The Thief and the Cobbler: A Critique

The Thief and the Cobbler Analysis

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The animated film, which now bears the title of The Thief and the Cobbler is infamous for the immensely long time it was in development. Beginning production in 1964, the film was released in its first incarnation in May of 1992. The brainchild of Canadian animator Richard Williams, the film changed control multiple times in the 25+ years it was being made. The resultant product was far removed from Williams’ vision as later hands felt the need to make changes in favor of commercialization and marketization. At the time of this writing, fans continue to sift through and re-construct Williams’ original film, obfuscated though it may have been by corporate decision-making.

The purpose of this writing is to analyze the development of the film, analyze the film itself, judge the decision-making process and how that affected the various cuts of the film, and determine the film’s significance in the greater timeline of world media.

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Richard Williams was born March 19, 1933 in Toronto, Ontario in Canada to a mother and father involved in the illustration industry. Parents divorced by the time he was five years old, Richard lived with his mother Kathleen for the majority of his early life. His mother and other family members encouraged the pursuance of the arts. Williams was fascinated by the film Snow White at age five (1937), saying “I knew they were drawings, and that’s what fascinated me.”  Having been offered a job at Disney around 1947, when Williams was fourteen, Kathleen Williams took Richard to meet Walt Disney. Of the meeting, Richard recalls “you’d think it would be a clear memory, but I only have the vaguest recollection.”

After the experience, Williams pursued art entirely. He drew some advertisements for Disney’s Advertising Department and was being paid a living wage for his work by the age of 16, more than could be said of other starving artists in the field. As of this writing, which advertisements these might be are unknown. As his appreciation for art grew and he developed more as an artist, Williams withdrew from animation, pursuing traditional painting techniques in art school. His development of these techniques sent him to live in Spain until the mid-1950s. During this time, Williams fondness for animation came back and he planned to reconcile his love for animation with his passion for paint. He planned to try and incorporate traditional painting into animated works.

At this time Williams moved to London, the nearest English-speaking hub of animation where he began to work on his first animated feature, The Little Island, which would see release in 1958. Williams entirely funded, wrote, produced, and directed this short film, which would later go on to receive a BAFTA award for Animated Film. Music was composed by Tristram Cary. The copyright on the feature lists Richard Williams Animated Films Ltd. The Little Island opens with the following premise: “Many people in this world have ideas but sometimes only ONE idea…. Each of the three little men in this film has an idea …. BUT ONLY ONE.” The film features three small, red-orange humanoid creatures representing truth, beauty, and good. The three figures begin to express themselves and eventually grate on each other’s nerves. The feature is more of a showcase of William’s animation prowess. The story is a more of a frame for that picture. The animation is delightful as the figures move and change, morph and jaunt around the screen, depicting a wide range of emotions. Despite being amorphous humanoids, the figures are given extraordinary character through William’s animations. As the feature is more of a gallery of William’s animations, the slim narrative is enough to drive the bizarre feast for the eyes.

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William’s The Little Island was the first example of Williams suffering for his work, a running theme in William’s career. In order to self-fund the feature, Williams began working for newly launched commercial television companies producing advertisements. Production of The Little Island lasted three-and-a-half years. During this time, Williams took good hard looks at Disney’s films being released during the time and previously, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, and Cinderella to name a few. Williams opinion of Disney’s films changed drastically during production of The Little Island previously believing Disney’s work to be “nothing but saccharine nonsense” and later believing them to be glorious triumphs of animation.

William’s next project, an English animated short titled Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, offers the moral “When it comes to love, nobody really has it, especially stuffed alligators named Charlie.” Williams describes the short as a “private joke for me.” The eight-minute short is simply drawn and animated. William’s A Lecture on Man was similarly produced nearly exclusively by Williams himself, released the same year, 1962. In 1963, Williams designed and storyboarded The Apple, featuring a man attempting to retrieve the last apple from a tree. Much as William’s move to London foreshadowed his marrying of paint and cartoon, William’s next project foreshadowed his lack of punctuality and due diligence when it came to completing projects.

Diary of a Madman is a short story written by Russian author Nikolai Gogol detailing, in diary form, a servant of Nicholas I’s spiral into insanity. In 1963, Williams began an animated version of the story, but left the project unfinished, as it remains. Narration by English comedian Kenneth Williams was completed and exists solely in audio form.

During this time, Richard Williams was living in London, making salary by producing, directing, and animating commercials or animated portions of feature films. He was contracted by Afghani-Indian author Idries Shah to illustrate a series of tales focusing on Near Eastern folkloric figure Mulla Nasruddin. Nasreddin, as it is sometimes spelled, was a satirical figure in Arabian tales, playing the fool or the butt of a joke. Williams began pre-production plans for an animated film version of the Nasruddin stories, with Shah’s blessing. However, Idries Shah’s sister, Amina claimed ownership of the stories. Richard Williams Productions in Soho Square, London was where production occurred during this time (1964). In order to fund the project, Williams continued as he always had, taking jobs other than his own. Between conception of the project and the end of the decade, Williams directed, wrote and edited The Dermis Probe, another Shah conception, produced The Sailor and the Devil, a theatrical cartoon, and wrote The Ever-Changing Motor Car. Richard Williams Productions worked on the animated titles for Clive Donner’sWhat’s New Pussycat? and Rod Taylor’s The Liquidator. Williams designed the titles for musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, designed the titles for Daniel Petrie’s The Spy With a Cold Nose and the Niven James Bond movie Casino Royale, designed titles for Sebastian, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Prudence and the Pill. Williams worked on the graphic effects for 30 is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia and directed the animation for Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpee and Find True Happiness?.

Ken Harris, Warner Bros. cartoonist, known for his work with legendary cartoon visionary Chuck Jones was hired for the Nasruddin project by Williams Productions. Harris served partly as William’s mentor, partner, and employee as animation director for what was now being called The Amazing Nasrudin. Roy Naisbitt, whose previous work included uncredited contributions to 2001: A Space Odyssey, was hired on to design the backgrounds for the feature. Early work out of Naisbitt showed clear Persian influences. As close to forty people were hired on for the project by 1970, the greater film community began to take notice and The International Film Guide noted that British Lion Film Corporation, notable releases including 1955’s The Constant Husband and the 1963 adaptation of Lord of the Flies, was interested in the Williams project.

