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Western Animation / The Thief and the Cobbler

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"The idea is to make the best animated film that has ever been made — there really is no reason why not."

The Thief and the Cobbler (also The Princess and the Cobbler, or Arabian Knight, depending on which version you're watching) is a legendary attempt by master animator Richard Williams to create the greatest animated feature ever. At 31 years, it holds the record for the longest production time for an animated motion picture— much of it spent in Development Hell. Williams envisioned the film as his personal masterpiece (in the traditional sense, as in "the piece you create when you've mastered your medium") and wanted to fill the entire movie with every technique and trick he had learned from the top animators of The Golden Age of Animation, effectively putting on display the ultimate capabilities of hand-drawn animation. It is considered a lost treasure of animation, with many critics calling it the greatest unfinished film of all time.

Here's the plot: in a City of Gold in a sun-scorched desertnote , there are three golden balls atop "the highest minaret". Prophecy has it that if the balls are stolen, the Golden City will fall, unless it is saved by the simplest of souls. The balls are stolen by a sneaky, nameless thief, just as a vicious race of one-eyed men (simply known as the One-Eyes) are about to attack the city. The city's ruler, King Nod (yes, that is his actual name) sends his daughter, Princess YumYum (yes, that is also her actual name), out to find a way to stop the encroaching army, and she takes along with her the hero of our story, a meek cobbler named Tack (who has begun to fall in love with the Princess and she with him) as a guide. They are followed along the way by the Thief, who's only in it for the loot.

The movie began in 1964 as a pet project which Williams and a few colleagues worked on in between profession gigs at his studio in London and was in and out of various stages of production for many years. Initially a more dialogue-heavy and politically-oriented narrative centered on the Muslim folk character Mullah Nasrudin (based on a series of Nasrudin retellings authored by Idries Shah and illustrated by Williams), over three hours of footage was completed before financial conflicts with the Shah family led them to withdraw permission to utilize their version of the Nasrudin character in 1972. Williams responded by revamping the film's plot (retaining numerous non-Nasrudin characters from the original pitch, such as a mute thief and a malevolent vizier voiced by Vincent Price) to center on Tack, a silent cobbler, and the aforementioned thief, effectively creating the basic plot skeleton from which Williams would work for the following two decades. Simultaneously, Williams' own advancing prowess as an animator (and corresponding artistic ambitions) rendered his revamped pitch noticeably more visually-oriented and lushly-animated than its previous incarnation. As production continued on-and-off throughout the '70s and '80s, investors came and went, initially awed by the stunning, god-tier animation that had been completed thus far, but turned off by Williams' obsessive attention which it required, often resulting in missed deadlines and overshot budgets. Williams, meanwhile, hired and fired animators at will, eventually ending up with a solid team which included longtime Warner animator Ken Harris (famed for his three-decade collaboration with Chuck Jones), Disney legend Art Babbitt, wandering master animator Emery Hawkins and a young Eric Goldberg, most of whom would follow him to his directorial debut, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, which Williams took on to help fund Thief. After winning an Oscar for Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1989, WB offered Williams the money necessary to finally complete Thief, under the proviso that it be ready by a specific date under the budget provided, finally commencing full, continuous production after a quarter of a century.

Despite both finalizing the film's character designs and completing a substantial volume of footage during this period, Williams never oversaw the film's completion: he wound up missing the production deadline with the film fifteen minutes short of completion and, as per contractual obligations, was fired from his own pet project 28 years after he had begun it. The project was then farmed out to an overseas company (supervised by Fred Calvert) to finish the last fifteen minutes, prompted by competition with a notoriously similar upcoming film, and was severely edited upon completion, turning it from a quiet, faintly-eerie Epic Movie into a Lighter and Softer and more dialogue-heavy Disney-esque musical (some overseas-edited editions of the film even advertise it as the Mockbuster version of Aladdin). It was given a small, ultimately unsuccessful theatrical release by Miramax under the title Arabian Knight in 1995.

A few years after the release of the Miramax cut, Williams' personal workprint of the film, which had been smuggled out by some employees after he had been fired, appeared on the internet under the name The Recobbled Cut under the supervision of Garrett Gilchrist. The cut contains virtually all of the completed animation, as well as pencil tests and storyboards, to create as close an approximation as possible to Williams' original vision, allowing it to finally be seen by the masses. It has developed an extremely strong cult following among animators and animation fans, and has topped many "Greatest Unfinished Films" lists, as a veritable holy grail in the medium of hand-drawn animation. It has since been passed around all over the internet, sometimes in drastically different forms.

For obvious reasons, Richard was reluctant to talk about the film for many years, refusing to take part in the "Recobbled" version when offered. He would spend the next few years on a remote island in Canada with his wife as he wrote The Animator's Survival Kit. During his famed lecture tour, he went out of his way to let people know that he did not want to talk about Thief, only to move past it. Williams eventually warmed up to it again, screening his own "recobbled" version, subtitled A Moment In Time, along with an art exhibit of his work in LA in 2013, twenty years after his firing from the project. He has gone on record to say that this is the absolute closest the film will ever get to being finished, as all of the original artwork and film materials for the film are scattered and lost, and it would be unfeasible to track all of it down or recreate it, not to mention the legal kerfuffle he'd need to go through to get the completed footage back from the studio.

