characters move in and out of these fields of identically-sized shapes, suddenly revealing that these squares define the floor and those squares define steps, or doors, or holes in the floor, or any number of things. And there is, near as I can tell, absolutely no other reason for this than the sheer pleasure of the surprise when it happens; allowing our brain to realise that our eyes have failed us in some little way, and seeing the "correct" shape snap into being.

That being said, good a the background designs are, the animation in The Thief and the Cobbler is certainly nothing shy of total genius. Some of it is nothing but Williams's intoxication with the possibility of doing things that had never been done before (and never were done subsequently): showing elaborate three-dimensional spaces moving in a graceful dance with the characters, swimming through the air of this fantasy world with an abandon than neither cartoons nor live-action cinema could ever fully embrace. And I think "swimming" is exactly the right word: the particular feeling one gets in watching the Workprint is of extreme fluidity in a particularly dreamlike way. There's nothing efficient here: the film stops cold for tens of seconds to watch characters (the thief, especially), simply move, to allow us the pleasure of watching the tiny fluctuations in their bodies and clothes, the pliability of their limbs, the elasticity of their faces (ZigZag most of all, though Yum-Yum's screwed-up expression of amused confusion when learning Tack's name is a right marvel), the way they seem to glide through their environment rather than walk over it, as in even the absolute best animation.

It's simply unlike anything else you've seen: a mad, drunk celebration of the cartoon medium at its most flexible, almost experimental (and I don't know that you can get much more experimental than the animation in The Thief and the Cobbler except by abandoning narrative and representation altogether). The movement seems overdetermined in some ways, and maybe even sluggish, but in a manner that pulls us into the essential unreality of the world, rather than feeling like an error. To be fair, I cannot imagine how Williams possibly thought this sparsely-plotted adventure of two silent comics whose gyrations feel like a combination of Buster Keaton and modern ballet, set in a borderline-incomprehensible world of flat shapes and indefinite spaces was ever going to make a penny, and insofar as the moneymen had the job of making certain that the at least get their investment back, I get why the spike was driven in the heart of the project.

But I don't have to like it. What I do like is the limitless imagination on display in the workprint, the extravagant joy of seeing movement take place in lines and angles that it simply never does in cinema. I like the War Machine sequence, that over-budget, over-schedule ten minute sequence that finds the thief meandering through a giant system of cogs and ladders and advancing soldiers, playing out as a Rube Goldberg machine the size of the universe; even in the age of CGI, the sequence would a miracle of choreographing the motion of dozens of small working pieces, and this was made entirely by hand. It's hard not to regard it as the all-time pinnacle of the craft of animation. I like that Williams decided that he needed to have a scene where he animated all 52 standard cards in a deck as ZigZag was doing an elaborate shuffling trick, for no reason other than the minute obsession of an unrestrained perfectionist. And I like the niceties of how the essential, straightforward characters work: Price's slithery, self-indulgent performance of ZigZag, speaking endless in rhymes, or the way that the silent Tack uses the two tacks he perpetually holds in his mouth to form his facial expressions, in concert with the giant, hopeful eyes in his bone-white face.

The workprint, alas, was the end point for Williams - some 15 minutes remained to be animated, and I'd wager that not even quite half of the footage had been inked and painted, and it's hard to regard it as a movie at all.

Instead, the footage was handed off to Calvert, who hired every studio he could get his hands on to help complete the film on a rushed budget, with extensive changes to the plot and tone - the film was now set to be a kids' movie that simply didn't exist in the workprint. Calvert's estimate was that he cut 18 minutes of Williams' animation, in addition to the material he left alone or had finished in inking and painting, on top of adding several scenes including four wholly awful songs. A year and a half after he was given the material, Calvert produced, for Allied Filmmakers, a film that ran to 74 minutes before credits, now titled The Princess and the Cobbler. And under that title it played in Australia and South Africa, before the North American rights were snapped up by Miramax - but let's not skip ahead.

The PrincessΒ and the Cobbler is still, basically, The Thief and the Cobbler; the designs alone forbade even the most craven producer (which Calvert was not) from eradicating its sensibility. ZigZag remains mostly untouched, though almost all of the other roles were re-cast, and Tack was now given a voice (that of Steve Lively), with which he chats incessantly in voiceover narration (in the workprint, the only narration, provided by Felix Aylmer, comes at the very start, and sounds like somebody deep into a head trip trying to describe the cosmos and inadvertently setting up the film's backstory). The War Machine is cut back, but otherwise, it's mostly trimming and buffing, as far as what was removed goes. The biggest deletions come from pulling out the touches of violence and sexuality (Nod's tryst with a maid from Mombassa, ZigZag's goatee springing into life like an out-of-control erection), but that's to have been expected.

As far as what was added, it's fucking awful. I'm not utterly horrified by the nurse's (Mona Marshall) unnecessary mistrust of Tack, but it adds nothing, and that's the best I have to say about any of those changes. Turning King Nod (voiced by Clive Revill now) into more of a kindly addle-headed sort than the vaguely repulsive figure of before both makes him a blander character, and signficantly robs Yum-Yum (Bobbi Page) of her quietly assertive disappointment in her dissolute father, which in turn makes her seem less wise and capable behavior. Now she's just a generic girl-power teen rebel.

