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In 1926, German director Lotte Reiniger completed her 65-minute long silhouette animation feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The film was influenced by author Hanna Diyab’s tales “The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Perī-Bānū” and “Aladdin” from the collection of literature in One Thousand and One Nights first published in 1775. After three years of work with a small team of animators, Reiniger brought these ancient stories back to life for new audiences to see the magical journey of Prince Achmed on the theatrical screen. KIZJ (4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin
After introducing each of the characters, the film begins its fairytale with the African sorcerer—the most powerful sorcerer of the time. He had fallen in love with Dinarsade, the Caliph’s daughter. But despite his vast knowledge of black magic, he could not change his ugly appearance, so he came up with a clever plan to achieve his love. With his power, he created a magical wooden horse that could fly in the air and went with it to the Caliph’s birthday celebration in Baghdad. No juggler or entertainer could compete with the sorcerer’s magical horse—it had caught the Caliph’s attention, and he wanted it. Of course, the smart sorcerer would not sell the horse for any amount of gold, so when Caliph offers the choice of any of his treasures, the sorcerer chooses Dinarsade.
The princess is distraught by the unfolding of the situation, and her brother, Prince Achmed, tries to save her by objecting to this terrible trick. The sorcerer slyly suggests the prince to try riding the horse. Not knowing how to control this horse, Prince Achmed flies off high up into the skies. Eventually, he learns how to descend and arrives at a mysterious island called Wak Wak. There he falls in love, and our hero of the tale begins his adventure of saving his damsel, meeting allies, and battling with evil.
This film has a 100% Tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unfortunately, a movie should have over 40 critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes before it gets considered for the site’s recommendation lists. Before learning about Turner Classic Movies’ screening of this film, I hadn’t even heard of it. Although I don’t usually peruse through silhouette animation literature, it’s quite surprising that I hadn’t come across it, especially considering that it was the first of its kind. Lotte Reiniger spent years creating around 300,000 frames. At the time, animation was supposed to be funny and short, so this was a very unusual project to take on. Although it was difficult for her to find distribution at first, its premiere in Paris led to success both critically and amongst the public.
Nowadays, we see the likes of Inside Out, Frozen II, and Finding Dory, and other animations from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios and others. Many animations we now consume have become so seamlessly integrated with computer-generated imagery that it is easy to forget to see it as an art form in the traditional “hand-drawn” sense. The stories are much more complex because, as an audience, we have higher expectations and lower attention spans. We want intriguing plots, immersive visuals, and faultless sound. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is so different from all that. If someone were to pitch the concept of using cardboard, lead sheets, text, and music for a feature animation, it could very well be shut down. Convincing a child to watch that could also be difficult when it’s propped up against the vibrantly colored talking snowmen and ogres. Yet, give Reiniger’s film five minutes, and you will be utterly enamored.
This animation has an otherworldly touch that draws you in with its detailed figures and ballet-like expressive movements. Recognizing that these are two-dimensional figures cut out of cardboard might seem like something that could detract from the telling of Prince Achmed’s story, but it doesn’t at all. The simplicity of the animation inspires children to reach into their imaginations and nurture their creative minds. For adults, it tugs at the childlike wonder that gets buried and numbed under the heaps of stimulating visuals around them.
Reiniger’s animation is beautifully crafted, and the handmade feeling creates a warm tone to the film. It’s as though pictures from inside a book have come to life. Wolfgang Zeller’s collaboration on this film put him on the map as a film music composer. His complex music guides the audience’s travels through this fictional universe. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a film to see at least once. Not only because of how unique it is, but also because just under a century later, it has stood the test of time. It’s a rare gem that’s a testament to how the combination of skilled art and good storytelling can put one under the magic spell of film.
Photos: Stills from The Adventures of Prince Achmed
Photo Credits: Image Entertainment (USA)
Q: Does The Adventures of Prince Achmed pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Sadly, I cannot say for sure because as a silhouette with German text, there isn’t really any “talking.”