...That said, the Recobbled Cut of the film is continually being updated, having gone through four iterations with a fifth underway, extant on YouTube as of 2023.

Now satisfied with Thief, Williams moved on to another attempt at a personal masterpiece, an anthology film with the working title "I Hope I Live To Finish This", the first part of which, Prologue, debuted in 2015. Unfortunately, since he succumbed to cancer on August 17, 2019, it’s likely we won’t see any more of that project.

A documentary film about Richard's long troubled production of the film, called Persistence of Vision, was released in October 2012 to much positive reception.

This movie (in its various incarnations) features examples of:

  • Abnormal Limb Rotation Range: The Witch does a full 360 rotation with her head during a long jump.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: The Miramax edit also adds astonished crowd gasps and laughs as Zigzag tries to appeal to Mighty One Eye, making it sound like his vicious army is genuinely impressed by his trickery.
  • Adrenaline Makeover: See the entry below for Clark Kent Outfit.
  • An Aesop: One was tacked on rather awkwardly and out of nowhere in the Miramax cut; the Witch's dialogue of "You have all you need, but it's what you do with what you got" is replaced with some message that Tack has to believe in himself, and one of his last lines in the Miramax cut is "Whenever you see a shooting star/be proud of what you really are. Do in your heart what you know is right/and you too can be an Arabian Knight."
  • Agony of the Feet: Tack tumbles out onto the street after sewing his clothes to the Thief's in his sleep, spilling tacks into the middle of Zigzag's Big Entrance and making him hurt his feet.
  • All Animals Are Dogs: Either heavily downplayed or outright subverted by Phido the vulture. His name echoes a stereotypical dog name, and Zigzag refers to him (with irony) as "man's best friend," but there's nothing noticeably canine about his behavior.
  • All There in the Script: The names of Zigzag's minions, Goblet, Tickle, Gopher and Slap, are never mentioned. The same goes for a couple of brigands; Hook and Hoof.
  • Almost Dead Guy: A messenger who has been shot with many arrows crawls back to the Golden City and coughs "One-Eye is coming!" to the king before he dies.
  • Amazing Technicolor Population: The Thief is greenish brown, the Evil Chancellor Zigzag is blue, and Tack the Cobbler is a literal white.note  ZigZag's minions are pink, green, purple and grey. The only people who have anything like normal skin colors are Princess YumYum and her father.
  • Anachronism Stew: Most of the thief's lines in the Miramax cut.
  • Animation Bump: Happens whenever the film switches from Calvert animation back to Williams animation. Williams wanted to push the limitations of what hand-drawn animation could do. Calvert, who took over after Williams was fired for being too expensive, did everything as cheaply and quickly as possible. The differences are very sudden and jarring.
    • While the animation compiled together in the Recobbled Cut is generally of excellent quality. The scenes animated by Richard Williams himself, in addition to the War Machine climax (with impeccably drawn, detailed moving polygons drawn by hand in an era before CGI) noticeably feature the most fluent and three-dimensional animation in the entire film, which is impressive considering the animation quality of several scenes not animated by Williams. The scenes animated by veteran animators Ken Harris and Art Babbitt also qualify.
  • Art Evolution: In the early days, the film used Limited Animation and had even flatter and more stylized character designs. Also, most of the characters were later redesigned several times, causing scenes to have to be modified or even completely reanimated.
  • Asshole Victim: Mighty One-Eye, and eventually Zigzag.
  • Atop a Mountain of Corpses: The One-Eyes are first introduced as such, standing atop a mountain of Golden City soldiers' corpses.
  • Award-Bait Song: In the two "finished" cuts, we're given "Am I Feeling Love?" and "It's So Amazing". It's a nineties animated film, though it's not easy to tell which one was the song in question.
  • Badass Boast: One-Eye gives one to his troops in the Recobbled version.
    One-Eye: I will gnaw the Golden City to the bone! (Dramatically takes a bite of meat) And I will SPIT IT OUT! (Dramatic spit)
  • "Balls" Gag: Phrases like “Now that I have the balls, I’ll go see the King” as well as a visual example when characters place the golden balls under their robes.
  • Banister Slide: Tack and the Thief towards the end of the famous "Escher Sequence." At least it...looks like a banister.
  • Bedlah Babe: YumYum, complete with sheer veil over the mouth.
  • Bifurcated Weapon: Zigzag has a stick that can sprout out hooks, forks and pointy bits from the top.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: One-Eye and Zigzag, though One-Eye is more dangerous in terms of strength and plans, even ordering Zigzag to ride at the front of the war machine.
  • Big Badass Rig: The One-Eye's war machine is a massive one, so big we never get to see all of it at once.
  • Big Book of War: The Brigand’s Handbook. When news of the heroes’ caravan reaches the Brigands, Roofless consults a Doorstopper to figure out how to proceed. The page he reads from contains vaguely-related words grouped alphabetically (perhaps it’s a table of contents?), and Roofless reads with difficulty, so its actual usefulness is dubious.
  • Big Entrance: Zigzag is introduced with a big parade down the streets, with performers singing his praises, thugs with whips holding back the crowd, and attendants fanning him and rolling carpets in front of him. It gets interrupted when Tack, fighting off the Thief, accidentally spills his tacks on Zigzag's path; the Vizier steps on one and takes it as a personal attack.
