The Thief and the Cobbler is an animated fantasy film directed by Canadian-British animator Richard Williams. Originally conceived in the 1960s, the film was in and out of production for nearly three decades due to independent funding and ambitiously complex animation. It was finally placed into full production in 1989 when Warner Bros. agreed to finance and distribute the film. When production went over budget and fell behind schedule, the film was heavily cut and re-edited by producer Fred Calvert without Williams' involvement; it was eventually released in 1993 by Allied Filmmakers under the title The Princess and the Cobbler. Two years later, Disney subsidiary Miramax Films released another re-edit entitled Arabian Knight. Both versions of the film performed poorly and received mixed reviews.
Over the years, various people and companies, including The Walt Disney Company's Roy E. Disney, have discussed restoring the film to its original version. In 2013, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archived Richard Williams' own 35mm workprint. Williams himself acknowledged the film's rehabilitated reputation, thanks to projects like the popular fan edit, The Recobbled Cut, and Persistence of Vision, a 2012 documentary of the film's production.
With The Thief and the Cobbler being in and out of production from 1964 until 1995, a total of 31 years, it surpasses the 20-year Guinness record previously held by Tiefland (1954). It was also the final film for several actors and artists, including animators Ken Harris (died 1982); Grim Natwick (died 1990); and Art Babbitt (died 1992), as well as actors Felix Aylmer (died 1979); Kenneth Williams (died 1988); Sir Anthony Quayle (died 1989); and Vincent Price (died 1993, a month after the film's initial release).
The film opens with a narrator describing a prosperous city called the Golden City, ruled by the sleepy King Nod and protected by three golden balls atop its tallest minaret. According to a prophecy, the city would fall to a race of warlike, one-eyed monsters, known as "One-Eyes", should the balls be removed, and could only be saved by "the simplest soul with the smallest and simplest of things". Living in the city are the good-hearted cobbler Tack, named for the ubiquitous pair of tacks held in his mouth, and a nameless, unsuccessful yet persistent thief.
When the thief sneaks into Tack's house, the two fight and stumble outside, causing Tack's tacks to fall onto the street. Zigzag, King Nod's Grand Vizier, steps on one of the tacks and orders Tack to be arrested while the thief escapes. Tack is brought before King Nod and his daughter, Princess Yum-Yum. Before Zigzag can convince King Nod to have Tack executed by beheading, Yum-Yum saves Tack by breaking one of her shoes and ordering Tack to fix it. During repairs, Tack and Yum-Yum become increasingly attracted to each other, much to the jealousy of Zigzag, who plots to take over the kingdom by marrying the princess.
Meanwhile, the thief notices the golden balls atop the minaret and decides to steal them. After breaking into the palace through a gutter, the thief steals the repaired shoe from Tack, prompting the cobbler to chase him through the palace. Upon retrieving the shoe, Tack bumps into Zigzag, who notices the shoe is fixed and imprisons Tack in a dungeon.
The next morning, Nod has a vision of the Golden City's destruction by the One-Eyes. While Zigzag tries to convince Nod of the kingdom's security, the thief steals the balls after several failed attempts, only to lose them to Zigzag's minions; Tack escapes from his cell using his cobbling tools during the ensuing panic. Nod notices the balls' disappearance when a mortally wounded soldier warns them of the invading One-Eyes. Zigzag attempts to use the stolen balls to blackmail the king into letting him marry Yum-Yum. When Nod dismisses him, Zigzag defects to the One-Eyes and gives them the balls instead.
Nod sends Yum-Yum, her nurse, and Tack to ask help from a "mad and holy old witch" in the desert. They are secretly followed by the thief, who hears of treasures on the journey but fails in stealing any. In the desert, they discover a band of dimwitted brigands, led by Chief Roofless, whom Yum-Yum recruits as her bodyguards. The protagonists reach the hand-shaped tower where the witch lives, and learn that Tack is prophesied to save the Golden City. The witch also presents a riddle: "Attack, attack, attack! A tack, see? But it's what you do with what you've got!" before destroying the entire tower with a storm cloud.
The protagonists return to the Golden City to find the One-Eyes' massive war machine approaching. Remembering the witch's riddle, Tack shoots a single tack into the enemy's midst, sparking a Goldberg-esque chain reaction that destroys the entire One-Eye army. Zigzag tries to escape, but steps on the tack which leads to him falling into a pit where he is eaten alive by alligators and his fat lazy vulture, Phido. The thief, avoiding many deathtraps, steals the golden balls from the collapsing machine, only to have them taken from him by Tack. With peace restored and the prophecy fulfilled, the city celebrates as Tack and Yum-Yum marry. The film ends with the thief stealing the reel of film and running away.
- Workprint: May 15, 1992
- The Princess and the Cobbler: September 23, 1993
- Arabian Knight: August 25, 1995
- The Recobbled Cut: 2006, 2007, 2013