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return to posts May 22nd, 2024

The Thief and The Cobbler: The Greatest Animated Film Never Made

At Generator Design, one source of inspiration that is shared by all of us is animation. When you think of the most famous animated films of the past one hundred years, which ones make your shortlist?

Here’s mine.

In all of animation history, there exists a legendary tale embodying the heights of artistic ambition and the depths of production turmoil. Production of The Thief and the Cobbler is a turbulent film journey spanning decades. Showcasing the unwavering dedication of its creator, it’s a wonder that it ever saw the light of day.

Back in the 1960s, Canadian-British master animator Richard Williams—renowned for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit—envisioned a magnum opus to push the boundaries of traditional animation. Inspired by the intricate designs of Persian miniatures and the fantastical tales of Arabian Nights, Williams set out to create a masterpiece that would captivate audiences with unparalleled craftsmanship.

The hero Tack the Cobbler. Source via.

Despite being armed with a team of talented artists and animators, the project encountered numerous setbacks, challenges, and even name changes. Financial constraints, creative differences, and the advent of computer-generated animation threatened to derail Williams’ vision at every turn.

Despite these obstacles, Williams remained steadfast in his pursuit of perfection. He poured his heart and soul into every frame, painstakingly crafting intricate scenes filled with dazzling detail and fluid motion. The animation industry took notice of his dedication, with many regarding The Thief and the Cobbler as a masterpiece in the making. As years turned into decades, the fate of the film seemed increasingly uncertain. Williams struggled to secure funding and maintain creative control, leading to a series of setbacks and compromises. Parts of the film were completed, only to be shelved or reworked due to financial constraints or studio interference.

The Thief and the Cobbler underwent a series of name changes: The Amazing Nasrudin (1964-1968); Nasrudin (1968-1972); The Majestic Fool (1972-1978); The Thief Who Never Gave Up (1978-1990s); The Princess and the Cobbler (1992-1993); Arabian Knight (1995); The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut (2006).

A still showcasing the elaborate detail found throughout the movie. Source via.

Finally, after nearly three decades in development, The Thief and the Cobbler saw a limited release in 1993. However, the version that reached audiences was a far cry from Williams’ original vision. Edited and restructured by studio executives, the film failed to capture the magic and majesty of its creator’s imagination.

Whereas each name shift reflected different aspects of the film’s story and characters, the Arabian Knight version was far removed from Williams’ vision. In December of 1994, Miramax Films—then a Disney subsidiary—acquired the North American rights to the film. Facing difficulties in marketing, the film was further recut and renamed Arabian Knight. Trimmed by 8 minutes, it featured newly written dialogue and the celebrity voices of Matthew Broderick as Tack the Cobbler and Jennifer Beals as Princess YumYum. Throughout all versions, the legendary Vincent Price voices vizier, ZigZag.

Richard Williams (right) with Vincent Price in 1970 during early production what became The Thief and The Cobbler. Source via.

Amidst the turmoil, various versions of The Thief and the Cobbler circulated, each offering a glimpse into Williams’ singular vision. Fans marvelled at the stunning animation and intricate world-building, recognizing the film’s potential as a timeless classic.

In the years since its release, efforts have been made to restore and preserve Williams’ original vision of The Thief and the Cobbler. Through fan campaigns and archival discoveries, glimpses of the film as it was meant to be seen have emerged, reigniting interest in this lost masterpiece. To date, The Recobbled Cut has been revised four times in 2006, 2008, 2013, and 2023.

Despite its troubled production and mixed reception, The Thief and the Cobbler endures as a testament to artistic vision and perseverance. Richard Williams’ unwavering dedication to his craft inspired countless animators and filmmakers, leaving an indelible mark on the animation industry. Looking back on the history of this remarkable film, its legacy continues to inspire generations of artists, storytellers, and dreamers.

There is so much more to be said about this movie; to do so might risk spoiling the plot. Watch The Recobbled Cut film restoration project below and comment your thoughts on “the greatest animated film never made”!

The Thief and the Cobbler: Recobbled Cut Mark 4 is a restoration of the film as it was intended to be—and it’s still in the works. Watch it here.

Written by

Jessica Jagmin

Social Media Specialist

A graduate of St. Clair College, Jess has many years of experience in graphic design and copywriting. She is also a WCCA graduate with over 2 decades of experience in honing her fine art skills. In her free time, Jess enjoys watercolour painting, playing video games, spending time with her husband and daughter, and listening to strange and unusual podcasts.