  • Big "NEVER!": In the original, the King's reaction when Zigzag asks for YumYum's hand in marriage in return for the golden balls. In later adaptations, he just laughs Zigzag off, but still emphasis on the word "never."
    Nod: You? Worthy of my daughter? A practitioner of the black arts? (laughing) No. She can only marry a man pure of heart. You will never marry her! NEVER! (Zigzag's face falls; Nod laughs even harder) Not in a thousand years! (Zigzag scowls with fury)
  • Bilingual Bonus: The signs leading to the Great Ruby Temple are in several languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Japanese, Russian, and Greek.
  • Blackface-Style Caricature: A blink and you'll miss it example is seen in the background when Zigzag brings Tack into the palace. Behind him as he approaches King Nod, four men matching this trope carry in a palanquin.
  • Bloodless Carnage: The soldier who warns the king of One-Eye’s impending invasion. Apparently, being impaled with a flagpole and a dozen arrows doesn't make you bleed.
    • Averted in one short scene in the Recobbled Cut, where there is nothing but slashing swords and blood spraying everywhere.
  • Born in the Theatre: At the end of the movie, the Thief removes the film from the projector and absconds with it. Talk about a scene stealer!
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The Thief not only absconds with the end titles, but also takes the film right off the projector.
  • Bring News Back: The sole survivor of a massacre rides for miles with a volley of arrows in his back and arrives at the palace, living just long enough to say the name of the Big Bad: "One... Eye!”
  • Bullet Sparks: Not an actual gun bullet, but a tack slung at an unrealistic speed ricochets with visible sparks, as the start of a disastrous chain reaction.
  • Butt-Monkey: Nothing goes right for the thief and Zigzag's pet until the end.
  • By the Lights of Their Eyes: Zigzag being torn apart by crocodiles in the dark, with only eyes and teeth visible.
    "Ow, my bottom! Ow, my top! Greedy things, don't you ever stop?"
  • By Wall That Is Holey: Pretty much how the Thief survives his trek through the collapsing War Machine, with holes being broken open by flying objects, and many other near-misses.
  • Captain Obvious: Much of the dialogue in the Miramax version is this, mainly because it was half-heartedly thrown in for the sole purpose of Filling the Silence. For example, we know Tack's in love with the princess because he makes her face out of thread in a very effective scene.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Princess YumYum's backscratchers were stolen by the Thief early on in the film. When the Thief is about to face dismemberment as punishment for trying to steal something, he slyly grabs the backscratchers and shakes them violently, giving the illusion that they cut off his actual arms.
    • Also the tacks that Tack keeps in his mouth.
  • Clark Kent Outfit: Tack is surprisingly tall and muscular when he stands up straight and half of his clothes have been ripped off in the final fight; this is more obvious in the original storyboards (and VERY clear in a concept drawing in the Recobbled DVD extras), as the animation finished by Calvert (which the Recobbled Cut uses to some extent) is very Off-Model. This is probably part of his Coming of Age story, along with getting a handsome tan and starting to talk.
  • Clingy MacGuffin: The polo ball. After getting smacked by the polo players and nearly trampled by the horses, it's the one thing the Thief decides is not worth stealing, but it keeps rolling towards him, and the players keep coming for it.
  • Clothing Damage: Tack gets some during the climax, courtesy of a spear strike from Zig-Zag.
  • Clutching Hand Trap: At one point the Thief sees a bottle filled with jewels. Unfortunately, the jewels are too big for him to get past the opening. He won't let go of the diamond, even when the palace guards have him surrounded.
  • Conspicuously Light Patch: Averted. Partly due to the simple style, moving background objects blend perfectly with the background paintings. One example is the wooden stocks the thief is put in.
  • Continuity Snarl: Because of the movie's 20-something-years-long production, some aspects of the story were gradually modified, and the Recobbled Cut does have contradicting scenes at one point. The early intent was for Zigzag to actually lust for Princess Yum-Yum, and he therefore still wants the One-Eyes to give her to him as payment for his treason. However, another scene reveals his Evil Plan to be to marry Yum-Yum as a way to become king (which means she'd be useless to him once the One-Eyes, thanks to his treason, had destroyed the Golden City).
    • Apparently the only piece of rough animation Gilcrist could find for Yum-Yum in the tub was one that also features her twin sister who was removed early on. Luckily, since she doesn't actually do anything besides sit in her own tub in the background it can easily come off as a mirror.
  • Cosmic Keystone: The golden balls, at least according to the Opening Monologue. But it seems to be ultimately averted, since they don't ever display any power on their own, and the news of an encroaching army seems to coincide with their disappearance by pure happenstance.
  • Covers Always Lie: While the cardboard diorama packaged with the DVD has Tack and Princess Yum-Yum riding a Magic Carpet, they never do so in any version of the movie.
  • Creepy Long Fingers: Zig Zag and the Witch have them, and they are seen with the Elder's Hands in the intro as well.
  • Cute Mute: Tack, in spades. That is, until the last scene.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The thief's inner thoughts, as provided by Jonathan Winters for the Miramax cut. This tends to provoke a polarizing response, with some finding it obnoxious and distracting, while others think it (along with the animation) is the only thing that makes those cuts watchable.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: Tack's color palette is mainly white with shades of grey and black, in contrast to the colorful characters and sets around him.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: "Seeeiizze him! Take him! Seize him! Take him!"
  • Deranged Animation: The film has bizarre perspective on backgrounds, some grotesque character designs, and almost unnaturally smooth animation throughout.
