You may not recall the animated feature from the 1990s called Arabian Knight, even under its other titles, The Thief and the Cobbler and The Princess and the Cobbler. And if you do remember it, you likely viewed its existence as a cheap Aladdin knockoff aimed straight for video. In truth, the film was in the works since 1965 and had been the labor of love of the brilliant animator Richard Williams, who won an Oscar for directing the 1971 version of A Christmas Carol and then two more Oscars as director of animation Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Kevin Schreck’s Persistence of Vision, which screens at DOC NYC this Friday night, tells the story of how the film began and where it went, ultimately into the hands of a completion bond company, which did what they wanted with it just to get it out. Williams is only in the film by way of archival clips throughout the making of his would-be masterpiece, as he refuses to discuss it today. The doc presents a sad tale of an artist who is just too ambitious and too much of a perfectionist for the modern world.
Persistence adds to a group of animation histories we’ve seen in recent years that overlap certain decades, and if you’re a fan of the docs Waking Sleeping Beauty and The Pixar Story, you’ll really want to see this. It’s also quite reminiscent of Lost in La Mancha, the doc about the production collapse of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. I actually thought Gilliam would have made a good interview for this film, especially given he was in line to make Roger Rabbit (with both on board, it never would have finished!).
Stylistically, the doc is formal and simple, the interviews with former Williams staff shot are as rudimentary as it gets, but their oral history of the events is very strong, as is all the footage Schreck has compiled of the work prints, sketches and other behind the scenes stuff. I hear he hasn’t actually gotten all the rights down for it, so all the more reason to see the doc at a festival. I imagine if enough people were to see Persistence, it could generate one of those big Internet campaigns aimed at restoring a lost classic.
There are actually recreations to be found online, and the whole mess of the production history can be found on Wikipedia, but told together first-hand and with the visual illustrations, I think it might have a better shot at bringing attention and interest to Williams’s baby.
And if you do see this at DOC NYC, be sure to also see Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. They make a good pair.