This unusual film is the only movie scheduled for this season of Cinema in the Park, a free “series” of showings in downtown Asheville, and it’s certainly an interesting choice. Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 The Adventures of Prince Achmed holds the distinction of being the first feature-length animated film — having preceded Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by 11 years.
But it must be noted that the movie is probably not what you think of when you hear the term “animated film.” Yes, it’s animated, but the style of animation owes as much to shadow plays as to the movies. The approach — using articulated paper cutouts against elaborate backgrounds — results in a film in which the characters are actually silhouettes, and the action can only move laterally.
Perhaps that sounds more limiting than it actually is. The technique is obviously fairly limited, in terms of depicting details, but it also frees the filmmaker in certain ways. This is especially true of some of the film’s more risque material — the scenes where Prince Achmed spies on and kidnaps the (presumably) nude Princess Peri Banu at her bath, which imbues the film with a kind of naive eroticism. (One might, however, wonder if the lady wouldn’t be a little chilly flying around on Achmed’s airborne horse.) The sequence would have been impossible in any other medium at that time.
The story line is a sort of cobbled-together Arabian Nights saga, with overtones from several different stories ranging from The Thief of Baghdad to Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. Plus, a few things appear to be unique to the film; someone better versed in these fairy tales might know better than I whether or not the evil African magician is a fabrication of this particular film.
The patchwork nature of the film tends to make it leap from segment to segment, making it almost seem like a series of short films held together by a connecting thread. Moreover, some of the segments are better than others, and the Chinese scenes don’t really go anywhere — they just provide yet another exotic setting for Reiniger. And that may be enough.
The film is first and foremost a visual exercise, and there’s no denying that it is a beautiful film. However, given the inherent limitations of the form, I can’t say the movie engaged me on a narrative level for its entire length (there’s a reason why the animated silhouette film didn’t proliferate). But overall, the film has much to recommend it. There are moments of pure magic here and scenes of almost breathtaking beauty. And whatever else the film is, it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen — and it’s not too often you can say that.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Adventures of Prince Achmed will be presented by Cinema in the Park at Pritchard Park on Saturday, May 21, at dark.]