  • Deus ex Machina: The tack Zigzag steps on that sends him falling right into a random pit in the ground, where he’s eaten alive by Phido and the crocodiles.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: Everything is extremely stylized to the point of being super weird. Lots of Amazing Technicolor Population, Unmoving Plaid and Deranged Animation.
  • Determinator:
    • Nothing can stop the Thief once he spots something shiny. Subverted at the end of the original, where he and Tack are fighting over the balls, and the Thief just decides that they're not worth it and walks away, only to come back, unknown to Tack, and steal the entire film.
    • The dying messenger rode for untold miles with a dozen arrows in his back.
  • Diabolus ex Nihilo: The One-Eyes simply appear in the film without any kind of backstory. They want to conquer and destroy the Golden City, also without any explained motivation.
  • Dilating Door: The palace door opens and closes horizontally, with the segments fitting together like a jagged jigsaw puzzle.
  • Disneyfication: A notorious example. After Fred Calvert took over the film, he deliberately edited it into one more in-line with the Disney musical format popular at the time, hence the Award Bait Songs, YumYum becoming a Rebellious Princess, etc. Ironically, Richard Williams originally intended the film to be anti-Disney.
  • Disney Villain Death: Mighty One-Eye in Fred Calvert's recut. Originally, his death was more family unfriendly.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Zigzag has Tack arrested, thrown in jail and almost fed to a vulture just because he accidentally stepped on a tack that fell from him by accident. And that's only because YumYum convinced her father to spare him; Zigzag wanted to have him beheaded.
  • Distant Duet: "Am I Feeling Love?"
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Some have accused Disney's Aladdin of being a rip-off of this film. While the plots are dissimilar, the animators of Aladdin have admitted to watching clips of the film and basing their own character designs, such as the Genie and Jafar, off the ones in this film. Which later led to critics thinking this film, which was released later, was ripping it off. Of course, the Miramax cut did in fact rip off certain elements of Aladdin during the process of Disneyfying it.
  • The Dragon: Zigzag becomes this to One-Eye.
  • Eaten Alive: Zig Zag is eaten alive by crocodiles.
  • The End: The words "The End" appear in golden letters. The Thief steals the letters, along with the rest of the film reel.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: Several examples. There is one scene where the camera zooms out from King Nod's mouth to a view of the city and vast lands around it. People who worked on this film used to call it "mouth to mountain".
  • Establishing Character Moment
    • The Thief's first scene has him sneaking up behind an old woman, and trying to snatch a bunch of bananas from her... and then she tosses him around like a ragdoll. It firmly establishes both his role and hers for most of the film.
    • Zigzag's entrance is a masterpiece of Show, Don't Tell (in the original, anyway). Even before you see him, you learn from the parade announcing him that he's a high-ranking, powerful, narcissistic and draconic man.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: Happens to the Thief. An old lady turns out to be a martial artist, a bed turns out to be a pack of giant, angry guard dogs, the polo players constantly hit him... and the giant war machine has such things as a giant flyswatter, a giant broom and a giant iron.
  • Evil Chancellor: Zigzag. And apparently an Evil Sorcerer too, though his magic seems mostly limited to illusions and sleight of hand.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: In the Miramax and Allied Filmakers versions. "Attack...attack...a tack. A TACK!" which segues into...
  • Exact Words: Throughout the film, 'Attack' is used liberally, until, in some versions, Tack replaces one T with a space, figuring out how to defeat the War Machine.
  • Excuse Plot: Really, there’s only one reason to watch any version of this film, and it’s not for its masterful storytelling.
  • Extra Digits: Zigzag has six fingers on each hand, perhaps to show that he's a master manipulator.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Oddly enough, Zigzag. Though he does reproach those who are killing him, his tone and phrasing are surprisingly mild and consistent with his established speech patterns.
  • The Faceless: The "present" given to King Nod by Zigzag. All we see is a purple arm and an eye with eyelashes about a foot long.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The witch. Her breasts are grotesquely long, floppy... and bouncing with loving care.
    • One-Eye slave girls wear skimpy clothes and have bouncing breasts while having the same pear-shaped, one-eyed faces as the rest of the One-Eyes, along with exaggerated lips.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Zigzag. He gives a massage and a concubine to king Nod, not out friendliness but to keep him busy. Also possibly the reason he speaks in rhyme — his words are pleasant on the outside but empty inside.
  • Filling the Silence: The Calvert cut added narration from an older Tack to the film with the character also getting more lines, while the Thief had added vocal effects in certain scenes, like when Tack accidentally chokes him in his sleep. The Miramax cut added many more voices, including an inner monologue for the Thief (done by Jonathan Winters). In addition, many characters, such as YumYum, have significantly more dialog added in both cuts. The original intention by Williams was to create several purely physical characters for the animators to have total freedom with, and Calvert and Miramax added dialog.
  • Five-Finger Discount: The Thief is such an inveterate kleptomaniac, he even picks his own pocket.
  • Foreshadowing: In the intro to The Recobbled Cut, the narrator is accompanied by a pair of hands over a Crystal Ball. When the narrator explains that the city will be saved by "the simplest soul... with the simplest of things," the hands cover the ball and the negative space between them forms the shape of a tack.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: During the epic war machine sequence, at one point if you look VERY carefully, you'll notice that the Thief's flies actually have little robes on them — and their heads are the same as the Thief's.
