Lotte Reiniger | 1hr 5min
In five years time, the oldest surviving feature-length animated film will be celebrating its 100th anniversary, and yet The Adventures of Prince Achmed has not aged a day. We likely wouldn’t be finding contemporary mainstream studios like Pixar creating the sort of minimalistic shadow-puppet designs that Lotte Reiniger has crafted here. But if a group of people were to be surveyed on what decade they thought this was made in just by looking at its imagery, their answers would likely be scattered all through the last century.
After the titular Prince Achmed is tricked by an evil magician into flying away to a distant land, he resolves to make his way back home with the help of a friendly witch, while rescuing the beautiful fairy, Pari Banu, from the demons of her island. Though rooted in Middle Eastern folklore of the One Thousand and One Nights, these characters all fulfill archetypes that have stretched back millennia. Even when we take an aside from the main plot to hear a poor tailor named Aladdin tell his own tale, these same archetypes manifest once again – a dashing hero, a beautiful love interest, a helpful magical being, right down to the same wicked sorcerer who similarly damned Achmed to a hole in the ground. It isn’t great narrative form to drop this entirely separate story in the middle of a larger one and let it dominate such a significant portion of this relatively short film, but there is at least that mirroring of characters between the two which strengthens its roots in traditional storytelling conventions.
Reiniger’s stylish animation is the real show here though, particularly in the detailed shapes of her character designs. The thin, spindly fingers of the sorcerer always seem to be clutching hungrily at some treasure, or threatening a victim whom his gangly, gnarled outline intimidatingly looms over. He exists in stark visual contrast to the sharp quills and dumpy shape of his arch-enemy, the Witch of the Flaming Mountain, who appears as a far more affable figure with her bulbous proportions. In a climactic confrontation between the two they morph themselves into all sorts of creatures, throwing fireballs back and forth, and the intangibility of their shadowy consistency lends itself well to these incorporeal feats of magic.
Beyond the characters, this is also a story that spans many locations stretching across West and East Asia, with each new setting providing its own remarkable backdrop. From the ferns and fronds enclosing an icy blue lake on the fictional island of Wak-Wak, to the latticework and curved, symmetrical architecture of an orange-filtered China, we are never lost in this world, especially with the attractive colour tinting to distinguish between sections of Achmed’s journey. Even beyond it being ground-breaking for all the “firsts” Reiniger achieves, The Adventures of Prince Achmed would end up in the top ten of any year simply because of its astoundingly imaginative work in fashioning an entire narrative out of shadows.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is in the public domain and available to watch for free on streaming sites such as YouTube.