Off the Cobbled Path

Some folks might remember an odd, little animated film that was swept under the carpet back in the 1990s. It was labeled a knockoff of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), but in fact, quite the opposite was true. I am of course referring to Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993). Richard Williams was and is widely considered one of the greatest animators and with such works as The Little Island (1958) and A Christmas Carol (1971) as well as several TV shows and commercials under his belt in addition to directing the animated sequences for Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who could argue?

The version of this film that was released by in 1993 is not what the film was meant to be at all (I believe they called Arabian Knight when it went to theaters). Director/writer/producer/animator Richard Williams had been working on this passion project for over twenty-six years, but when it was at long last nearing completion another studio had the rights to it and made several alterations to make it “more accessible.” They deleted several sequences and put their own animators to work to fill in the incomplete portions and if you have an eye for animation it won’t be hard figuring out who animated what in the theatrical cut. They also threw in a few forgettable songs to make it a musical. If this didn’t drastically alter the tone already, to make matters worse the studio rejected Williams’ original idea of having the two title characters be mute and gave them voices (the Thief being voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters). When it came out in 1993 many people did not appreciate the sloppy mix of highly stylized Williams art combined unevenly with the slapdash bits and songs. Furthermore, many people compared it unfairly to Aladdin which came out the year before because they had many things in common. The truth is that Disney, who had owned the rights to the unfinished film for a time, swiped many of The Thief and the Cobbler‘s ideas, characters, and glimmers of the character designs and incorporated them into Aladdin. Both films are set in the Middle East and feature magic, a romance between a lowly peasant and a beautiful Princess, an evil Grand Vizier with a bird sidekick, and a plot to get the throne from the oblivious but kind-hearted short, bearded Sultan. Now I like Aladdin just as much as the next fellow (Robin Williams is hilarious in it and the whole film a lot of fun), but let us give credit where it is due.

For years the only piece to the puzzle that could be seen by the public was the Miramax cut with the songs. The good news is that we live in an age of computers and The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled cut can be found on the internet. The re-cobbled version restores what it can of what was to be Richard Williams’ magnum opus. It cobbles together all of the footage that Williams completed and institutes pencil tests and storyboards for the missing pieces. It also removes the songs and unwanted voiceovers and attempts to recover Williams’ lost vision. The end result may not be your typical animated film, but it is not hard to see the genius at work behind it. Indeed the most frustrating element of the whole thing is that you can see how The Thief and the Cobbler could have been easily one of the greatest animated films of all time. It remains one of the singularly most impressive personal works from an animator I have ever seen. Incorporating elements from classic Arabian art, silent cinema, M. C. Escher, and western cartoons (to name but a few), Williams fashioned a world that could only exist in the realm of cel-animation.

The story takes place in the mythical Golden City. It follows your basic plot of malevolent malfeasance and diabolical deception. The evil Grand Vizier, Zigzag (voiced by the great Vincent Price) desires to marry Princess Yum Yum and has made an illicit alliance with the Wicked One-Eyes (an army of, what else but green, grotesque one-eyed monster-like people). Zigzag (who speaks entirely in rhymes and recites them all as only Vincent Price could) intends to snatch up the throne of the drowsy King Nod, but things go awry when a mute shoe Cobbler named Tack bumps into a scruffy Thief and he enters the realm of royals due to a mislaid tack which finds its way into Zigzag’s shoe. Sentenced to death, Tack is saved by the beautiful Princess Yum Yum who breaks one of her shoes on purpose and insists he fix it. Unbeknownst to the palace inhabitants, a dreadful prophecy is about to come true. The Golden City is only safe as long as the three golden balls are secure atop the highest minaret, and the clownish Thief (with a persistent halo of flies about his head) has snuck into the palace with Tack. A constant stubborn opportunist and filcher of many a fine prize throughout the film, the Thief cannot resist and so undertakes the nearly impossible task of thieving the three golden balls. He succeeds at last, but Zigzag’s minions snatch them and Zigzag uses them to bribe the One-eyes to let him take control after they destroy the Golden City.

Tack, Princess Yum Yum, and her nanny, fearing the impending doom of the city at the hands of the vicious One-eyes, go on a quest to get help from the Mad and Holy Old Witch. The Thief also tags along. Along the way they pick up a ragtag militia of slovenly brigands who help them on their journey. When they at long last find the Witch she answers them with a riddle (as witches are oft times wont to do). “It’s what you do with what you got,” she says to Tack. When they return to the Golden City they discover that the One-eyes’ war machine and army are ominously advancing. Tack shoots a single tack at the encroaching mass and what happens next can only be described as one of the most epically impressive Rube Goldbergian orgies of chaotic mayhem and comedy ever conceived. As the impossible war machine unravels from within, amidst the chaos the Thief, spotting the three golden balls within it, casually meanders through the disaster narrowly missing arrows, gears, canons, explosions, elephants, and more in a desperate effort to appease his greed. Somehow the single-minded Thief escapes the carnage unscathed. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it all ends well for Tack and the Princess and that the forces of evil get their just desserts.

