The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Synopsis: A handsome prince rides a flying horse to far-away lands and embarks on magical adventures, which include befriending a witch, meeting Aladdin, battling demons and falling in love with a princess.
Although not as well-known as Disney’s 1937 feature-length animation Snow White, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed beat it by eleven years in its claim to be the first ever feature-length animation. True, it’s not animation in the same sense as Disney’s artistry was — Reiniger’s figures are silhouettes made from paper cut-outs — and there are possibly two lost Argentinean movies that pre-date it, but technically Reiniger’s movie was there first. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, painstakingly constructed over a period of nearly four years, and is both primitive and elegant. Even more remarkable is the fact that Reiniger was only 23 when she embarked upon this labour of love.
The story, which was also written by Reiniger, is a variation on the Arabian Nights tales in which a malevolent sorcerer falls in love with Dinarsade, the daughter of a Caliph, and builds a flying horse made from wood with which he seduces the Caliph into offering any treasure he possesses in return for its ownership. When the sorcerer demands Dinarsade, the Caliph is obliged to hold up his end of the bargain. However, his son Prince Achmed, insists on testing the horse before concluding any deal. While the sorcerer shows Achmed how to make the horse fly, he neglects to instruct him on how to bring it back down to earth again, and by the time the prince has figured it out he’s a long way from home.
Things aren’t all bad, however, because, after being chased by a bevy of beautiful women, Achmed eventually lands near a lake which serves as the bathing place of Peri Banu, ruler of the land of Wak Wak. Instantly besotted, Achmed steals Peri Banu’s feather costume, which means she is unable to fly away with her consorts when he is discovered. Achmed decides to kidnap her, and all his future problems can be traced back to this rash act. You just can’t go around kidnapping female royalty without paying the consequences, it seems. Meanwhile, back at the Caliph’s palace, the sorcerer, who was put in chains when Achmed went flying off towards the moon, transforms himself into a bat in order to free himself of his chains, and uses a little black magic to find out the young prince’s whereabouts. Before you know it, Achmed finds himself trapped in a gorge with a giant snake while the wicked sorcerer is spiriting Peri Banu away to the kingdom of a Chinese emperor where she eventually finds herself being married off to a court jester.
Despite the simplicity of Reiniger’s methods, it’s surprising how much emotion these cut-out characters manage to convey with movements that are both graceful and realistic. Not only does The Adventures of Prince Achmed look good, it also tells the kind of story filled with magic and enchantment that has held kids in thrall since the earliest days of storytelling. Whether it will still work its magic on a young generation who know how to operate mobile phones before they can talk properly is another matter. But the story is involving enough to work as entertainment for adults, and the BFI restoration, while not flawless, still looks pretty good.
(Reviewed 23rd December 2013)