To have watched the available movie version of The Thief and the Cobbler is to subject yourself to one of the great mysteries of animated feature films.
How did a project more than two decades in the making end up becoming such a hodgepodge of insipid cartooning coupled with a few moments of animation genius? What went wrong?
Kevin Schreck's documentary points the finger at Toronto-born animator Richard Williams, simultaneously crediting him with a genius for his transcendent artistry (Williams was the Oscar-winning animation director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and accusing him of self-indulgence run amok.
Begun in the late 1960s, the project began as Williams' self-admitted "ego trip," an animated version of a book of Persian folk tales. Williams worked doggedly on the feature, devoted to blazing new trails in the medium and exemplifying "excellence."
Schreck includes reams of footage suggesting the film was indeed destined for greatness. Before computer animation made it comparatively simple to negotiate three-dimensional space, Williams was making astonishing headway in that department, as evidenced by a psychedelic chase sequence in which the cobbler chases the thief through a stunningly rendered palace.
Alas, for all his vision, Williams didn't have an end game. He was two decades and millions of dollars into the work before he even started producing storyboards for the finished movie.
Williams himself refuses to discuss the movie, but Schreck has reams of old interview footage and access to a host of animators, artists and writers willing to discuss the project. There is a suggestion that so many artists worked on the thing, it was possible for Disney to purloin some of the film's design elements for use in their hit musical Aladdin. (Check out the similarities between T&C's "Grand Vizier" and Aladdin's Jafar and the conclusion is inescapable.)
When the film was pulled from Williams' hands by Warner Bros., to be cannibalized into the available version of The Thief and the Cobbler (a.k.a. Arabian Knight, a.k.a. The Princess and the Cobbler), the movie resembled a clumsy ripoff of Aladdin, with the gratuitous addition of some insipid songs and comic voice-work by the likes of Jonathan Winters and Vincent Price.
Williams's vision of excellence became the definition of makeshift mediocrity.
Yet one doesn't come away with contempt for the philistines of the major movie studio. The film acknowledges that Williams was his own worst enemy, a visionary who knew everything about the art form, except when to stop.