  • Fun with Flushing: The Thief's first attempt to break into King Nod's palace lands him in the royal toilet. While trying to get out he accidentally pulls the rope and is flushed back into the castle moat.
  • Funny Background Event: While Zigzag is speaking during the polo match, the Thief is getting flung back and forth by the mallets because of the "devil ball."
  • Get Out!: King Nod to Zigzag after Zigzag tries blackmailing his way into marrying YumYum (original cut).
  • Gold and White Are Divine: The Golden City, which is described as a paradise, is decorated in these colors.
  • Gonk: Most of the One Eyes, Zigzag and Roofless' Bandits. Especially Roofless' Bandits.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: The Golden City (or Baghdad, depending on which version you're most familiar with) centering on bright colors like gold and white, while the One-Eyes are black and red.
  • Goofy Print Underwear: Zigzag has pink boxers with purple "Z"s under his robe, as seen when he pops up through the floor of the throne room in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it visual gag.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: During Zigzag's death scene, he falls into a pit and is eaten alive by a pack of crocodiles. All that can be seen is a silhouette and a pair of eyes being munched by the crocs' teeth, until all that remains is his still talking head, which is then eaten by his pet vulture. It cuts to complete darkness as his head is eaten.
  • Gravity Is a Harsh Seamstress: Happens to the Thief in one scene where he's sent flying and ricocheting between damn near every awning in the city, before finally landing in several clothes lines.
  • Green Gators: Zizag's alligators are green.
  • Groin Attack: In the Recobbled Cut, Princess YumYum does this on Phido (a vulture, remember!) when she goes into the dungeons to look for Tack.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
  • Hollywood Density: The Gold Balls are lifted very effortlessly, even bouncing when the Thief falls off the tower.
  • Homage: At least two to early Disney:
  • How Unscientific!: The film doesn't seem to contain any magic — the golden balls don't actually do anything, and everything Zigzag does is rather obviously done by small smoke bombs and sleight of hand — except for the Witch, who is an actual sorceress.
  • Human Pincushion: The dying soldier who rides to send a message to the king has been impaled with a flagpole and a dozen of arrows. (The animator actually added more arrows in later scenes — nobody noticed!)
  • Humongous Mecha: One-Eye's war machine, a gargantuan Clock Punk Spider Tank in the shape of a giant eyeball.
  • Hurt Foot Hop: Near the beginning of the movie, Zigzag does this after stepping on one of Tack's tacks.
  • I'm Going to Disney World!: In the Miramax edit, when the Thief steals the three golden balls from the top of the palace, as he struggles to slide the third and largest ball off of the spire.
    Thief's inner monologue: "And with you... ohoho... I'm... going to Disneyland!"
  • Impossible Theft: The thief can and will steal ANYTHING if he's left alone for too long... He's let free at the end of the film. He then steals... the end of the film, and runs off with it. Literally. Right off the projector.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Tack the Cobbler, who has shown no sharpshooting abilities, takes down One-Eye's entire invading army with a single tack.
  • Ink-Suit Actor: After Vincent Price was cast as Zigzag's voice, his design was modified to resemble Price. This is more obvious when Williams shows his caricature of Price in The Animator's Survival Kit — it resembles Zigzag quite a lot!
  • "I Want" Song: "She is More" from the Calvert and Miramax versions, in which YumYum sings about how dissatisfied she is and would like to do more than merely be a Living Prop by her father’s side.
  • Karma Houdini:
  • Karmic Death: Zig Zag is devoured by the crocodiles he promised a grand meal to.
    • Depending on the cut, Mighty One-Eye either plunges to his death from atop his war machine or is crushed to death by the slave women he had been using as living furniture.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: At the end of the workprint, the thief, with Tack pinned over a pit of doom and the golden balls within reach, finally decides he's been through more trouble than they're worth and leaves in a huff.
    • Before his death, ZigZag attempts to leave the battle.
    ZigZag: The greatest wizard has to know exactly when it's time to go!
  • Large Ham: King Nod. Complete with incongruous close-up shots of his face and mouth.
    • King Nod freaking out has a few examples.
    • Also, later in the film...
    King Nod (In response to seeing Princess Yum Yum in the battlefield): MY DAUGHTEEEER!!! MY DAUGHTER, OH MY GOD!!! MY CHILD! HELP ME!!! HELP ME TO HELP HER!!!
    • And of course, there's Zigzag, played by Vincent Price in his usual delicious hamminess ("FAT! FAAAAT! FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!")
    • The Mighty One Eye too can count.
  • Last-Second Word Swap: "Oh fffffffffffffffffPhido!" (original version).
  • Laughably Evil: Zigzag. Almost everything he does is horrible, yet he's still one of the funniest characters in the film.
  • Leitmotif: "Have no fear, Zigzag the Grand Vizier is here." ...Yes, it's ironic.
  • Limited Animation: Completely averted. Despite the complete stylization which was original for the time he began work on it, Williams painfully crafted it cel-by-cel at a high frame-rate.
    • Early in the production, when Williams didn't have good animators yet, the film did have limited animation. Here is a very early clip (when the story also was completely different).
  • Live Mink Coat: Not a coat, but Princess YumYum sleeps on a blanket made of wolf fur. The wolves are still alive and alert her when the Thief enters her room.