With the help of the well of talent that Williams accumulated at this time, Williams Productions next project, a made-for-television animated adaptation of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was a smash success. Originally broadcast by ABC, the film was subsequently released theatrically. Veteran Chuck Jones served as executive producer on the feature, Harris was on as Master Animator, and William’s son Alexander, age four, provided the voice of Tiny Tim. The visual flair of William’s Christmas Carol is what set it apart from other animated features and what ultimately won the studio an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1972. The film’s animation is innovative, featuring mood established through demure lighting and ‘camera’ work such as zooms and pans fit for feature-length live-action production.

At this time, work on the Nasruddin project was in full swing. Williams Productions had worldwide recognition, money was coming in, and a cavalcade of animating talent was at William’s disposal. Vincent Price, stage, television, radio and film actor provided voiceover work for the film, now being referred to as The Majestic Fool, as the voice of the film’s villain, named Anwar. Sir Anthony Quayle of Lawrence of Arabia and Guns of Navarone fame provided the voice of King Nod, a sultanate figure. With voiceover work recorded, Williams Productions had nearly three hours worth of footage animated for the project, but the film lacked any sort of cohesive plot or three-act structure, according to composer Howard Blake.

The Shah family, who’s estate was funding the feature, was not keeping track of William’s expenditures, and Richard Williams felt that producer Omar Shah was embezzling funding. As a result of the legal brouhaha, Williams withdrew from dealings with the Shah family. Now lacking funding for the project, Williams was forced to abandon it. In the ensuing legalities, Williams was able to hold onto characters which he had already designed for the film, including a thief character, but most footage was seized.

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Williams scrapped what dregs of a script he previously had to fit animation to and commissioned a new script from composer Howard Blake. Blake’s script featured a cobbler named Tack, a bumbling, spindly, ungainly cobbler, a relatable common man for the audience to relate to. Williams thief (pictured above) was retained in Blake’s writing. William’s original characters King Nod, a tired, near-comatose sultan was retained as well as Nasruddin’s villainous vizier in what was now being titled Tin Tack. As a result of the Shah-Williams split, animated scenes which did not include the Nasruddin character were kept.

Throughout the 1970s in London, co-screenplay writer on Christmas Carol, William’s wife, Margaret French and he co-wrote the Tin Tack script, making changes and shifting scenes. The script needed to be simplified to a 90-minute runtime for feature release.

A recession in 1974 forced Williams production to focus on commercial projects, leaving Williams to supervise advertisements and titles. In 1975 and 1976, Williams animated the opening titles for The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again, respectively.

In 1976, Williams took on what was supposed to be a simple job, a film based on the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories, which proved to be a production ordeal for Williams. He had almost no control over the film as the parent company ITT micro-managed production. Williams was removed from the project during the final stages of production though still received near entire blame for the film’s commercial failing, grossing 1.35 million dollars of a four million dollar budget. Originally Abe Levitow, MGM animator, was to direct the film and Williams was on as an animation supervisor. Levitow eventually passed during the film’s production and Williams became director, though under protest. Williams rammed heads with producers over most aspects of the film, including the mere inclusion of musical numbers and weak characters. As was foreshadowed earlier, William’s involvement in the feature was lambasted for the project going over budget and over time. By this time, Williams had won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for his work in animation, though Williams record was still marred by the raggedy release.

Williams wanted to poise himself to be the next great animation idol, though the Raggedy Ann project did nothing to boost this particularity. His belief in the Tin Tack/Nasruddin project was evident in his thoughts at the time. “The Thief is not following the Disney route,” he said in an interview for the Feb. 1976 Millimeter magazine. Williams reverence for the project would ultimately prolong its release into obscurity.

As the years passed, the project grew bigger and grander. Williams vision for the film was to have it be the best animated film that has ever been made, featuring the world’s most detailed and complex animation, the likes of which no other studio could hope to achieve. Specifically, William’s animation was being produced ‘on the ones’, an animation term meaning there were twenty-four drawings per second as opposed to ‘on the twos’, twelve drawings per second.

1978, a Saudi Arabian prince, Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, banker and member of the House of Saud agreed to give money to Richard Williams, $100,000 to complete a test sequence of ten minute length. One of the final sequences of the movie involves William’s thief character trapped in a Rube Goldberg-esque war machine. The thief is sent through pipes, in roller-coaster mine carts, on sling shots, catapults, and highwires. Richard Williams Productions missed deadlines and the scene was completed in 1979 for two and a half times over budget. Faisal, though happy with the final result, withdrew from the project because of William’s inefficiency.

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Milt Kahl, prolific Disney animator, responsible for animating Bambi, Pinocchio, characters in Cinderella, characters in Alice in Wonderland, as well as The Lady and the Tramp, was shown a sample reel of the film now referred to as The Thief. During the 1980s, many other prominent film professionals saw test footage from the feature and attempted to get the work funding. Among these are Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz and Goldcrest Film’s Jake Eberts. Eberts attempted to finance the film via his Allied Filmmakers company in 1986, providing $10 million to Williams Productions. Allied Filmmaker’s partner corporation Majestic Films, began promoting the film under the title Once… Eberts encouraged Williams to make the film more marketable and commercial, much to William’s chagrin. Further movie personalities endorsed production of the film, though money was still hard to come by. Steven Spielberg, of Indiana Jones, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was shown the film in the late 1980s. So impressed was he, he and director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) asked Williams to direct the animation segments for their star-studded film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a live-action/animated fantasy comedy. Williams agreed in exchange for funding for the Thief project.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was released June 1988 and was a dynamite success, grossing nearly $330 million of a $58 million budget, a 570% return. The film reawakened the public’s love of hand-drawn animation and began a period in animation called the Disney Renaissance leading to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, the latter of which would throw a wrench into The Thief’s production yet again. Williams won two Academy Awards for his animation work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? William’s involvement proved that it was possible for him to work in a formal studio structure, within budget, within time constraints. Disney and Steven Spielberg told Williams they would help distribute The Thief. This deal never came to fruition. However, Warner Bros negotiated a distribution deal for The Thief, which included a $25 million marketing budget. This led to full production on the film beginning in 1989.

