“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926) Film Review
May 15, 2017
Written by Jambareeqi
“The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is a German silhouette fairytale from director Lotte Reiniger and is often considered as the first ever animated feature; but one could debate such a statement considering that the films of Quirino Cristiani predate Achmed. Inspired by “1001 Arabian Nights”, Reiniger’s movie follows a Prince called Achmed, who ends up flying away from his palace on a magic horse created by an evil sorcerer.
Once Achmed realises how to steer the horse to the ground, he arrives in a strange land called Wak Wak and falls for it’s beautiful ruler Pari Banu. The Prince captures her and wins her over, but she’s then kidnapped by the evil sorcerer and sold to the Chinese emperor. With help from a mountain Witch, Achmed rescues Pari Banu, but Wak Wak’s demons find the couple and take their ruler home. Unfortunately, the gates of Wak Wak are locked, so Achmed joins forces with the Witch and Aladdin himself to get inside.
In terms of story, Prince Achmed is your familiar traditional fairytale, the kind of thing that Disney would have made decades later; but the film deserves credit for coming up with this aesthetic at a time that predates the Disney’s movies. Interestingly, you can tell that some scenes inspired future future Disney work, like when the sorcerer and witch battle through animal transformations; which clearly influenced the finale in “The Sword in the stone”.
I can’t say that the overall story is anything groundbreaking or clever though, considering that it’s just a simple prince rescues a princess adventure; with a rushed romance that boarders almost on Stockholm Syndrome, and a hero’s journey where other characters do most of the active fighting or rescuing. In all honesty, the character that struck a chord with me the most wasn’t Achmed or his love interest, but the witch! Who gets all the badass moments and shines as an anti-hero.
However, the movie makes up for it’s weak story with pure imaginative animation and cinematic scope. Reiniger doesn’t allow the lack of perspective or detail inherited by silhouette film restrain her, but instead embraces the artform and tries to create a sense of immersive breadth. It’s pretty fun stuff that kept me invested in the film, despite the lack of fully dimensional characters or detailed storytelling.
Characters’ movements are so cleverly performed and designed, that you can instantly read their emotions and personalities; the visuals are so wonderfully vivid that I started to question the necessity of the title cards. Not to mention, additional special effects, creative lighting and primitive multi-plane cinematography add a filmic quality to the feature. Reiniger proves that simplistic shadow puppetry can look just as astounding as any other visual filmmaking technique.
I’ll admit that the animation can be rough around the edges, looking a bit jittery and jumpy at times; but this gives an otherworldly and charming style to the movement that could only work for a shadow puppet fairytale. It’s like the movie is aware of the constraints of cut out animation, but lets the imperfections support the fantastical strangeness of the film’s artistic style; rather than allow them to hinder the film’s creative room or cinematic ambitions. In addition, the animation does become more fluid as the movie goes along because Reiniger and her crew were clearly improving with practice.
To conclude, Prince Achmed might not have a complex story, but that’s a bit much to expect from the supposed “First Animated Feature”. It’s still a very enjoyable movie, mainly thanks to Reiniger’s talents as a shadow puppeteer and skills as a filmmaker. I think it serves as a fantastic gateway into silent film for younger audiences, but it’s technical achievements will also impress older audiences.
Oh and one more thing! I watched this movie with dubbed narration, rather than with subtitles. I kind of regret this decision because the narrator isn’t very good, sounding more like a corny Cbeebies host than an atmospheric storyteller. My advice is to go with the subs; unless you’re particularly put off by reading while watching a film.