And the songs are just disasters. The "I want" number in which Yum-Yum asserts "But she is more than this/There's a mind in the body/Of this pretty miss" shortly before sadly noting "Outwardly she's free/Inwardly she's bound" is easily my favorite of the four, which speaks to how dire the rest of it is. Elsewhere, a group of desert brigands (who look like refugees from 1960s-era style trends - probably because they were - and don't really fit in with the rest; it is the solitary flaw with Williams's concept) sing a song whose very title is "We're What Happens When You Don't Finish School", which I guess admire for its honesty. Gonna put pandering moral lessons in a kids' movie, you might as well not hide the fact.

Unsurprisingly, the animation that helps along all of this new material, while not terrible, looks quite horrible next to all of that work done by Williams's amazing team. These were highly stylised figures, designed to be seen in a very particular way of moving and twisting; animating them like Disney figures is simply horrible. Yum-Yum in particular looks like absolute shit; I can't say if her blocky hair or bland face is the worst part, but it's no good at all.

As much as The Princess and the Cobbler feels like a dumbed-down butchery, at least The Thief and the Cobbler remains inside of it. No such luck for Miramax's heavily compromised version, cuttingΒ The Princess and the Cobbler down to just 66 minutes before the credits (one song is removed; the worst, though it's left as a credits tune), and re-dubbed. When it was released in the summer of 1995 to ten U.S. theaters, under the title Arabian Knight, it met with withering reviews and complete disinterest from audiences, critics, animation buffs, and Williams himself, who wisely has refused to watch any version of his film other than the workprint.

Arabian Knight is, quite transparently, Miramax's attempt to copy Aladdin, which was already, quite transparently, Disney's attempt to copy The Thief and the Cobbler ("vizier wants to marry the king's daughter to take over the kingdom, but she has fallen in love with a poor commoner" is just enough of a stock situation from One Thousand and One Nights-tinged stories that Disney might be able to claim ignorance, but giving the vizier a bird sidekick isn't, and ZigZag's design is far too similar to different aspects of Jafar and the Genie for anybody to claim coincidental evolution - after all, we know from the Roger Rabbit connection that people at Disney had seen The Thief and the Cobbler, even if we couldn't guess given the footage's high reputation among professional animators). To that effect, it adds star voices: Matthew Broderick plays Tack now, and Jennifer Beals has taken over Yum-Yum; Jonathan Winters joins the cast as the non-stop internal monologue of the thief. It also gives ZigZag's vulture companion Phido a human voice (Eric Bogosian), and a clear wisecracking personality.

Most importantly, the comedy - of which there is a great deal more, now - is hugely anachronistic and playfully ironic. It is the most horrible, painful bullshit. The thief's thoughts are now a scattered stream-of-consciousness prattle, in which he talks about all sorts of goddam nonsense, while also dropping in some meta-commentary, and generally being an annoyance. The patter is meant to evoke Robin Williams's zany, breathless delivery in Aladdin, of course, though how in God's name you end up with Jonathan Winters when your goal is to find a more affordable Robin Williams, I cannot say. The overt humor in The Thief and the Cobbler was already its weak spot - a kind of stupid Fantasia parody, leading to a jarring appearance of the U.S. Air Force song, that kind of stuff - but the gentler character comedy is all mostly excellent. Arabian Knight shits all over that, turning it into something arch and cynical and non-fucking-stop.

It even manages to kick sand in the eyes of the animation more than The Princess and the Cobbler did: the contributions of the legendary Grim Natwick, in the form of his treatment of the old witch (voiced, in this version, by Toni Collette, who like her predecessors doubles on the nurse) have been largely removed. The reason, I am sure, was her wobbly, saggy breasts, a dumb visual joke to be sure, but to lose the electric energy of Natwick's work, and Williams's completion of that work; aye me, it hurts.

For more than a decade after Arabian Knights befouled theaters, The Thief and the Cobbler remained passionately known mostly to professional animators and the hardest-core animation buffs. It only saw its profile really start to rise with Gilchrist's Recobbled Cut, a laborious, long-term effort to restore the 1992 workprint using every scrap of completed animation that can be found anywhere, and matching it to the footage from The Princess and the Cobbler that mostly corresponds to what the workprint already had (the film's rise in reputation was furthered even more by the 2012 documentary Persistence of Vision).

in a few small ways, Gilchrist takes up changes that The Princess and the Cobbler made, to smooth the narrative. The result is the longest version of the film, at 94 minutes without credits, and an overall much more watchable version than the workprint, though it lacks some of the dreamy quality of the workprint. Certainly, the fact that it's the easiest version to find makes it an easy recommendation as the version most worth watching; while I live in hope that there will be some kind of hi-def home video release of the remastered version of the workprint that Williams began touring in 2013, under the title The Thief and the Cobbler: A Moment in Time (that moment being 12 May, 1992), the workprint simply doesn't watch as smoothly as the Recobbled Cut. There are too many points where stills and rough tests - and in one case, an early design of ZigZag - distract from it. And while the Recobbled Cut is imperfect - it is both incomplete, and clearly not quite what Williams had in mind - the constant refinements (four versions between 2006 and 2013) are enough to one some degree of hope that a still better version will someday come out.

Till such time as that happens, rest assured that either the bootleg workprint or the Recobbled Cut are worth every moment of the time it takes to track them down. The Thief and the Cobbler, even as fragments assembled in the notion of a movie more than the movie itself, is one of the unquestionable treasures of animation in this world, a madman's dream like few others in cinema. Such a fevered obsession could probably never really produce something but snippets and broken promises. But even just as a broken promise, this is simply one of the most important and best animated features ever made. Or not made. Or whatever.