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Persistence of Vision – Movie Review

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Persistence of Vision – Movie Review

Rating: A (Fantastic)

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Many animated films have trouble in production and plenty ultimately never get made. Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove infamously went from being a serious, epic musical to a madcap buddy comedy. However, among many animation enthusiasts, Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler has the longest and saddest history to befall any picture. So much care and hard work went into making a film with the highest aspirations and one that would present new techniques in this forever-evolving artform. Unfortunately, its on-and-off production schedule and ultimate selling to less dedicated hands resulted in Williams’ genius not being released in its intended form. With plenty of archival footage and a fascinating story at his disposal, Kevin Schreck has created a marvelous documentary that celebrates The Thief and the Cobbler’s potential and bemoans its fate.

Due to his passion project being wrestled away from him, Richard Williams refuses to discuss The Thief and the Cobbler and Schreck has done a superb job of using old interviews with the master director, so he can still tell his story. The film’s three-decade long production allows for a lot of material to be used and his determination to finish the film by any means is definitely admirable. His love for the medium and making the animation as amazing as possible is certainly evident in the footage shown and it also makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. Even when he resorted to making commercials to fund the film, his studio did not skimp on the quality. The various interviews with the animators who worked on the production throughout the years also provides plenty of fascinating insight into Williams’ working method.

A particular treat is the endless amount of pencil test animation shown and the ability to see those amazing images on the big screen in their full aspect ratio. The work by Williams’ crew and art director Roy Naisbitt is sensational, providing a sight for the eyes. The only way to see the wide presentation of the CinemaScope image is through online distribution, as The Thief and the Cobbler’s home video releases have been nothing short of atrocious, mainly due to the decision to only release it in pan-and-scan format. At one point, animator Greg Duffell (who had worked at Richard Williams Studios in the 1970s) even mentions seeing the DVD available for free in a cereal box. That was practically the last insult given to The Thief and the Cobbler and we certainly owe a huge gratitude to Garrett Gilchrist, whose fantastic “Recobbled Cut” is the closest we will ever see of Williams’ original vision being realised. If there was a film that perfectly fits the Criterion Collection’s mission statement, it’s The Thief and the Cobbler and though unlikely, they need to craft a special Blu-Ray release of Gilchrist’s edit.

 Schreck also nicely touches on the other work Williams has done over the years, notably Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which led to a revival of interest in both animation and The Thief and the Cobbler finally being completed. To truly hit home the devastation of what happened to Williams’ film, Schreck shows the full trailer for Arabian Night, the mangled cut created by Miramax to appeal to a wider audience. After hearing the comments regarding the silent film influence earlier in the documentary, it is hard not to roll one’s eyes at Jonathan Winters cracking lackluster one-liners over Ken Harris’ Thief.

Marvelous work produced by generations of animators, who are frequently interviewed during Persistence of Vision, was put alongside subpar material from Fred Calvert’s outsourced unit and that is the saddest part of this story. However, the happy truth is that Richard Williams’ brilliance will live on forever and hopefully, there will come a time when The Recobbled Cut is more widely seen, distributed and remembered than the butchered versions pieced together by Fred Calvert and Harvey Weinstein.

 The best documentaries are those that appeal to anyone who has a major interest in the subject and those who are completely novices. Persistence of Vision definitely fits into that realm. Animation fans will love the peek into the making of this lengthy and troubled production and the animators at work, creating these unforgettable images. Not to mention, Persistence of Vision allows one the ability to finally see widescreen images of The Thief and the Cobbler uncluttered by unnecessary voice-over on a big screen. However, people who have no idea what an inbetweener is will also find themselves gripped by this enthralling and heartbreaking story. Kevin Schreck has done a fantastic job paying tribute to Richard Williams’ craftsmanship and imagination and the more people who hear about The Thief and the Cobbler’s history, the longer its legacy will last.

Review By: Stefan Ellison

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