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I love talking about movies, but I've never been able to organize movie-night get-togethers. So this is the next best thing: On Tuesdays I'm going to spotlight a DVD and suggest some virtual-discussion starters.

I can't imagine recommending a film about which I have more reservations than The Thief and the Cobbler, newly released on DVD by the Weinstein Company. But I'm recommending it because the things that are wrong with it are the result of studio meddling: It's been called The Magnificent Ambersons of animated film, a butchered masterpiece. And for all the strikes against it, Thief and the Cobbler contains sequences of such breathtaking visual imagination that it must be seen by anyone who cares about animation. It's that good.

The story is basic middle Eastern fairy tale stuff involving a feisty princess, a lowly cobbler with a pure heart, a wicked wizard and an bumbling but persistent thief determined to steal three golden spheres from the princess' father. But the visuals are almost unbelievably subtle, sophisticated and complex: Animator Richard Williams' influences range from traditional Persian miniatures to Op Art, M.C. Escher's intricate interplay between image and negative space to the trippy psychedelia of Heinz Edelmann's Yellow Submarine, Rube Goldberg's ludicrously complex machines to the intricate patterning characteristic of Islamic non-figurative traditions.

The Thief and the Cobbler barely registered in 1995, when Miramax gave it a blink-and-you'll-miss-it release as Arabian Knight. Most people assumed it was a cheap rip-off of Disney's Aladdin. But it was actually a 25-years-in-the-making labor of love by Williams, the three-time Oscar winning animation director of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?(1988). Williams worked for both Disney and UPA (the pioneering independent animation house that created Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing) in the late 1940s, and went to the UK to self-financed his first feature, the award-winning, allegorical short The Little Island (1958). Other animators revere him, and over the years many of them worke d on portions of The Thief and the Cobbler, including Disney veteran Art Babbitt, who created Goofy;
Ken Harris, who worked with Chuck Jones at both Warners and MGM; and Myron Natwick, who created Betty Boop while working for Max and Dave Fleischer. .

Williams started work on what eventually became The Thief and the Cobbler in the late 1960s, inspired by Sufi folktales, and everything that could have gone wrong did: Copyright disputes, cost overruns, financing that suddenly dried up, missed deadlines -- everything. Williams had to redo large pieces of the project and worked on it between commercial jobs; showing it around Hollywood got him hired for Roger Rabbit and Roger Rabbit's success finally produced a distribution deal that fell through when Aladdin appeared on the horizon. The sorry conclusion of the story found Williams fired from his own film, which was completed and extensively altered by other hands.

So remember: The insipid songs and the goofy dialogue are like a magic marker mustache on the Mona Lisa -- all you have to do is watch and it's clear that the thief wasn't meant to speak at all, let alone carry on a jokey running commentary about his misadventures. Vincent Price -- who'd been dead for two years when the movie finally opened -- gives fine, silky voice to the scheming wizard, but the rest of voices are typical celebrity stunt casting: Jennifer Beals as pouty lipped Princess Yum Yum, Eric Bogosian as a vulture named Phido, Matthew Broderick as the cobbler (who was also clearly not drawn as such a chatterbox) and Toni Collette as Yum Yum's dotty nurse. And on top of everything else, the DVD is panned and scanned (sorry, " formatted to fit your screen") rather than letterboxed. And it's still worth watching. Once you see it, you'll want to join the petitioners trying to get the film released in a version closer to the one Williams imagined.

In most of the world, animation is used to create a broad spectrum of movies. In the US, animation=children's entertainment. How come?

Do CGI films like Happy Feet look better than traditional hand-drawn animated films like Bambi?

What can filmmakers do with animation that can't be done with live action, and how often do they actually do it?

Is the extensive use of CGI for effects and image sweetening gradually eroding the line between animation and live action?

Remember: Send your movie questions to FlickChick.

Previous DVD blogs:


Panic in the Streets and Jack Palance interview

The Pusher Trilogy



Sunset Blvd.

In Cold Blood


Also: This Week's New DVD Releases