Animation is a strange medium in that you are relying on human manipulation of something inanimate, be it drawings, clay models, dolls or – in the case of The Adventures of Prince Achmed – shadow puppets, in order to elicit emotion. There’s a disconnect from reality inherent in animation that makes it a more difficult medium to work with and yet a purer form of escapism; it can take you anywhere the animator can imagine. It’s also as old as cinema itself, and since the first zoetrope, animation has been a key part of film history. Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, one of the first ever animated feature films, is an important film not only because it is a fascinating part of the history of cinema but also because it showcases the potential of animation as a medium.
The story follows the titular royal after he takes a flying horse from a sorcerer and flies around the world rescuing princesses, fighting demons and hanging out with Aladdin. It charms you with its exotic, alluring locales, then thrills you with dramatic, energetic action sequences. Reiniger is incredibly inventive with the animation, defying the simplicity of shadow puppets to create intricately realised, wondrous scenes. For instance, when Achmed is spying on Peri Banu as she bathes, her reflection is broken up by ripples of cut up shadows – it’s a small detail but one that shows the visual ingenuity of the director. The final act is the most impressive, as Aladdin, the witch and Achmed fight the forces of evil in a remarkably fluid set piece full of ‘how did they do that?’ moments. It’s a standout scene in a film full of moments that somehow manage to thrill you and charm you using only a series of black shapes against a coloured background.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a remarkable film, and should be sought out by cinephiles and animation devotees everywhere. Reiniger saw early on the potential of animation to take you to whole new worlds, and used that to great effect. Achmed‘s status in film history makes it important, its success as a piece of storytelling makes it essential.
Extras: This BFI reissue is a treasure trove for Reiniger or animation enthusiasts as it features a wide selection of her shorts as well as the feature film. They are as charming and as well animated as the feature, making this disc a must-have. As always with the BFI, there is also a booklet with essays, interviews and reviews that are great for the keen fan. The option to watch the film with an English narration is another nice touch, making this excellent film accessible to everyone.