The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled is a treasure to behold. It is an incredible achievement with nonstop kinetic power and seemingly effortless Looney Tunes-esque comic panache. The scene where the Cobbler pursues the Thief through the palace is fantastic and the scenes where the Thief steals the balls and when we wanders through the collapsing war machine are hilarious. It is hard for me to watch this movie without erupting in laughter or my jaw hanging agape. The animation is vibrant, stylized, and colorful. I’m always impressed by Richard Williams’ ability to capture the essence of weight—easily one of the most difficult things to do in animation. The movie is a constant delight and dazzlement and with the Re-Cobbled cut I think people may finally see the crowning achievement this film was supposed to be. I find no difficulty in saying that Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, even unfinished, is a masterpiece.

And I have included it for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

(This particular “re-cobbled” cut does feature a few shots from the Fred Calvert version, although his animation does not measure up to Williams’ it does provide greater context for much of the scene progression).

picture references:

imageshack.us

tankadillo.com

movierapture.com

photobucket.com

thephoenix.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 25, 2010.

It’s Not Easy Being Grinch

It’s that time of year again. Christmas is a time for family, food, fellowship, and film! Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Story (1983), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Die Hard (1988) and so on have all become holiday staples and there are so many more. I really wanted to write a review on a holiday movie but I was super torn as to which one to pick as so many have a very special place in my heart. It was ultimately down to a coin-flip between Trading Places (1983) and Scrooge (1951) and the winner was (quite surprisingly) Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). I know, right.

Not the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey one.

This extremely memorable TV holiday special is not a classic by mere happenstance. American word master and gibberish-inventor (if it only but served the meter and rhyme), Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), published this cherished rhyming fable in 1957. It has since been welcomed into countless homes, and for good reason. The wonderful words–both real and fictitious—and the amusing and creative rhymes, the stylized and whimsical artwork, and the simple yet timeless message that Christmas doesn’t come from the store, all work together in a very special way. It’s hard not to love the book, but who could have the cinematic fortitude to transform this classic yarn into moving pictures? How about Looney Tunes animator and director, Chuck Jones?

Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones was a perfect choice to bring to life Dr. Seuss’s tale of the nasty old Grinch who hates Christmas and has nothing but disdain for the Whos down in Whoville. After making so many beloved classic animated shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner, etc., and proving he indeed had the knack for comic fable with such shorts as One Froggy Evening (1955) and The Dot and the Line (1965), Jones’ style and sensibility fit Dr. Seuss’s world of cautionary mayhem very well. (I do still wonder what the film might have been like had Bob Clampbett animated it though). Jones even found room to add some of his own touches to the story. The look is Jones’s take on the look of Seuss which, in itself, is fairly fascinating, but Jones also had fun with other elements. The part of the Grinch’s tacit dog sidekick, Max, was expanded so that there was always at least one other Jonesesque joke going on amidst the silly Seussiness.

So the amazing story with its wonderfully whimsical way with words was set and the animated artwork and anarchic comic timing were ready to fire away, but there was still one important piece missing. Who could possibly effectively tell the story of the Grinch, giving both Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones room to play while making it all their own? How about British actor and horror film icon, Boris Karloff (best known for his portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein, 1931). Boris Karloff was both narrator and the voice of the Grinch himself. With immaculate diction and fantastic timber, the 79 year-old horror legend, festooned the film with his own very welcome presence. His reading of the piece is still really quite impressive.

For good measure, one more element was tossed into the mix: the killer song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” The song is great and it’s made even better by the deep, rich vocalist who sang it (who was uncredited!). That singer was Thurl Ravenscroft who is best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger (he was also the Vacuum Cleaner from The Brave Little Toaster, 1987). Now Chuck Jones was directing a Christmas poem written by Dr. Seuss that was being read by Boris Karloff while Thurl Ravenscroft would sing bass behind it all. Everything was now in place and everyone was in tip top form for this modest television production that would become a holiday favorite to be celebrated for years to come.

The story was simple. An ornery, old, green creature, the Grinch, would watch the Who-folk celebrate Christmas every year and every year he would glare down from his cave in the mountain above Whoville and let his hatred fester until one year he decides to do something about it. The Grinch does not understand Christmas, but he knows he cannot let the wretched spectacle continue so he plans to steal Christmas from the Whos so they can see how foolish they are. The Whos, however, do not need the presents that the Grinch steals because Christmas is bigger than commercialization: it’s alive in our hearts. The Whos don’t even seem to notice that all of their holiday decorations and presents are missing as they link arms and sing. The Grinch then repents of his wicked ways and seeks to redeem himself and return the gifts and he is formally welcomed into the Who community and they all celebrate together.

So blow your flu-flubers and bang your tar-tinkers this holiday season with a small film you all love and remember. Make Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! a part of your Christmas. Make it a double feature alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)! Tidings of comfort and joy this holiday season to all. “Welcome, Christmas, while we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.”

picture sources:

misfittoys.net

ouuc.org

cartoongallery.com

balboamovies.com

cbsnews.com

chud.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 22, 2009.