  • Luck-Based Search Technique: While hugging the palace walls while trying to escape, Tack accidentally hits a brick that causes the wall to open.
  • MacGuffin: The three golden balls. They don't actually do anything other than to be coveted by the characters.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Ziz-zag takes being eaten alive by crocodiles quite calmly, all things considered. Especially since one of those considerations would be his freakout at stepping on a tack that kicks off the plot.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Are the golden balls really prophetic, or were they just stolen by the Thief at a convenient time?
  • Metronomic Man Mashing: YumYum's nanny beats the Thief this way when he tries to rob her.
  • Mind Screw: The chase scene is this, with its use of pure black and white background patterns and deceptive perspective.
  • More Dakka: The One-Eye's War Machine is NOTHING BUT DAKKA.
  • More Teeth than the Osmond Family: The entire One-Eye race has rows upon rows upon rows of sharp, yellow teeth. Phido appears to grow a set of chompers moments before he eats Zigzag.
  • Myth Prologue: The movie begins with a prophecy where the three golden balls that keep the golden city protected will be removed, dooming it. Only The Chosen One can save the golden city.
  • Natural Spotlight: There's a subtle one when Tack the Cobbler is seen the first time, shining on him. It's probably used to signify his pure nature. Particularly egregrious as it seems to come through the ceiling.
  • Nature Is Not Nice: Zigzag finds this out, in his final moments.
  • Never Mess with Granny: YumYum's nanny is an exaggerated version. When the Thief tries to steal some bananas from her, she proceeds to beat the crap out of him and barely even looks at him while she does it.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: When the Mighty One Eye throws Zigzag into the alligator's pit he manages to befriend them and use them as sledge horses. Later though, they give in to their carnivorous instincts and manage to eat him for good.
  • No Mouth: Tack, whose mouth is represented by the tacks he holds in his mouth.
  • Non-Standard Character Design: One of the reasons that the film's animation is so highly regarded. No two characters are designed in exactly the same way, and every major character is rendered with a completely unique art style and style of movement. Tack's body is made up of simple geometric shapes and a monochromatic color scheme, with a completely round face and angular joints; the Thief has exaggerated facial features and a desaturated color scheme, and he scuttles about like an insect; King Nod and Princess YumYum have the most realistically proportioned bodies and naturalistic color schemes, and their bodies are rendered with soft curves; Zigzag is drawn with sharp angles and bold primary colors, he never moves in a straight line, and many of his mannerisms are distinctly bird-like; the leader of the One-Eyes has drastically simplified facial features that suggest a narrow emotional range, and he moves more like a machine than a human. You get the idea...
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: The Thief comes across YumYum bathing and only says "Oh, [it's only] a naked lady." But he gets excited to see she has a jewel encrusted golden backscratcher.
  • No Woman's Land: The One-Eyes are not much better to their women than their enemies. The Recobbled Cut shows that the women are used as entertainment (exotic dancing and likely something else) and furniture (no, really) at the soldiers' camp. Mighty One-Eye even uses a number of contortionist women to make the shape of his lounge chair when he's resting, his throne when he's working, and so on. This bites him at the end when his war machine is falling apart, and his "throne" seizes the opportunity to sit on him instead.
  • The Oner: Some shots are over one minute long. Some examples are the dying soldier slowly crawling towards his horse, and the thief tightrope walking. Some of them have hidden cuts to make animating them easier.
  • Papa Wolf: The King in the original cut. When Zigzag fools the King into thinking he can "magic the balls back," he requests Princess Yumyum's hand in marriage as compensation. The king vehemently refuses to send off his daughter to him. Note that, as far as the king is concerned, this is his only chance to get the balls back and keep his kingdom safe. It's honestly rather badass of the King to do so.
  • Perspective Magic: When there is a scene with tiled patterns, perspective is often played with.
  • Pinball Projectile: The Cobbler's tack, in the final major scene, as it ricochets dozens of times between the blades of One-Eye's soldiers' weapons.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Tack, who spends the first two-thirds of the movie largely being dragged around by other characters. He undergoes no notable character development or Hidden Depths, which makes his burst of heroism in the movie's final act all the more surprising by how unexpected it is.
  • Platform Hell: The thief ends up in one in the climax. Unfair deathtraps, Spikes of Doom and a constant Bullet Hell are everywhere, and he survives them only by sheer dumb luck (not so for the various mooks dying horribly). It would probably make an awesome videogame.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The soundtrack for the climatic scenes near the end are set to the fourth movement of Antonín Dvořák's well known New World Symphony.
  • Pun: "When to the wall you find your back... attack."
    Tack: "Attack...attack...a tack. A TACK!"
    • Used earlier when ZigZag claims that Tack "attacked" him, holding up one of his tacks.
  • Rampage from a Nail: A role reversal of this trope, in that everything falls apart because the tack is put IN the device.
  • Rebellious Princess: YumYum shows shades of this in the original, but it was Flanderized big time in the edits.
  • Recut: There's three versions of the film:
    • The original, unfinished version of the film by Richard Williams. He put together a workprint in 1992 before he was forced to leave. The Recobbled Cut is a restoration of this, with only some cosmetic changes (adding more music and replacing storyboards with Calvert's animation where it didn't differ too much).
    • The Princess and the Cobbler in 1993 by Fred Calvert, which removed a bunch of scenes, added songs, a voice for Tack and a large amount of Off-Model animation.
