Did theft include 'Thief?'

As the dust settles following the All Pro Sports verdict and Disney rushes back to court to appeal that $240 million decision, some interesting questions still hang in the air.

For example: Are Disney's lawyers really that incompetent? The Walt Disney Co. has had a sports complex in its plans for its Central Florida property since 1967, yet Johnny Cochran was still able to persuade a jury that the Mouse had somehow stolen this idea from the guys at All Pro Sports Camp Inc. (OK, there was the small matter of those 200 phone calls between the two. But let's not get bogged down in technicalities, shall we?)

With this case headed for appeals court and the "Miniature Worlds"/Epcot lawsuit in the wings, the bigger question remains: Does Disney actually steal other people's ideas?

Absolutely not, says Louis Meisinger, general counsel at the Mouse House. "Disney is an honorable company. We don't steal other people's ideas."

Tell that to Richard Williams, an animator who spent 25 years laboring to create a masterpiece. His hand-drawn, brightly colored, profusely detailed comic epic was called "The Thief and the Cobbler."

Williams started work on this film back in 1968. To help support his studio and his family, Williams occasionally tackled outside projects, such as movie titles (remember those great title sequences for the Pink Panther films? Williams did them) and TV commercials. But only so that he'd have money to continue work on Thief.

In fact, it was one of these commercials -- which featured the slapstick exploits of some clumsy cat trying to cross the street to get to a particular brand of cat food -- that caught the eye of Steven Spielberg's staff back in 1986. At the time, they were looking for someone to supervise the animation for a film they had in development with Disney Studios, titled "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" That commercial made Williams look like the guy who could finally bring Roger Rabbit to life.

Williams agreed to take on the Roger Rabbit project, but -- again -- only because he was looking for funds to finish his own film. "What film?" Spielberg's people asked. So Williams showed them the work-in-progress version of "The Thief and the Cobbler."

Even in its raw, unfinished form, "Thief" dazzled the folks at Spielberg's office. They called the animation guys over at Disney Studios and said, "You have to come see this."

This is where the story gets interesting.

At the time, Disney was trying to turn the Aladdin story from Antoine Galland's "A Thousand and One Nights" into an animated motion picture. The genius behind Disney's "Little Mermaid," Howard Ashman, had turned in a treatment for this proposed movie. But Ashman's script was a mess.

What was wrong? For starters, in Ashman's version of the story, Aladdin had two genies, not one. Plus, he was saddled with a sickly mother and three slacker comic-relief buddies. Worse still, Jasmine was supposed to be the world's first Arabian Jewish American princess.

Things got so bad on "Aladdin" that Disney temporarily shut down work on the project. They put Ashman to work fixing "Beauty and the Beast" while they debated what to do next.

Just about then, Williams' unfinished "Thief" started being screened at Disney Studios. And sometime after that, "Aladdin's" story problems started clearing up.

Did Disney "borrow" ideas and concepts from "Thief" to fix "Aladdin?" Neither Disney nor Williams has ever publicly commented on this matter. But beyond the fact that both are animated fantasies set in the Middle East, there are certainly some uncomfortable parallels:

• Both feature an evil vizier as their chief villain: Jafar in "Aladdin," Zig-Zag in "Thief."

• These villains each have birds as comic sidekicks: a parrot named Iago in "Aladdin," a vulture named Fido in "Thief."

• Both films have a princess with a bare midriff as their heroine: Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin," Princess Yum-Yum in "Thief."

• Both princesses' fathers are roly-poly guys with white beards dressed in gold, wearing turbans: The Sultan in "Aladdin," King Nod in "Thief."

Were you to place drawings of the vizier, princess and sultan from "Aladdin" alongside their counterparts in "Thief," their similarity is even more striking. These characters are virtually interchangeable. And since "Aladdin" beat "Thief" into theaters in November 1992, the Mouse has been perfectly happy to let the public think that it was Williams who had "borrowed" -- not the other way around.

Thankfully, there is one honorable guy who works for the Walt Disney Co. That's Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney.

Over the years, Roy watched as circumstances combined to crush Williams' animated epic. Though Williams eventually found a studio -- Warner Brothers -- to underwrite the cost of completing "Thief," he missed his delivery date for finishing the film. As a result, Warner withdrew their funding, the banks stepped in, and Williams had his movie taken away from him in late 1992.

Years later, a butchered version of "Thief" -- now called "Arabian Knight" -- briefly appeared in theaters. In an attempt to turn this unfinished masterwork into a Disney wannabe, the bank added extraneous songs as well as awful new scenes that were animated in Korea. "Arabian Knight" deservedly sank like a stone, never to be seen on the big screen again.

But just last week, Roy Disney announced that the Walt Disney Co. is undertaking the full restoration of Williams' original version of "The Thief and the Cobbler." The Mouse is now conducting a search to track down all the scenes cut from the film while the banks were trying to turn it into an "Aladdin" clone.

Once the restoration is complete, look for "Thief" to get a limited theatrical release before it's rolled out on home video and DVD.

Now the real question is: Is Walt's nephew undertaking the restoration project because he's an animation fan, or because he's out to right a horrible wrong the Disney company committed more than 10 years ago?

No one outside of Roy himself can answer that question. Just hope that Johnny Cochran doesn't get wind of this.

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