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The team of animators, including the likes of Art Babbitt (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Incredible Mr. Limpet) and Roy Naisbitt were either dead, retired, or no longer associated with Williams. Twenty years tends to do that to business relationships. Vincent Price’s original dialogue recorded in 1964 could be used. Williams recorded further dialogue with Vincent Price in 1990, though Price’s age rendered some of these lines unusable.

After working on Roger Rabbit, William’s vision for The Thief changed yet again. He began to want to write Thief as if one might write a live action movie. Once again, William’s vision would lead to deadline issues. William’s intended to utilize an animation technique that would create the illusion of a three-dimensional object, which required painstakingly detailed drawings. William’s dream vision of Thief included multiple multi-minute sequences utilizing this technique. Williams, ever the perfectionist, ever the slave to his vision, was pressured by Warner Bros. to give them a finished product. Warner Bros. signed a deal with The Completion Bond Company as a form of insurance to make sure Williams returned a finished product. A combination of Williams’s techniques and his perfectionism put animators into working overtime. Williams harshly disciplined animators even though they were putting in sixty to seventy hour work weeks. He allegedly fired hundreds of people. Williams was just as hard on himself as he was on the staff.

Even moving into 1991 the film was not complete, and the deadline that Warner Bros. imposed on Williams Productions had passed. The film was missing fifteen minutes of material when the deadline passed. By this point, as the planets aligned to ensure the film never got finished, Disney began to promote their feature film based on the story of Aladdin, a film which bore striking resemblance to William’s film, both in character design, tone, and visual style. The Completion Bond Company asked television animator producer Fred Calvert, an inspector of sorts, to inspect the studio’s conditions and work practices, and give an estimate as to the production status of the feature. Calvert’s previous reports say the film was “woefully behind schedule and way over budget.” Williams was asked to show the people holding the money a finished workprint of the film.

In May of 1992, this workprint was shown to investors and was not well received. The studio lost confidence and cancelled the project, leaving the Completion Bond Company with control of the film. Williams was no longer involved with his magnum opus.

Williams attempted to regain control of the film, but Fred Calvert’s proposal was cheaper and more realistic. The Completion Bond Company told Calvert to finish the film as cheaply as possible. Calvert finished the film in eighteen months. Commercial musical numbers were ham-fisted into the film and ink and paint work was outsourced to East Asia.  William’s original scenes featuring faux-3D animation remained intact in the film, bookended by cheaply drawn and woefully inferior animation.

Allied Filmmakers, along with Majestic Films acquired distributing rights for the film from the Completion Bond Company and released the film in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler. In December of 1994, Miramax film, a subsidiary of Disney, who had just released the animated feature Aladdin, purchased the rights for the United States market and released the film to 500 screens on August 25, 1995. The film grossed $319,723 with an estimated budget of $25 million.

Miramax released the film to VHS in February 1997, re-titled as The Thief and the Cobbler. Commercial DVD copies of the film were available by 2005.

Richard Williams, after all had been settled, said that he has never seen the Calvert/Miramax film.

Williams original workprint was bootlegged and restoration attempts occurred from 2000 until 2015. In 2006, Garrett Gilchrist, fan and filmmaker created a non-profit fan restoration of William’s original workprint, titled The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut. This cut of the film was revised in 2006, 2008, and 2013. Each version iterated on the previous edits, increasing the quality.

Richard William’s original workprint of the film, now titled A Moment in Time was screened in December of 2013 and is, at the time of this writing archived by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Richard Williams lives in Bristol, England with his wife.


Scene by Scene Breakdown of the Miramax/Calvert version The Thief and the Cobbler

As the Miramax/Calvert version of the film was the first to be commercially available for viewing, it is only just for this analysis to begin by critiquing that version.

[Miramax Family Films Logo]

Matthew Broderick’s voiceover tells each shooting star is an Arabian Knight whose story is untouched by time and prepares the viewer to hear a story of the first Arabian Knight. There are three golden balls above the city of Baghdad, The Golden City meant to protect the city from the evil One-Eyes. Legend says if the balls were ever removed, Baghdad would be in great danger. With only the Golden City left to conquer, the One-Eyes were on the march.

The opening scene depicts a rocky environment, which, even so early, one can identify painstakingly drawn animation ‘on-the-ones’.

The army of the One-Eyes is seen and their leader is depicted atop a mountain of soldier corpses. Amidst a terrain composed of the same such carrion, a lone Arabian soldier mounts his horse to warn Kind Nod back in the Golden City. The lone soldier already has no less than six arrows in his back. Quite a striking image for a feature that is rated G. Even as the soldier collapses onto his horse, a soldier attempts to rise from the carpet of bodies, only to succumb to the presumable pain. The animation here is not of note.

The framing shot of the Golden City is gloriously detailed. Errol Le Cain, painter, is attributed with the wonderful painting.

Broderick’s voiceover as the titular cobbler continues as we see the character asleep on the floor. The cobbler claims the shooting star he had seen the night before was to be his own, telling of the characters importance. Le Cain’s backgrounds are continuously seen and continuously impress as the narration takes us across the city to introduce us omnisciently to The Thief. These backgrounds feature alternating checkerboard walls, archways, and optical tricks. As the camera pans across the thoroughfare, the street appears to turn into flat surface momentarily before re-shadowing to produce the illusion of depth. Even at this early stage, the viewer can tell the visual style of the film is to be paid attention to.

Jonathan Winters narration intercepts Broderick’s as the thief character’s introduction to the scene is preceded by a cloud of buzzing flies. The Thief’s character design is awesome, drawn as if with filled pockets, malnourished and smelly. Broderick explains the thief ‘would steal anything, especially anything gold’ and we see the thief stalk an old, frail woman carrying a bunch of bananas. The thief sets upon her and is trounced by the old lady’s hulk arms and various bric-a-brac are dislodged from the thief’s body.

Winter’s voiceover is meant to be satirical, though the script seems unfazed by what is actually depicted on screen. References to having coffee and college kids living sloppily are inappropriate for the time period, although they are humorous.

The thief attempts to steal something from the cobbler, Tack’s, pocket.

Drums are heard outside.

In his sleep, Tack manages to sew himself to the thief.