    • Arabian Knight in 1995 by Miramax, which removed even more scenes and added voiceovers for pretty much every scene; most notably Jonathan Winters as the Thief.
  • Red and Black and Evil All Over: The whole army of the One-Eye uses these colors to overkill. Even their eyes are red.
  • Red Filter of Doom: Twice.
    • First is the introduction of the One-eyes: After the camera pans up to view the three golden balls that protect the city, the screen suddenly turns red, menacing music starts playing and the camera travels past vast areas of land to reveal the One-eyes in the middle of thousands of human corpses.
    • The second time is when the enormous war machine is collapsing, Justified by the fire.
  • Redubbing: The Allied Filmmakers and Miramax editions redubbed the main British voices with American ones, except for Vincent Price and much of the background cast.
  • The Remnant: The Brigands' song reveals that they used to be part of the city's army, sent into the desert to protect the kingdom's borders. However, their dismal levels of literacy resulted in them being unable to read the orders sent to them, effectively stranding them in the desert to descend into lawlessness and insanity.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: Since they didn't actually win, One-Eye never gets around to giving Zig Zag this, but every interaction they have concerning their plan seems to indicate One-Eye intended this fate for him.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: Zigzag speaks this.
  • Rodent Cellmates: While locked in the dungeon by Zigzag, Tack he befriends some rats by sharing his bread with them. He also befriends a white mouse that he takes along when escaping.
  • Rube Goldberg Hates Your Guts: The Thief's attempts to steal the Gold Balls involve a great deal of being tossed around by gravity and a massive assortment of environmental hazards that make thing ever more difficult for him.
    • The destruction of One-Eye's War Machine is the direct result of this. Tack fires a single tack, which ricochets dozens of times before hitting Zig-Zag's horse, throwing him off and causing his spear to cut the rope on a catapult, which then fires its shot into other catapults and seige weapons, causing a ludicrous chain reaction that ends up destroying the colossal War Machine and One-Eye's entire army.
  • Rule of Animation Conservation: Averted, in that money was no concern for Williams. A lot of stuff that didn't need to be was animated. His rule of thumb was more like: "If it can be animated, it will be, regardless of how difficult or unnecessary it is."
  • Rump Roast: This happens to Phido the vulture several times.
  • Scenery Porn: The original cut has this in full since the creator spent over a quarter of a century working on each frame of animation.
  • Sealed with a Kiss: The second-to-last shot in the film (last being the Thief stealing the film) has this between Tack and YumYum during their wedding.
  • Sensory Abuse: Some of the backgrounds in the palace can fall into this — especially since the checkered backgrounds and black & white patterns move fast as Tack and the thief chase each other, resulting in flashing lights.
  • Serrated Blade of Pain: The One-Eye weaponry combines this with Spikes of Villainy.
  • Shout-Out: Several. For instance, Princess YumYum is named after The Mikado's main female character of the same name.
  • Skewed Priorities: What would our dear thief rather do: steal three priceless golden balls, or run away from the blazing inferno/death trap of a war machine sitting in his way? Just guess.
  • Slasher Smile: In the Recobbled Cut, a rough animation depicts Zigzag having one as he begins to attack Tack.
  • The Sleepless: ZigZag is implied to be this. In the Recobbled Cut, he mocks the kingdom for sleeping during the night, and brags that he is wide awake, indicating that it gives him an edge over them.
  • Sleepy Head: Most of King Nod's scenes show him sleeping.
  • Sphere Eyes: Some of the characters, given their really cartoony appearances.
  • Spike Balls of Doom: One-Eye's army has these in their weapon arsenal.
  • Spikes of Villainy: One-Eye, his entire army, and his War Machine are all armored in spiky black metal.
  • Starring Special Effects: The movie is very light on story and really only exists so Richard Williams can show off every single trick and technique he learned from his golden-age mentors. There are scenes that Williams deliberately requested go on for longer than they should if only to show off the animation.
  • Star Scraper: ZigZag has a tower that is ridiculously tall. The minaret with the three golden balls is supposed to be the tallest in the city, but seems fairly normal in comparison.
  • Steal the Surroundings: The Thief's most audacious theft, in the entire film is... The Entire Film.
  • Sticky Fingers: The Thief really can't stop himself from trying to steal anything that isn't nailed down, even if it's a bunch of bananas from the hands of an old woman. It gets him arrested at one point when he tries taking a large gem from a glass vase, but the gem is much larger than the opening to the vase, so he gets his hand stuck fruitlessly attempting to pull the gem free as the guards haul him away.
  • Strolling Through the Chaos: Happens to the thief in the climax. One of the funniest moments in the film, and lasts around eight minutes.
  • Suddenly Speaking:
    • In the Recobbled version, Tack speaks for the first time at the very end of the film.
    • The Thief (by Jonathan Winters) and Phido (by Eric Bogosian) in the Miramax version. Technically, Phido spoke in squawks provided by Donald Pleasence, and he was still dubbed in anyway.
  • Take That!:
    • Zigzag was designed by Williams to be an unflattering caricature of two people he particularly hated (with a bit of Vincent Price added in to make the character funnier)—which was revealed to be the film's original producers (during its initial Nasruddin stage), Omar Ali Shah and his brother Idries Shah, who were discovered to be embezzling money from Williams' studio and, after being sacked from the project, had the nerve to demand ownership of the Nasruddin character and 50% of the film's profits after it would be completed, and even sent a death threat to Williams' studio (about mailing a bomb, to be exact) when he refused to comply with their demands.
