Persistence of Vision: Film Review

Specialty doc adds to animation lore.

Kevin Schreck tells the unhappy tale of a three-decade long film production.

NEW YORK — A tale of artistic obsession so unhappy that its star won't even participate in its telling, Kevin Schreck's Persistence of Vision reveals how one of his generation's most brilliant animators spent three decades and tens of millions to produce a flop that, upon its mutilated 1995 release, looked like a clumsy ripoff of Disney's Aladdin. The doc is essential for followers of animation history, though its take on artistic hubris is too specialized for a wide audience.

It's pretty clear that, in fact, Aladdin owed a great deal to the long-gestating The Thief and the Cobbler, a feature Richard Williams intended to be his masterpiece. From its origins (as a Persian folklore-inspired tale called Nasrudin, reimagined after the rights-holding producer embezzled production funds and fled) to its release as Arabian Knight (a Miramax bomb that Frankensteined Williams's work with cheaply made filler), the movie's ingredients became well known in the animation community.

Three-time Oscar winner Williams (twice for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, once for the 1971 short A Christmas Carol) was well established as a creator of commercial and credits-sequence work when he set out to make Nasrudin. He recruited legendary Warner Bros. animator Ken Harris to lead his crew, from whom he expected both perfection and workaholism. (One artist recalls not being allowed to take time off to visit his meningitis-stricken wife in the hospital.)

Story was not Williams' strong suit, but he made cartoon figures do extraordinary things: Schreck shows finished sequences in which characters chase each other through settings so elaborate they should've required CG. Persistence benefits from both these excerpts and plentiful behind-the-scenes film; interviews with crew members might have been augmented with outside perspectives, but they do establish a singleminded drive that carried the project through many set-backs that should have been fatal.

Carried it with too much momentum, in fact; Williams would keep adding to scenes that seemed to be going well, despite not knowing how they would all fit together in the end. By the time producing partner Warner Bros. (who signed on after Roger Rabbit boosted Williams' profile) pulled the plug, one staffer estimates "we'd made 95 minutes of an 87-minute movie, and we hadn't done the story bit yet."

Schreck follows the ups and downs effectively, conveying a sense of what was lost and what would likely never have come together. He ends with the news that Williams (who now sells a 16-DVD how-to animation course) is hard at work on another secret masterpiece, which he promises will offer spectacles the world has never seen.

Director-Producer-Director of Photography-Editor: Kevin Schreck
Producers: Kevin Schreck
Executive producers: Peter Esmonde, Bill Prendergast, Kit Prendergast, Izak Rappaport
Music: Adi Yeshaya
No rating, 82 minutes