The drums heard outside are foretelling the arrival of something or someone. The shot displaying the entrance to The Golden City is well-framed. The street surface is of the same checkerboard pattern and figures approach the viewer through the gates, scaling as they become nearer. Black-clad figures whip the ground in front of them, bizarrely proportioned and moving as if two-dimensional in a three-dimensional space. Strangely colored and oddly proportioned advisors follow.

A ‘Boots are Made for Walking’ reference from the thief is again, entirely inappropriate if not only lazy and unfunny.

The entrance of the Grand Vizier ZigZag is striking. The red carpet he walks in on appears at first glance to merely contains zig-zagged lines, because they do, but look closer and the eyes readjust to spot the entire carpet is made up of tessellated letter ‘Z’s. Meanwhile, overtop this geometry the large, imposing ZigZag character walks with jewel-encrusted elongating slippers that unroll as he takes strides. Two teams of four carpet rollers continuously roll up carpet behind the blue-skinned vizier and lay out carpet in front of him. The sequence is satisfying visually. The fact that the checkerboard floor remains flat, as in not tilted to show depth, only adds to visual interest.

The thief attempts to escape Tack and the sewn pair fall down the stairs of the cobbler’s storefront, spilling spools of thread, needles, and tacks into the path of ZigZag, who steps on a tack. He tells his guards, who are nothing but limbs, heads, and swords, pasted onto white squares reminiscent of the Queen of Heart guards from Alice in Wonderland, to seize the cobbler, ignoring the thief. ZigZag’s advisors mock the cobbler as swords are placed at his neck.

Our introduction to the Princess YumYum comes at a time of puzzlement, as the quality of the animation is clearly different than the previous sequences. The princess tells Nanny (the old woman from earlier with the bananas) that she would like to help people, but is instead squandered away in the palace, as a not-too-subtle pair of cuffs are affixed to the Princess’s wrists. A musical number explaining the princess’s strong, independent nature feels heavy-handed and could stand to be shown more slyly. The animation here really doesn’t look very good.

The Princess spies ZigZag entering the palace through iron maiden-esque spiked interlocking door panels, dragging the bound Tack behind them. The Thief follows openly, no one taking notice where he spies the golden balls that supposedly protect the city as the doors close on him.

As ZigZag enters the throne room, the background features interpolated black and white triangles and tessellated interlocking five-pointed stars. Although as the scene progresses, it is almost as if the animation degrades considerably. It is clear that ZigZag speaks in rhymes, which is fine. Vincent Price’s ZigZag is nothing to write home about. ZigZag explains that the cobbler attacked him in the streets and implores King Nod to be allowed to remove his head. The Princess comes to the cobbler’s aid as ZigZag trips over another tack and flops to the floor amidst chuckles. She intentionally breaks her shoe and claims she needs a cobbler. ZigZag, face turning red as a mood ring, agrees, clearly seething.

A frame shot of ZigZag’s tower, featuring some sort of avian head entrance, is animated to give the illusion of roundness as the camera pans around it on the way to the apex. ZigZag proselytizes of his greatness to no one in particular, save his talking vulture-like bird wearing a fez. He speaks his plan to marry Princess YumYum. The similarities between Disney’s Aladdin and this film rear at this moment in particular. The talking bird Fido and the vizier plotting to marry the princess map identically to Gilbert Gottfried’s Iago and the vizier, Jafar’s plan in the Disney production.

A transition scene features the wounded soldier returning to Baghdad through the night under a crescent moon.

The viewer sees Tack fixing the princess’s shoe. Broderick’s voiceover repeats of the beauty of the Princess and how he intended to impress her with some cobbling tricks. The scene is animated poorly.

The thief, inside a garbage can, provides commentary on a line of horses entering the palace through the spiked gates. It is clear the thief doesn’t actually speak and all of Winter’s lines are delivered as thought narration. The green-gray grime of the outer wall is compared to the colorful golden splendor of the inner as the thief’s garbage pail rolls its way up the stars. The sequence plays with perspective, as the artistically flat inner bailey of the palace forces the thief’s wheeled cart to stop and reverse direction as if it was tilted, the way it appears to the viewer. Winter’s lines are delivered flatly, but I enjoy them here. They project a beleaguered sensibility that is enjoyable when played for laughs. For example, as the thief rolls back down the steps and is deposited into the brackish waste filling the moat, he flatly thinks “I can’t help but question the color of this water,” which is exactly what the viewer must be thinking. It works. “I just had this robe dry-cleaned,” draws a similar chuckle, though once again seems juxtaposed by the time period.

The thief climbs up a waste pipe attached to the palace wall. This dialogue could have been omitted without remorse. The scene would work just as well without the lines.  The thief emerges out of a privy and manages to flush himself after mistaking the bathroom for a Turkish restaurant.

In the Princess’s chambers, Nanny chides the Princess to get in the bathtub, much to Tack’s red-faced embarrassment.

The thief is shown returning up pipes and emerging in Princess YumYum’s shower. Once again, dialogue is mostly take it or leave it. A self-chiding of “hang in there, soldier,” issues a chuckle from the viewer. The thief is amazed by the concept of soap. He ignores the naked Princess in the tub in favor of the bejeweled backscratcher, appropriate for the movie’s rating. As the thief makes his way out of the bathroom, he backs up into Tack, fixing the Princess’s shoe, which he steals and makes a hasty escape from the room. Tack gives chase and the scene transitions into the most striking piece of visual animation the viewer has ever seen.

Every cut in the chasing scene is extraordinarily geometrically painstakingly laid out to give the viewer no clear indication where the floor ends and the walls begin. The eyes are instantly drawn all about the screen all at once and the effect generates visual confusion that keeps eyes glued to the occurring action. The thief and the cobbler scale from background to foreground independently from the diligently crafted backdrop. Color is not needed as black and white spinning disks, vertical columns disguised as wallpaper, and zigzagging visual artifacts fill the screen. The viewer is never sure exactly what is transpiring before the scene cuts again. The effect is dazzling and leaves the viewer hungry to see what visual tricks are employed next.

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Of course, in today’s animation space, with hand-drawn animation becoming less and less prevalent, the chase sequence is really something special when the viewer realizes each frame was ardently manufactured.

