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Adventures of Prince Achmed, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The earliest surviving animated feature holds up."
5 stars

Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is generally the movie people bring up when discussing the first feature-length animated film, but there were several others before that. "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" is the earliest surviving animated feature, but not nearly as well-known as "Snow White", in part because it's German and silent and different-looking. Look past that, though, and you'll find a fun adventure movie as well as a piece of cinematic history.

An African sorcerer has designs on the city of the Caliph; he visits and shows his wonders off to the Caliph and his daughter, Dinarsade. He disposes of Dinarsade's brother Achmed by sticking him on a flying mechanical horse that rises in the air uncontrollably. Achmed gets control somewhere over the far-off island of Wak-Wak, where he romances the Princess Pari Bunu. But, the Sorcerer's influence is far-reaching, and Achmed will require the help of the Fire Mountain Witch and the legendary Aladdin to rescue the ladies and return home.

Director Lotte Reiniger (assisted by her husband, Carl Koch) had a very specific style, working not so much with drawn figures but with cut-outs. Thus, the characters appear almost exclusively as silhouettes, with facial expression much less a tool than body language. While describing the technique brings to mind static puppets moving only on crude pivots, Reiniger and Koch manage to create some amazing effects, not just creating rather detailed figures that move naturally, but by animating them so smoothly that the shapes on screen are often extraordinarily fluid (few people using this style of animation do so well with smoke and liquid eighty years later). Indeed, some of the effects appear to make use of something akin to the multiplane photography Disney would later pioneer, giving a feeling of depth to the world in which these flat creations live.

Like many silent films, Prince Achmed breaks neatly into its five acts, and there are times when it seems like it might have originally been conceived as a serial. This makes for an action-packed film that seems bigger than the sixty-five minutes it runs at 24 frames per second, since every segment is packed with enough story and action to survive on its own. The writing is not always perfect - when Achmed meets Aladdin, it suddenly seems like much more time must have passed during his adventures than we'd previously assumed, and the witch is powerful enough that the movie's title character winds up practically on the sidelines during some of the confrontations with the sorcerer.

Reiniger makes up for that in making her characters surprisingly expressive, considering the medium. Though this is a fairy tale retold, the personalities are clear and amusing, from the sorcerer's uncaring shrug when Achmed is carried away to Achmed clearly having a good time when his crash-landing on Wak-Wak lands him among the Princess's handmaidens. There's a bit of awestruck kid in Aladdin. Of course, there's also some caricaturing done for the African and Chinese characters that may not fly today, even considering the abstracted nature of silent cut-out animation.

The film was restored for its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2001, and that's the version that screened. It's a fantastic-looking print and restoration job, crystal-clear with what appear to be new intertitles and some of the best color tinting you're likely to see in a silent film; the sharp contrast between solid blacks and often clear backgrounds, as well as rotating the dyes frequently but logically, makes this one of the most colorful "black & white" movies one will see. This particular screening was accompanied by local composer Rob Humphreville on the piano, although most prints and DVDs feature a new version of Wolfgang Zeller's original score.

"The Adventures of Prince Achmed" would not be Lotte Reiniger's only animated last fairy tale; she worked independently throughout Europe for the next fifty years, mostly in the same style. For its minor flaws, it's an impressive achievement for a small group working outside the studio system in a medium still in its infancy - and one that's still entertaining, as well as impressive for its place in history.

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originally posted: 12/04/10 02:23:25
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User Comments

3/18/12 Josie Cotton is a goddess One of the best movies ever made 5 stars
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  DVD: 02-Dec-2002

  N/A (PG)


Directed by
  Lotte Reiniger

Written by
  Lotte Reiniger


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