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Richard Williams and The Thief and the Cobbler

This Tuesday, Richard Williams' criminally butchered would-be-masterpiece of animation The Thief and the Cobbler returns to DVD thanks to the Weinstein Group. Although the packaging is new, this is unfortunately the same mutilated version that has been available starting with its 1995 theatrical release as Arabian Knight, and it's apparently not even widescreen or remastered. But even in this form it is a must-see for animation buffs. If you're not familiar with the history (which you can read about at various places online, as well as in the Scarecrow Video Movie Guide) here's the short version: Williams made the film independently with a small crew of legendary animators, funding it with his commercial work over a period of nearly 30 years. After earning acclaim and an Oscar directing the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (a job many believe no other director could have done), Williams got Warner Brothers to back the completion of Thief. But when he took longer than scheduled they panicked, fired him and replaced him with a TV hack who jettisoned parts of the movie, re-edited it and used lesser animators to throw together new Aladdin-style musical sequences. Then things got worse when Miramax (run by those same Weinsteins who are now releasing it to DVD) bought the movie and redubbed most of the characters with an all-star voice cast. Most painfully, the thief of the title - who does not talk - is dubbed over with non-stop wisecracking by Jonathan Winters. As disheartening as it is to watch in this form, it's also awe-inspiring - some of the best animation you will ever see. It seems to me the secret to most of Williams' work is patience. His specialty is animating things that most people believe cannot be animated. He includes an insane amount of detail, like the cloud of flies above the thief's head which, like everything else, was entirely animated by hand. The movie is also full of dazzling "camera" movements giving the whole world a 3-dimensional look, but achieved without a single computer. Type "Richard Williams" into Youtube and you'll find a BBC documentary called The Thief Who Never Gave Up chronicling Williams in what turned out to be a very early stage in the production, as well as an amazing collection of his commercial work. Normally I'm not a big fan of commercials, but some of these are ridiculous in the way they make three-dimensional characters out of perfect, highly detailed drawings, the kind of things most animators think are only possible with new technology. But they were doing it decades ago with real pencils and paint. Williams himself won't even give interviews about Thief and seemingly would never take part in trying to fix his movie, not wanting to work with the type of people who destroyed his life's work in a failed attempt for a quick buck. So others have taken up the cause. At one point Roy Disney was rumored to be interested in restoring it to Williams' original almost-complete workprint version, but then he left Disney. More recently a passionate fan named Garrett Gilchrist put together what he calls "The Re-Cobbled Cut," a home-brewed restoration which he hopes will force an official, more professional version. With the current Pixar-enhanced regime at Disney it seems possible they would've taken Gilchrist's ball and run with it, but unfortunately the Weinsteins "liked" the movie so much they took the rights with them when they left Disney. So we're stuck with their version for the forseeable future. But there is other, less compromised Richard Williams. Upstairs in our animation room we have a small Williams director section where you will find some great work available for rent. Two of them are Christmas specials you might consider watching in the upcoming holiday season: his Oscar winning adaptation of A Christmas Carol (drawn in a classical style full of cross-hatching and seemingly impossible detail) and the surprisingly good Ziggy's Gift (which includes a non-Jonathan-Winters-ized pickpocket character very similar to the thief). If you like animation, you owe it to yourself to check out Richard Williams. And if you ever meet a Weinstein, ask him where the real special edition is. --Bryan T.