The scene transitions from black and white vertical columns to checkerboard patterns that are really stairs to arches that are actually doorways, slant checkerboards lead to ingresses and platforms, intricate alternating concentric rectangles are actually a pit.

The thief’s comment about the tilework is not necessary.

A spiral staircase sends the thief flying into a copse of trees through a stained glass window and deposits Tack through a series of archways sliding along the tile and right into ZigZag after recovering YumYum’s shoe. ZigZag consigns Tack to a cell with a Z-shaped lock. The prison cell’s stone bed sitting atop a pile of skulls gives sinister implications. The scene would have some weight associated with it if it were not for the “Am I Feeling Love?” musical number inserted here unnaturally. The scene fades out and back in during the same shot to show time has passed. Whenever Tack is not speaking, he has two tacks in his mouth, but when he does speak he does not, like during the duet. This and the strange fade in and fade out after the musical number implies these were not part of the same studio. Knowing what is known about the production of the film, this gives clear indication where the studio is different.

The scene fades back in with Tack, tacks in mouth, sharing bread with a few mice. Meanwhile, Matthew Broderick’s voiceover tells us exactly that, that he is sharing his bread with some newfound friends. The voiceover was obviously not meant to be there originally, because it is completely superfluous. Tack’s body language speaks for him.

Tack climbs up to view the polo match ZigZag has organized for YumYum’s honor. The polo game commences and we are treated to a sequence of the thief attempting to steal the ball, realizing the horses are following it and trampling him, and then attempting to avoid the ball. This scene is humorous, but as is true of most of the Thief’s lines, the commentary is not needed. The scene where the Thief hides in a rabbit hole and the ball rolls in as well is funny, and would still be funny without Winter’s lines. The viewer wonders if the scene would actually be more humorous without any dialogue.

King Nod that night has a vision of the army of the One-Eyes approaching through the blasted mountainous landscape and calls for ZigZag.

The Thief pontificates why he bothers trying to steal things because he keeps hurting himself. He spies the three protective golden balls atop a spindle and promptly remembers. The more the viewer sees the film, the more apparent it becomes that the visuals were designed without dialogue for Tack or the thief in mind. When the Thief says “Oh yeaaaaaah,” as he remembers why he thieves, the golden balls are reflected in his vision. Viewing the film without the dialogue would inform the viewer just as well.

As Kind Nod informs ZigZag of his dream, the thief gets to work outside, attempting to use a long stick to pole vault and reach the golden balls. The thief provides some inappropriate, though humorous voiceover, acting as a TV sports commentator. ZigZag assures King Nod Baghdad is safe because of the golden ball’s continued presence within the walls. Princess YumYum and Nanny ponder where Tack went. The thief continues his pursuit. Tack watches from the dungeon.

A humorous scene occurs where the thief is catapulted by his own hand through the city, bouncing off of overhanging tapestries and awnings. The viewer chuckles as the thief exclaims (insofar as the thief can) “so many awnings!”

When the thief begins tightrope walking in an effort to retrieve the balls, he offers that when tightrope walking, remember to wear underwear, otherwise you attract a sizeable crowd.

The thief retrieves the balls while Tack escapes his dungeon. The thief offers his plans for the golden balls, telling the viewer he’s going to Disneyland.

The scout from the opening of the movie returns to Baghdad and warns King Nod of the impending arrival of the Army of the One-Eyes. The King then obviously notices the absence of the golden balls as ZigZag’s cronies attempt to retrieve them.

As Tack makes his way back into the palace via a secret entry, the viewer is treated to a visual reprise of striking art from the chase scene. Vertical lines change spacing to give some illusion of depth. Checkerboard patterns play tricks. The scene is fleeting as the viewer is given more exposition as ZigZag informs King Nod of his practice of spells and black magic. ZigZag tells King Nod he could return the balls in exchange for the hand of the Princess, a proposal the King mocks.

So strange is the visual pace of this portion of the film. The viewer is treated to quick bits and pieces of visual splendor that are then pulled away in favor of more plot. From the ocular grandeur of the chase scene, the viewer is given five minutes of plot, cut with fifteen seconds of visual trickery, five minutes of plot, and now another fifteen seconds of background artistry. As ZigZag leaves the King’s throne room in a huff, Tack makes his way up. Though the stairs appear to be connected it becomes clear they are not as the two characters end on different planes. The pacing is quite strange in this regard.

We are explained to that One-Eye has a twin sister witch, the bearer of the warmonger’s other eye. YumYum insists to travel and retrieve it along with Tack. The Thief opts to tag along behind in pursuit of a golden idol with a ruby. YumYum takes a guide. She opts for Tack for reasons unbeknownst to the viewer. Tack surely has no desert-traveling experience. If he does, it was not made clear.  The viewer assumes YumYum chooses Tack as a guide, because she “loves” him, though surely love won’t get them very far when dealing with brigands, thirst, or other desert peril.

The following ten minutes is devoted to the introduction, exposition, development, and dismissal of a group of brigands. We are treated to a cringe-worthy song by the brigands about staying in school that neither fits nor is relevant in any way. The animation is atrocious and animation artifacts are seen throughout the scene’s entirety. There’s really no point to any of it and no more words will be presented here to exposit the viewer’s irritation at having to sit through the sequence.

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ZigZag encounters the camp of the One-Eyes. Despite an attempt to hide it, this G-rated feature depicts the chair of the evil One-Eye to be composed of fourteen women. The sight clearly was not originally intended for a G-rated audience. It is quite disgusting this display of sexual exploitation. ZigZag presents the golden balls to One-Eye and One-Eye has the azure vizier thrown to the alligators.

For some reason, there is a laughing camel and a short sequence depicting the thief stealing things. Perhaps the creators needed to remind the viewer the thief earns his namesake.

ZigZag charms the alligators and the party makes its way to the hands of glory, the home of the witch. The coloring on Tack reflects he is not a fan of sunscreen. The group of Tack and YumYum make their way to the top of the mountain while the thief attempts to steal the ruby atop the golden idol. The thief goes so far as to construct a Wile E. Coyote wingsuit to fly down to the ruby. More anachronisms come from the thief as the wingsuit turns into a sort of fighter jet. The witch offers Tack advice to “attack and never look back”.

