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.

The Positive, the Negative, and the Questionable Attribute

Some might say that the cowboy genre is a distinctly American genre with its familiar motifs and archetypes. Oh, they’d be right. Sure enough. But consider the masterworks of Italian filmmakers of Crobucci  and Leone and the great era of spaghetti westerns. And if Europeans can tell tall tales of gunslinging outlaws in the lawless wild frontier, then why not Asian filmmakers as well?

Asian cinema and American wild west cowboy flicks have had a fun history together. When John Sturges made the classic Magnificent Seven in 1960 American audiences got a taste of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) without even knowing it.  Wisit Sasanatieng relocated the wild west to his native Thailand with Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a super saturated tribute and parody to American westerns and melodramas. Jackie Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for the kung-fu cowboy comedy Shanghai Noon (2000), and cult weirdo Japanese director Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007.


Speaking of Sergio Leone and Asian cowboy movies, I think this might be a good segue into today’s film; Ji-woon Kim’s revamp and retelling of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) with the South Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).

A few of Kim’s earlier films might be known to western audiences. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) became The Uninvited (2009)—another in a slew of foreign horror films to be remade in America—and Kim’s first film, The Quiet Family (1998) was remade into Takashi Miike’s wild musical cult classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).

The Good, the Bad, the Weird features many of the familiar character types and settings of its original spaghetti western counterpart, but where Sergio Leone lingers and builds tension and atmosphere, Ji-woon Kim is chiefly preoccupied in what will propel the action, and thus is not quite as rich of a film. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a masterpiece (and for my money, it is) then The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a modest success, but it has enough fun tricks up its sleeve to make for an enjoyable action comic chase movie.


Leone’s film was an epic, lyrical saga about three individualistic men (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the scene-stealing Eli Wallach) searching for buried treasure in the sun-parched wild west (actually filmed in Spain) while the horrors of greed, lawless violence, and the encroachment of the Civil War keep getting in the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a great and subtle anti-war movie, and considering Leone’s feelings about World War II, it is a safe guess to presume that it was quite deliberately referencing fascism, occupation, and (in one scene) the death camps. It was Leone’s most epic and expansive film up until that time and it beautifully represents the struggles of three tiny men who are swept up in the broader scale of the intrusive and rather impersonal force of war.

Kim attempts bits of this. There is mention of troubles in Korea and Japanese occupation is a central element to the setting, but it’s never handled as seriously or consistently as in Leone’s film. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria with a strange treasure map stolen from a Chinese banker aboard a train. The setting, tempo, and clothing give it an immediate Indiana Jones type feel. Many private parties become very interested in the missing map, but it ultimately falls into the hands of the Weird two-bit train robber, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song from The Host and Thirst). The Bad hitman, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee from Three Extremes and Hero), the Good bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a rabble of Manchurian bandits, and the entire Imperial Japanese Army are soon all in hot pursuit of this one rather odd misfit thief. Nobody actually knows what the map leads to, but everybody seems to agree it is worth the senseless slaughter of countless lives. Like Clint teaming up with Eli Wallach, the sharp-shooting bounty hunter catches up with Yoo Tae-goo and they develop an uneasy alliance…occasionally.

The gears now in motion, the plot can finally evaporate.


We don’t know much about Park Do-won (the Good) and he is a fairly stagnate character with little interesting to do if it’s not action-oriented. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) has a bit more of a back-story, but mostly he’s just dead-eye glares affixed to a metrosexually be-togged swagger. Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) takes on the bulk of the film’s intrigue and his character is a lot fun. Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco may have stolen the show in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Van Cleef and Eastwood were still fascinating characters with compelling inner turmoil. The new Korean take on things is decidedly thinner. For a while it bothered me that this South Korean re-imagining of one of the greatest western movies of all time was far more shallow than its source material, but I can treat it more as a sly homage that is merely trying to be a good rough and tumble rollick through brothels, black markets, and deserts. If that is all it is trying to be then I can forgive any lack of comparative richness and appreciate The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a fun stylish shoot ‘em up. And, boy, is it stylish.


