Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

I ran into a review of this a few years ago and was immediately intrigued by the idea. A feature length animated film that predated Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? I didn’t even know that was possible. But here it is, a classic of silent cinema, and one that any animation fan should check out.

In the time of the Arabian Nights, Prince Achmed and his family are entertained by a powerful sorcerer. The sorcerer presents a fabulous clockwork horse for the Prince to try out. Well the horse spirits Achmed away to a far land, and the wicked sorcerer abducts the lovely Princess Dinarsade. Now Achmed must return home and save his sister. Along the way he will meet a beautiful woman from the spirit realm, a hideous witch, the Emperor of China, a harem full of lovely, lonely women, and even Aladdin himself. It’s a story full of fantasy and daring called The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Good Points:
  • Amazing silhouette animation with details that astound
  • A musical score that creates the perfect background
  • The movie throws one in visual delight after another
Bad Points:
  • It’s a silent film and if you don’t like the genre you won’t like this
  • Some pretty blatant and offensive racial stereotypes
  • The story jumps around without a proper arc
Looked at in context this is an amazing film. All the animation is stop motion using cardboard and lead cutouts. The use of lighting and special effects is skillful, but it’s the fluidity of the animation especially during the big set pieces that amazes. Fans of silent cinema and animation need to see this movie and enter the dreamland that was created here. Everyone else, I offer a cautious recommendation. The lack of a clear story, characters and dialogue may create a movie too slow to enjoy.

Scores (out of 5)
Animation: 5
Sound: N/A
Music: 4
Voice Acting: N/A
Direction: 4
Story: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

In Depth Review

I appreciate what Disney has done with animation. Walt really pushed forward the art of telling a story with animation back in the day. But Disney needs to stop claiming the title of first fully animated feature. Even The Adventures of Prince Achmed isn’t the first of its kind. But it is the earliest surviving fully animated film. With that sitting out there, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs needs to step down.

I had actually seen something like this before. There is a unique Japanese animated series called Revolutionary Girl Utena. This is an odd show all the way around, but one of its easily identifiable features is a Greek chorus that shows up in each episode with a mini story. This chorus is comprised of silhouette girls that look amazingly like the characters from Prince Achmed. Director Kunihiko Ikuhara must have been a fan of the style and decided to use it in his anime, and it works well in the context of the whole show. But even what he did doesn’t come close to the original.

If you are going to watch this movie, you need to be ready to accept what you are seeing. The silhouette is backlit and tinted comprises the entire animations style. You can get a good idea from the pictures I’ve added here. What is also visible, even more so on a large screen is the depth of the images. Not only are all the characters made in silhouette, but all the buildings and backgrounds. Then using angled light and layering, you get a full world, one that is amazing to see. The idea that someone went to all the trouble of designing, cutting and animating all these figures and buildings is mind blowing. Even Ray Harryhausen would be impressed.

Sequences like the amazing battle between the witch and the sorcerer are jaw dropping. These two beings continue to transform into various creatures in an attempt to kill each other. It’s very similar to the battle that occurs in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. The fluidity of the transformations is stupendous and the way these transformations take places with pieces folding in and over and growing and flipping is like a dream (and reminded me of the mutation sequences in Akira).

The The Adventures of Prince Achmed uses smoke, sparks and creative lighting effects to add atmosphere and create a true fantasy environment. Maybe that’s what I love most about this movie – its like an Arabian Nights dream come to life, with a definite art deco feel to it. The fully rerecorded musical score does wonders here. Yes it has a definite classic cinema sound, but it fits the film and helps drive the story along. Doing some research I see that other scores have been created and while I’m curious to see how these would work, I wonder if they can match the story as well.

As I mentioned there are some downsides here. The story is really haphazard, seeming to jump all around and never really connect. There aren’t really characters here, just genre stereotypes. The evil sorcerer is just rotten. The hero is bland but good. The princess is lovely but always in peril. There aren’t any surprises in the plot really, but in a way that isn’t the point. The focus is obviously on the visuals and creating the mood. Plot is secondary in this case.

What is hard to overlook are the racial depictions of Chinese and African people in this movie. Keeping in mind when this was made, its something that is pretty common in cinema, but that didn’t stop me from shaking my head and feeling a bit wary about recommending it to people without warning them.

Honestly I can’t imagine any fan of animation or silent cinema missing out The Adventures of Prince Achmed. If you can find a copy to rent (Netflix has it for digital download!) give it a try. The actual DVD contains some neat extras including a documentary that goes into detail on how the film was made. This is an impressive film and one that influenced many other creators over the years. Its also entertaining in its own right and you can’t ask for more than that.

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