Darkness falls the following morning as the One-Eyes launch their war machine, an immense arachnoid clockwork monstrosity made of wood and iron. The enormous siege tank is striking in its look.

ZigZag rides to meet Tack on the frontline. Tack recalls the witch’s words and realizes she meant ‘a tack’ as in the tack he keeps in his mouth. He fires the tack with a slingshot, which causes a bizarre chain reaction that ends up striking ZigZag’s horse and singly destroying the war machine.

The film shines once again as the war machine collapses. Sequence after sequence of giant mechanical moving parts and clockwork treat the viewer. The thief enters the machine as it is collapsing and is sent on a Rube Goldberg journey of catapults, slingshots, turnabouts, wheels, ladders, stilts and all manner of machinery. The thief narrowly avoids certain obliteration at every turn.

Meanwhile, Tack beats up ZigZag in a Hollywood ending.

The machinery continues to put the thief through a feast for the eyes. Arrows fly to and fro, carts carry the thief up a rollercoaster ride, the thief slides along trenches and luges in the cart. Meanwhile fireballs and plumes of smoke fly by.

ZigZag falls into a hole where he is promptly consumed by the alligators in gruesome fashion.

One-Eye is livid at the destruction of his machine.

The thief has the golden balls and King Nod rewards him for their retrieval.

“And so, One-Eye and his army were defeated for all eternity” Tack offers.

Tack’s skin tone now resembles YumYum’s. Tack and YumYum marry and Tack becomes the first Arabian Knight. All’s well that ends well while the thief continues to steal the golden balls and eventually steals the THE END at the end of the film as well as the film reel itself. This is where the film ends.




Overall, the film is quite watchable and younger audiences would certainly not notice the glaring problems. For the viewer, the war machine scene and the chase scene make up the only parts of the film with lasting merit. These two scenes sans the thief’s anachronistic musings and increased orchestral accompaniment would stand alone as short sequences worthy of a Fantasia-like package. The scenes added by order of the production company responsible for completing the film are obvious to seasoned viewers and laymen may notice the brigand scene and romantic musical number to be woefully mismatched with the visual feast of the aforementioned sequences. It is clear the romantic involvement of Tack and YumYum is unnecessary and dialogue from the thief and Tack are likewise unnecessary. The performance of Vincent Price as ZigZag could be the only speaking role and the plot would likely not lack for much. As per Richard Williams’ vision, the film never required much plot, but the story was to be more of a vehicle for the animation techniques and tricks that really set the film apart from any others. Jonathan Winter’s thief performance is meaningless and should probably have been left out. The jokes are cheap and they detract from the artistic merit of the film. The commercialization of the feature very clearly denigrates what the film was supposed to mean and the film is worse for it. As a complete package, the film is watchable and enjoyable by less discerning viewers. Critics will find much to lambast in this film.


Scene by Scene Breakdown of the Recobbled Cut

Initially, the film opens with a title card and then a long, lingering shot of a swirling crystal ball gripped by two gnarled hands. The artistic nature of the lingering shot is not lost on this viewer. The voiceover does not feature Broderick as narrator. Instead, we are treated to what sounds like an old man, telling us about the nature of reality. The film opens with “Once Upon a time”. The narrator tells us of Tack the cobbler, who is shown sleeping, as well as the thief. The scenes are much the same as the previous version. In this version of the film, Tack and the thief have no voice. The narrator also tells us the thief will remain nameless.

The music playing over the scenes is mixed more appropriately. The sound effects are clear. Without having to waste audio resources on the thief’s anachronistic, meaningless thoughts, the viewer connects more with the world through auditory cues. The viewer feels as if the lack of juxtapositions from the thief and the lack of narrating from the protagonist give a broader window with which to feel the setting. The changes give the viewer a deeper sense of place within this world that the previous version had already squandered by this point.

The striking visuals of ZigZag’s entrance remain. There is a lot this viewer missed from the Miramax cut of the film. There is a song being sung by a choir about ZigZag that the viewer missed because of Broderick’s voiceover the first time around.

Artifacts of storyboarding are present. Simple drawings are inserted to fill in the gaps in the completed animation. In this version of the film, ZigZag presents King Nod with a woman from Mombasa. The voiceover work for Princess YumYum is provided by Sara Crowe as opposed to Jennifer Beals. The voice is deeper and more palatable than Beals’s YumYum.

All of the thief’s visual gags remain, such as rolling the trash can down the stairs and ending in the moat, climbing up the sewage pipe, and flushing himself down the toilet. Music is provided that gives a whimsical nature to everything the film does. It really is a treat.

The romantic tension between YumYum and Tack is implied just the same. The unspoken protagonist makes the romance much sweeter and more innocent.

When the thief climbs his way up the pipe, it is implied the King is having sex with the woman from Mombasa that ZigZag brought him, something obviously omitted from the commercial release.

This version of the film is brilliantly restored and each scene, aside from the incomplete ones, is sharply presented and look very stunning.

The chase scene remains intact and striking as ever. The orchestra only adds to the delight. The viewer finds the dialogue-less version much more engaging than the commercial release.

It is only after the polo scene that we are introduced to the army of the One-Eyes. The rushing landscapes are striking as ever.

An extra thirty seconds is included with this cut of the film during the ZigZag scene where he exposits his plan that explicitly tells the viewer he intends to feed Tack to his bird. Another scene is included directly after, featuring the Princess in bed admiring Tack’s work on her shoes. The thief sneaks in as YumYum lays to sleep. The thief slithers up the stairs and onto the bed and steals the shoes, but bizarrely, the bed is actually made of white wolves for some reason. It’s not made abundantly clear before the scene ends.

ZigZag puts the vulture in with Tack, but Tack valiantly defends himself with his ball and chain.

King Nod has his dream that is much more bloody than the Miramax cut. Blood flies across the screen as if cut from blades. As King Nod describes his vision, the thief attempts to retrieve the golden balls. Staccato trumpet give the scene a sports-like vibe also present in the Miramax cut. The commercial release though explicitly stated such.

There is a moment here where the thief is being shotputted around on awnings and tapestries as he attempts to retrieve the golden balls. The thief is catapulted through various windows where he picks up numerous potted plants. He travels through one window and exchanges the potted plants for a single rose in the mouth. He looks back with one glance. In the Miramax cut, there is an implication through the thief’s voice that there is some sort of beautiful woman in that room. The simple glance back at the window tells so much more when it is left to the imagination, the viewer feels.