There are several great action sequences in this film. The opening train robbery and hijacking is one of them. Not only is it slick, fast, and charmingly violent it also features some of the most memorable music in the whole movie. One thing that made Sergio Leone’s films so great was Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal and innovative iconic scores. Their strange jarring sound effects, twangy guitars, piercing vocals, haunting whistles, and the odd use of Pan flutes and Jew’s harps made them powerful and energetic and really helped establish the mood. The remake’s score (composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang) is pretty good (though perhaps not as memorable as a Morricone piece), but it was those opening shots of the train set to those incredible blaring brass instruments that really set the tempo for the action that was to follow. It carried the spirit and promise of wild west fun in those first few notes. The shootout on the train, Yoon Tae-goo stealing the map, Park Chang-yi stopping the train and going on a shooting spree with his thugs, and Park Do-won finding his bounty is a blast to behold. Another thing Ji-woon Kim does to remind us of classic western flicks is the frequent use of zooms. It is very noticeable, but also very serviceable to the feel of the movie.


There are a few fun shootouts in the Ghost Market (one of which where Tae-goo comically dons a diving bell to protect his head from gunfire) and the three main guys, of course, reenact the brilliant standoff at the end, but perhaps the very best action sequence comes from the big chase before they find where the map leads. Tae-goo speeds across the desert on a clunky motorcycle (complete with sidecar) with the map in his coat. Totally exposed, he is spotted and pursued by the Manchurian bandits, Chang-yi and his goons, and the Imperial Japanese Army. Music going, guns blasting, and dust spewing, the bandits and Chang-yi’s men fire at each other from their puffing steeds and at Tae-goo until the Japanese whip out their Gatling guns and viciously mow down the horsemen from their jeeps. Park Do-won finally shows up and his eagle-eye is no match for any army…as the scene anarchically demonstrates. The scene is pure Indiana Jones and Yoon Tae-goo even skids along the dirt floor on his belly while he hangs on for dear life to a rope coming out of the back of a speeding jeep. This sequence escalates wonderfully and is choreographed exquisitely and there are a lot of explosions.


Naturally it’s tough to hold a candle to a movie as great as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this movie does a respectful job of paying tribute to it in its own way. You still can’t beat that final showdown between Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach. And you can’t really beat the scene where Tuco is beaten by Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and the corrupt Union guys while the band plays a haunting melody just outside in the prison camp. And you just can’t beat the scene where Blondie (Eastwood) ignites the canon with his stubby cigar or when Tuco frantically races through the cemetery looking for the grave with the treasure to Morricone’s fantastic “Ecstasy of Gold.” You can’t beat those. Those scenes are immortal. Those are some of the best scenes in movie history let alone western movie history. So Ji-woon Kim doesn’t attempt to tarnish them. He makes his own western movie in some of the familiar spirits of the 1966 classic. OK, so he does do the standoff, but he makes it different enough that you shouldn’t be too mad.

 

So what did I really think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird? I liked it. It’s a fun and stylish action movie with some great sequences, loads of wild west flavored violence, and a welcome dose of humor (supplied chiefly by the Weird). Essentially it is a movie chiefly populated by loud abrasive explosions and overly elaborate poses. I know I’ve compared it way too much with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this film really should be taken on its own and compared more with contemporary high-octane action movies. Leone’s film is more lugubrious and biting and it’s really more of a character study than an action movie (although it has its fair share of action too). The Good, the Bad, the Weird was South Korea’s most expensive movie so far and you can tell a lot went into it. As a film it’s pretty decent, but when comparing it to modern action flicks it stands well above most of the competition.

Top 10 Reasons to See The Good, the Bad, the Weird:

1. It’s a slick, fast-paced homage to one of the greatest western films of all time.

2. Stuff blows up in it.

3. Kang-ho Song is a joy to watch.

4. Out of all the Asian cowboy movies I’ve seen, this is probably one of the best.

5. It has one of the best chase scenes of recent memory.

6. An old woman is placed inside of a closet.

7. It feels more like how Indiana Jones 4 should have been.

8. It hearkens back to the legendary classic without besmirching the original’s greatness.

9. People fire guns while swinging through the air.

10. It’s got one frenetic pulse that doesn’t let up. Like a good action movie should have.

Originally published by “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 8, 2010.