The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Directed by Lotte Reiniger

In 1937 was released the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, championed as a great achievement in cinema, the first feature length animated film of all time. However, some film scholars also point to this film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which was released 11 years earlier in 1926, as the first animated feature in film history. Now, I don’t know where I stand on the whole argument, or even if I care to involve myself. To me it is clear that the two are completely different and yet equally innovative. Lotte Reiniger’s film is produced by the use of silhouettes, which isn’t technically animation, but it does lend itself to tell the same type of stories as the art if animation also allows, most notably fantasy films, which is exactly what The Adventures of Prince Achmed is.

Based in the famous 1001 Nights, or Arabian Nights, the film follows our hero, Prince Achmed. He is introduced to a magical flying horse by a sorcerer and takes off after his father offers his daughter as payment for the horse. However, he doesn’t know how to properly operate it, and ends up finally coming back down in the kingdom of Waq Waq, where the beautiful Princess Peri Banu resides. He falls in love with her and persuades her to follow him out of Waq Waq, which is against the spirits. They travel to China and Achmed must defeat an army of demons to win the heart of his love.

The story of the film is quite nice. In fact, I was thinking almost the entire way through the short, 66 minute film about how this film would be realized today in a live action rendition. It is a tribute to the great tale of Arabian Nights that it is so interesting. However, I can’t help but feel the story is truncated by the runtime. It moves at a breakneck pace which certainly allows the viewer to be engaged the whole time, but I also thought it could have been more fully fleshed out. But I am not complaining because I also understand that it took Reiniger so long to produce the film. I am not trying to knock the film for its story, though I do think it comes second to the visual aspect of the film.

The silhouette technique is foreign to me, but as I understand it cutouts are made and set against a glass background and photographed and put together, almost like with stop-motion animation I suppose. For that very reason I applaud the hard work of Reiniger and her collaborators. The attention to detail in this film is astounding really. The frames are so carefully put together and there is so much beauty in the imagery that, like I said, it even distracts from the story. All throughout the film are imaginative and beautiful frames at which to marvel. And the colors are beautiful, although I can only assume they were added later and that the original film was shown in traditional black and white in 1926.

It certainly is an experience, which is often exactly what the best cinema is. I can only imagine seeing this type of innovative film in 1926 when it premiered, but just seeing it on a big screen today instead of my small TV would add to the great experience of The Adventures of Prince Achmed. It stands alone in terms of its style, and since I know of no other silhouette films, it is hard to say it was overly influential, but I do feel its uniqueness is what sets it apart as a great film, more so than the average, but fun, story.

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