As the thief makes it to the top of the spire with the three golden balls, the music changes not to some score of triumph, but more of a lazy, jazzy tone in order to reflect the thief’s swaying, precarious position atop the minaret. Much work was done in the ensuring descent of the thief to recut the scene. The scene depicting the thief stealing a necklace from himself during King Nod’s address remains in this cut of the film, which the viewer enjoys. As the thief makes his way into the palace there is a scene which does not exist in the Miramax cut that shows the thief attempting to lift a vase of emeralds. The thief’s animation here is crude and demonstrates that these scenes where made quite some time ago. The viewer cannot identify a reason why the scene may have been cut aside from being superfluous.

Another included scene shows YumYum searching the dungeon for Tack.

The previous thief scene continues as palace guards relegate the thief to the stocks outside of the palace and chop his arms off. The clever thief uses the bejeweled backscratchers as stand-in hands. It becomes clear to this viewer why the scene was cut for the rated G commercial release. The scene demonstrates the thief’s cunning and would do well to be included in a master cut.

Storyboards included here show a very crude stick-ZigZag.

The next part of the film, in which King Nod sends YumYum to the witch in the desert is awfully different between these two cuts of the film; quite disgustingly so. In this ‘re-cobbled’ cut of the film, King Nod specifically sends YumYum to find the witch out in the dangerous desert. In the Miramax commercial release, YumYum must defend her want to go out and find the witch. These may seem like very similar things, however, this viewer can’t help but sense some underlying misogynist influence over the corporate dealings behind the commercial release. Why is it that King Nod, in the Miramax cut, is going to send some man to find the witch and YumYum says she will go? Yet, in the re-cobbled cut, touted at being closer to Williams original, King Nod trusts his daughter implicitly and specifically asks her to seek out the witch across the dangerous desert? One can only imagine what boardroom meetings happened within the Corporate Bond Company, the production company responsible for finishing Williams originals and making it ‘marketable’. The viewer does not see the need for the change. Either cut would be rather fine when presented in a vacuum and the viewer sees no real difference in either decision. It is only when it is clear that there was some sort of decision made at some time while the film was being completed that necessitated this change. There is a clear progression that leads from Princess YumYum presenting her case why she should be allowed to go, to King Nod implicitly entrusting his daughter with this dangerous task. Both versions continue the action and reach the same goal, but someone or some body made the decision that Princess YumYum needed to debate for her right to travel to the desert. Curious, the viewer ponders. Perhaps the corporate need to telegraph YumYum’s role as the strong, independent woman was a choice made for a rated-G, child’s audience. It is the viewer’s opinion, the Recobbled version of this sequence implies a greater sense of trust in YumYum’s abilities from King Nod. Repeated viewings of this scene bring to light that in fact King Nod is commanding YumYum to complete this quest and such a demand may be seen as misogyny. The viewer prefers the latter version because YumYum’s gender is not mentioned whatsoever. If YumYum had been a man, the dialogue would have been exactly the same.

In this version of the film, it makes quite a bit more sense why on earth the Princess would choose Tack to be her guide through the desert, flimsy though it still is. It is in this cut, the Princess is quite aware that Tack had been in the dungeon and reasons that he is resourceful. Though still flimsy reasoning, it stands for a children’s movie why she might choose Tack.

The viewer is surprised to see the brigands in this version of the film. It was previously presumed incorrectly the brigands were not present in original cuts of the film.

There is quite a funny gag here where some brigand keeps farting when Ruthless, the chieftain tries to speak.

Thankfully, no needless musical number is included.

As expected, the camp of the One-Eyes has the large, half-naked women more prominently displayed, seen here dancing and taking orders for formations from the chief. At one point, the chief One-Eye says “throne” and the large, green women form a throne for him to sit on. Ridiculous, in order to demonstrate One-Eyes cruelty clearly.

The scene which depicts the thief, hiding under a changing tent and moving about taking things, is much more visually interesting sans dialogue. Items just zoom into the tent with a whistle and no words. Obviously, it does not take much brain power to deduce the thief is under the tent, but the viewer appreciates this version of the film for trusting the viewer with that deduction instead of including an oral announcement. The music at this portion includes a jazzy ditty reminiscent of the theme to the Pink Panther, which the viewer appreciates.

The viewer finds The Princess’s lines delivered rather flatly in many instances.

A scene depicting the thief climbing up the witch’s mountain mirrors a storyboard scene depicting ZigZag climbing out of the alligator pit.

A musical joke is included when the thief attempts to use makeshift wings to attempt to fly down to steal the golden idol’s ruby. As the thief puffs his chest and splays out his wings, the music builds and builds with much low brass inclusion. As the thief edges to the end, the music crescendos, then with an unimpressive hop, a shoehorn squeak is all that is presented musically.

The witch here in this version has a form other than a floating eyeball. She is depicted as a small, shriveled woman with comically drooping breasts swaying to and fro. The witch is wacky with a Bugs Bunny like glee. The witch foresees Tack will save the city. This version of the film includes the Princess paying the witch with a chest of jewels. There is a scene depicting the witch swinging around on a rope, at one point colliding with the thief. The witch flies and flips all around, spits, dances, hollers and jumps all around wildly. Bizarre tendrils of multi-colored smoke rise from a crack in the mountainside and the witch inhales it like some sort of drug. The witch in this version offers more information than the Miramax cut, including “it’s what you do with what you got”. The mountain then promptly explodes and collapses. This version of the scene explains quite a lot more than the commercial release about the visit to the witch.

Another scene included shows the King giving military orders.

A very visually striking piece of art is displayed, absent from the commercial release. An overhead view of the One-Eyes war machine is included as a spike mechanical Oliphant is craned over clockwork, deadly machinery and wood structures. Such a piece of artwork would be thrilling to create and a large size print would be brilliant to display. It is displayed below for reference.

