Shadows shine in 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed'
By Patrick Sullivan
ONCE UPON a time, there was a clever girl whose skill with scissors was beyond compare. In her deft hands, these simple tools could produce paper wonderlands full of brave princes, evil wizards, and fearsome monsters. When she grew up, she created what may be the first animated feature film ever made.
Ten years before Walt Disney brought Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the big screen, German experimental filmmaker Lotte Reiniger--the woman with the magic hands--and her collaborators finished The Adventures of Prince Achmed. In 1926, this silent masterpiece of silhouette animation began dazzling audiences from Berlin to Paris. But in 1945, Reiniger's original print was destroyed in the Battle of Berlin.
Now the film is back, recently restored by the British Film Institute to its full-color, 35 mm glory, complete with the original score by composer Wolfgang Zeller.
The story itself is pure Arabian Nights--often entrancing, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, but always entertaining.
The epic tale begins when the caliph's court in Baghdad is thrown into an uproar by the arrival of the mysterious African Sorcerer. The caliph covets the sorcerer's magical flying horse and unwisely tells the wily knave to choose any treasure in return. Naturally, the scheming sorcerer wants the caliph's daughter, the lovely Princess Dinarzade.
When the woman's brother, Prince Achmed, intervenes, the sorcerer tricks the intrepid young man into mounting the magic horse, which promptly carries him off to parts unknown.
That doesn't much bother Achmed, who is "young, and brave, and eager for adventure." After discovering how to control his magic mount, he lands on a mysterious island, where he discovers true love with the exquisite Princess Peri Banu, ruler of the spirit land of the Waq Waq.
But the sorcerer ain't done yet. Transforming himself into the most evil kangaroo ever seen on film, he tricks the prince again, kidnaps Peri Banu, and sells her to the emperor of China (another symptom of the strong strain of racial-sexual anxiety that runs through the film). Then the sorcerer goes back for the prince's sister.
As the film explains, "Great was the might of the African Sorcerer," so Prince Achmed continues to get his butt kicked until he wises up and enlists allies--the fearsome Fire Mountain Witch, plus Aladdin and his famous lamp. With magical help, the prince bests a staggering array of supernatural baddies, from the vengeful spirits of the Waq Waq to a hilariously carnivorous elephant with giant fangs.
Anyone who imagines that shadow puppets captured frame by frame on film cannot tell a compelling story has not seen The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
These characters are often more fun to watch than those found in the most finely detailed computer animation from Pixar. Especially good is the African Sorcerer, whose insectile body goes through incredible contortions as he scuttles through the scenery or transforms into various terrifying creatures.
Reiniger's film also offers stunningly dramatic visuals that make very effective use of background color. In one notable scene, the prince watches Peri Banu and her maidens as they shed their magic flying cloaks to bathe in a lake. This enchanting interlude is heart-stopping in its ethereal black-on-blue beauty.
The only disquieting thing about this film (besides the racial stereotypes) is the troublesome questions it raises about 21st-century animators.
Seventy-five years after the debut of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, filmmakers have amazing technical innovations at their disposal. But most of them have a lot to learn from an old-fashioned storyteller named Lotte Reiniger.
'The Adventures of Prince Achmed' screens Sept. 28-29 at 7 p.m. at the Sonoma Film Institute, Sonoma State University, 1108 Darwin Hall, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. $4.50. 707/664-2606.
From the September 27-October 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.