    • The Miramax cut has a small one towards Aladdin when Tack says "Who needs a genie when a tack will do the trick?"
  • Talking Animal: The Miramax cut gave Phido and the alligators several lines each for truly inexplicable reasons.
  • Technicolor Eyes: Everybody who has irises have them in different color. Tack has blue, Zigzag has green, king Nod has reddish brown, the nanny has desaturated brown, and Yumyum has purple eyes. On a darker note, all of the One-eyes have a single, big, red eye.
  • Tied-Together-Shoelace Trip: Tack does this to one of the bandits when he grabs him by the legs.
  • Toilet Humour: At one point, there is a scene where the Thief appears to be urinating on a tree. He turns around to reveal that he's actually squeezing water out of his rags.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Tack. By the climax, not only does he manage to take down the war machine with a single tack, but he also goes to face off with Zigzag in a (mostly offscreen) physical fight, resulting in his stitching Zigzag up and rendering him harmless—and he does the latter while being strangled. That's pretty damn tough.
  • Toothy Bird: Unusually, played for horror. Phido looks like an ordinary vulture in the light, but when Phido chomps down on Zigzag's head he suddenly reveals a beak full of serrated teeth.
  • Traveling-Pipe Bulge: The thief does this extensively while trying to sneak into the castle.
  • Underlighting: Just one of the very many animation special effects used to no end. Things made to glow this way include the golden balls, all fire, beams of light, Zigzag's flashy smoke bombs, brightly lit areas, and many more...
  • Unmoving Plaid: Pretty much any scene with tiled floors. This is due to the style being based on ancient Persian miniature paintings, which did not have correct perspective. Averted whenever the animators decided to rotate the scene around. This actually caused some problems with the scene where a messenger rides across a courtyard, with a panning camera.
  • Vile Vulture: The Evil Chancellor, Zigzag, has a pet vulture named Phido. Phido apparently eats living meat and does attempt to eat the protagonist, Tack, at one point, but Phido is so frequently abused by his master and other characters that you can't help but feel a little sympathy for him. Zigzag himself has a vulture motif, although his design is more Ambiguously Human.
  • Villain Protagonist: The Thief. While he's not the Big Bad, he isn't exactly a good guy either, considering the whole mess is his fault. The Completion Bond Company apparently felt pity for him and made him an Accidental Hero when the King believes that he recovered the golden balls for the city and he gives the balls back out of guilt (and not wanting to be attacked by the King's guards).
  • Villain Team-Up: Zigzag goes to join the Mighty One-Eye after being refused to marry princess Yum-Yum.
    "We'll see who wins at the end of the day! We'll see who ends up grieving! I'll go to the One-Eyes right away! I'm taking my balls and leaving!"
  • Visual Innuendo: The bit where the Thief steals the Golden Balls for the first time and hides them under his clothes.
  • Visual Pun: Zigzag holds up the tack he stepped on while saying that Tack "attacked" him.
  • The Voiceless: Tack and the Thief. At least, originally save for one line from Tack in the end. The Fred Calvert cut adds one line for The Thief, but it's just laughter after he finds a necklace in his pocket.
  • Vocal Dissonance: When he finally speaks in the Recobbled Cut, it's with a surprisingly deep voice (provided by Sean Connery).
  • Wallet Moths: The Thief steals the Cobbler's money purse to find it woefully empty, save for a few moths.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: The Mighty One-Eye's behemoth of a war machine (which is so vast that it takes at least ten minutes, if not longer, for the Thief to escape from it) is defeated by, of all things, a single tack.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the re-cuts of the movie:
    • While Princess YumYum is bathing, the Thief steals two of her backscratchers. In the re-cuts, nothing comes of it. In the original version, the Thief uses them to escape having his hands cut off.
    • While Tack and YumYum are consulting the Witch, the Thief is trying to get a giant ruby on a tower by flying with palm frond wings. He ends up crashing into the Witch. But since the re-cuts eliminate nearly all the footage of the Witch, the Thief's fate is left literally up in the air.
    • Played straight in the edits, but averted in the original cut. Tack is seen feeding a mouse while he's imprisoned, and we later see that he's sneaked the mouse out with him when he escaped (these shots are present in all versions of the film). While it's never seen again in the edits, in the original cut he removes the mouse from his pocket and gives it to YumYum before he goes to face One-Eye's army.
      • The Recobbled Cut, however, does play the trope in one case: In the original storyboards, the mouse shows up in the final kissing scene. Calvert removed the mouse, and the Recobbled Cut uses that animation.
    • The edited versions of this movie contain references to Arabian Knights...for absolutely no reason since the main character actually becomes a prince. Also YumYum's song about wanting to be something more than a princess goes absolutely nowhere.
    • In the Miramax version of the film, Mighty One-Eye's fate is never shown.
    • In the Miramax version, the last we see of Zigzag's henchmen is an odd scene where he ambiguously threatens them, and it looks almost as if he stabs them in the face the second after the camera fades out. In the workprint, Fred Calvert and Recobbled Cuts, they appear briefly to show shock and remorse for what's happened, and it's clear that Zigzag was simply scaring them in the earlier scene.



Zigzag is announced walking through the streets.

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