Thief 10

More small scenes showing the war machine operating are included here than in the other version, visually stunning. The viewer is baffled why such scenes were edited from the Miramax cut. The sequences are some of the most striking from an animator’s perspective. One-Eye shoulders bounce on drums, the golden balls are raised to their place on a spire, the army marches, spikes and spears jut from their niches on the machine, soldiers brandish wicked spiked fists with intricate moving parts, archers draw spiked, metal bows, spike boots march in front of the screen, a spiked murder wheel rolls menacingly, the war machine walks slowly and steadily towards Tack and his band of brigands.

The slingshot scene is presented very much the same as the commercial release of the film. The actual fight between ZigZag and Tack is presented without much fanfare or reverence. In this version of the film, because Tack does not say out loud “A Tack!” when he realizes the witch’s message, it was necessary for the witch to give more information.

It is almost immediately clear once ZigZag’s dagger looses a rock to begin the Rube Goldberg destruction of the war machine that much was cut from the commercial release. Already five of the first seven cuts were edited out of the Miramax film. The rock catapults into a siege tower that looses several more rocks that land on a series of arbalests that kill six one-eyed soldiers, spiked balls are released to be funneled  and bowl over hundreds of one-eye soldiers, a large spiked battering ram knocks a boulder off of a perch, tipping over a cauldron of lava, incinerating hundreds more soldiers, lava licks at a rope supporting a large weight that spins a metal bladed fan, fanning the flames, and lighting much of the machine on fire, rocks fall and redirect the flames towards the lobster-like claws of the machine. This all occurs before the thief enters the war machine.

As he does, a spiked ball smashes through some metal sphincter, more armored elephants charge through and release more spiked balls that flatten more soldiers, tens of more soldiers are catapulted through the air, a comical oversized pair of kitchen shears releases a rope that dumps a container full of soldiers into a lava pit, the thief climbs up a set of stairs that is procedurally destroyed by falling debris as the thief tries to stand on falling detritus, the thief is carried via metal basket to a claw like contraption that picks up the thief, moving him from harm’s way. The music in this section is quite lazy and lilting, not as sinister as one might imagine. A spike ball reduces the ladder the thief stands on to stilts.

A scene is inserted here that shows ZigZag riding and snatching up the Princess after remounting, but the Princess is able to take down the horse.

More triumphant music begins to fill speakers.

The thief narrowly avoids a fireball, he is fired from a giant crossbow, avoiding a barrage of quarrels, a lobster claw eats several soldiers, an elephant lands among fourteen cogs as the thief narrowly avoids danger yet again, the cogs catch fire as the thief is carried upward via elevator mechanism, sent along a slide and flung towards a giant cog, landing among the teeth. A spiked ball dips a battalion of One-Eyed soldiers down jump-starting a brush that sweeps a detachment hundreds of feet to the ground, a giant flyswatter swats several ranks more, a giant iron flattens hundreds more. Two ranks of One-Eyes fly at each other narrowly missing the thief mid-flight and skewer each other. The thief misses some crushinator, lands on some oscillating cannon-loading mechanism as flames lick at his heels.

A scene shows Ruthless, the brigand leader punching several One-Eye soldiers. A storyboarded scene also shows the green, large busty women slaves setting upon the chief of the One-Eyes, presumably killing him.

The thief walks along wooden gangplanks, avoiding a spiked ball, barrages of arrows, and other spiked dangers. He is placed on a spring trampoline, up a skewer and down a roller-coaster slide, where he lands in a mine cart, taking him on another rollercoaster that slams through a wall and turning the mine cart into a plane which the thief flies along a spiral track. The thief nearly drops in to a pit of lava, but is saved by a piece of aluminum siding.  Water puts out the flames licking at his robe. The thief travels down a rectangular slide full of spikes and prodding spears before making his escape away from the machine.

This critique lays out exactly what transpires scene by scene in the fanciful war machine sequence, though words cannot express the amazing amount of intricate detail and care that must have been taken in crafting such a wondrous piece of cinema. The scene should be shown to anyone with an interest in film, animation or art. The scene is really a triumph and nothing of the same sort has been produced using hand-drawn techniques. It is really quite extraordinary.

The army of the One-Eyes defeated, King Nod makes his way down to the battlefront where a battle ensues for the golden balls between Tack and the thief, the thief promptly giving up. The thief is still given credit for retrieving the balls.

Tack and the Princess are wed and Tack speaks his only line “I love you”, quite a poignant ending, considering Tack’s mute nature throughout its entirety. Despite all of the things happening to him, Tack must consider marrying the princess the only thing that has transpired worthy of expressing himself.

The film ends the same way, with the thief stealing the film reel and the ‘The End’.




In a way, art is meant to be implied. If people just said what they meant and presented what they meant to say, a piece of art has not much merit. This version of the film leaves much of its sub-plot to interpretation and this is why the viewer finds it more engaging than the Miramax cut. This Recobbled cut of the film is more visually impressive. Without dialogue, the viewer is left with no choice but to continuously keep eyes on the screen in order to follow along. The viewer much prefers this method as opposed to having the here wordless characters narrating what they are doing.

The film is a masterpiece of animation prowess. This viewer finds it much more interesting and enjoyable to watch than the Miramax cut of the film. The film has an admittedly thin plot, but as stated previously the plot is more presented as a vehicle that drives the animation.

The film really should be watched by all audiences and any fan of film or art.

Special care must be taken of course to understand this version of the film was not completed and as such, there are sections where animation is either rough or missing altogether. A certain amount of imagination is needed to ‘fill in the blanks’. If the film was released in a state similar to the Miramax version, with the scenes and portions included here, the film would be one of the most dazzling pieces of animated cinema ever crafted by human hands. The sheer amount of work that must have gone into the film alone is staggering to comprehend. Knowing what is now known about the film’s production, the viewer can only wonder how much longer the film really needed to be finished.


A Moment in Time

No version of Williams’ workprint was available for viewing at the time of this writing.



The truer of the two releases, The Recobbled Cut, closer in scope and vision to Richard Williams work print, is the far superior piece of work. Though imagination is required to fill in the blanks left by Williams lax deadlines, it is more than made up for by the fantastical extended scenes of faux-3D animation and visual treats. It is quite an amazing piece of work and all should have a watch. The visual artistry present within the film’s completed parts are wonders to behold and the viewer can only wax for so long on the film’s animation mastery. See the Recobbled Cut of this film.

The Thief and the Cobbler: A Critique

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