Persistence of Vision

Hand-drawn animation is a business filled with drama; the endless, painstaking work can propel both lonely odysseys (cf. Don Hertzfeldt) and ugly disputes between a ruthless taskmaster and his overworked minions (cf. Walt Disney). One of the more fascinating movieland documentaries to come along in the past few years was Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009), which chronicled the generational revolt at Disney in the 80s and 90s, though that project was hampered by corporate control of the sketches and test animations needed to tell the story. (We may never get a screen treatment of Uncle Walt’s bitter conflicts with the Screen Cartoonists Guild as he was making his early classics.) Now, with Persistence of Vision, Kevin Schreck tells the engrossing story of Canadian animator Richard Williams, who founded a successful London studio in the 50s, and his three-decade quest to complete a wildly ambitious children’s feature called “The Thief and the Cobbler,” which ended in heartache.

Williams was never shy about his artistic aspirations; in one early interview clip he wonders what Rembrandt or da Vinci might have done had they been able to create the illusion of movement, and his own dream project, adapted from a story by the 13th-century Turkish satirist Nasreddin, would be steeped in the art of Persia. For years Williams sought production funds, coming close at one point with a group of Saudi investors; then, after his groundbreaking work on Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) won him two Oscars, Warner Bros. bankrolled the project at last, with a clear contractual stipulation that if Williams fell behind schedule the movie could be seized by the completion-bond company and finished by another animator. The sequences excerpted by Schreck are dazzling, full of geometric patterns and point-of-view tricks, and veterans of the Williams studio recall their boss’s maddening perfectionism; whenever someone complained, his stock response was, “There’s the door.”

The project spun out of control, Warners pulled out, and Williams lost ownership of the movie. Another team cobbled together a release version from the completed sequences and cheaper stuff by different artists and it played in Australia and South Africa as The Princess and the Cobbler; recut again by Miramax and released in the U.S. as Arabian Knight (1995), the movie flopped miserably and wound up as a DVD giveaway inside boxes of Froot Loops. (Meanwhile, Disney had filched some of the movie’s visual ideas for Aladdin (1992), which became a giant hit with critics and audiences alike.) Still going strong at age 80, Williams refused to be interviewed for the documentary, and given the hard feelings nursed by some of his employees, one can understand why—to their chagrin they discovered that he had never even finished storyboarding the film. Persistence of Vision is a fairly standard exercise in clips and talking heads, but it tells a haunting story of what someone will do for his dreams, and what those dreams might do to him.