I don’t know when I came across The Thief and the Cobbler, I don’t know how I came across The Thief and the Cobbler. All I know is that it has always formed a tiny, precious gem in the tweaky little treasure chest that is my childhood. And, with a cast that includes Vincent Price and Jonathan Winters, a truly unique animation style, and a classic fairy-tale plot, it’s no wonder the film has become a cult classic on par with The Last Unicorn and The Dark Crystal.
The Plot of The Thief and the Cobbler
The film starts by describing a beautiful Arabian kingdom called the Golden City. Ruled by the slightly narcoleptic King Nod, the city is protected by three golden balls set atop the highest minaret. According to a prophesy, should the balls ever be removed, the city would fall to a race of ruthless, one-eyed monsters known as the One-Eyes (original, right?). Living in this city are the cobbler, Tack, and a nameless, abysmal failure of a thief. Throughout the movie, neither character speaks so much as an entire sentence between them.
The two protagonists literally run into each other while the thief attempts to rob Tack, causing the two to brawl on the street and leading to Tack’s arrest by Zigzag, King Nod’s Grand Vizier/Sorcerer. The event triggers a series of adventures to save the kingdom from Zigzag and the One-Eyes, winning Tack the princess’s hand in marriage and the thief a place on the King’s royal guard.
The animation in this film is beyond exquisite, and has to be some of the most detailed work I’ve ever seen in a cartoon. The Golden City resembles something out of a Klimt painting, the One-Eyes’ war machine would make Rube Goldberg seethe with jealousy, and many of the backgrounds are so intricate they’d make M.C. Escher’s head spin.
The casting is unexpected and very much appreciated—this film was Vincent Price’s last voice work, and comedian Jonathan Winters’ role as the thief’s internal dialogue is fast-paced and packed with priceless quips that will have both adults and kids cracking up.
With production starting in 1964, animation director Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) intended this to be his magnum opus, but instead turned out to be a poorly-kept skeleton in the closet. Williams worked on this film for twenty-eight years before Warner Bros. pulled out and a completion bond company finished the film—without Williams. When all was said and done, the film was released in 1995 under two names (The Thief and the Cobbler and The Princess and the Cobbler) and by two separate production companies (Miramax and Majestic Films International, respectively). The film grossed less than $700k when it was released, and the entire ordeal was such an embarrassment that Williams still refuses to talk about it.
What Williams seems to have missed, intentionally or not, is that what he created—what he worked so hard to bring to life—has brought happiness, laughter and hours of entertainment to millions of people worldwide. And for that, I am very, very grateful.