In which we see the first shadow puppets.
In the past year, I’ve returned to animation after some time away as my daughters have started to enjoy films more and more. Like most, they’ve started with Disney, Pixar and highlights from other studios like Monsters v Aliens and Kung Fu Panda. When Netflix in the UK acquired the rights to most of the Studio Ghibli films, we began working through them too.
Being born in the 2010s, most of the new films available to them look similar – all using computer-generated 3D models. They don’t seem to have a preference though as they’re just as likely to choose Oliver and Company or The Little Mermaid as a recent film for our movie nights.
Watching The Adventures of Prince Achmed for the first time, I wondered if they could make it through a film without dialogue or even much colour – the characters are all shadow puppets against a range of single-coloured backdrops. 67 minutes later, I finished the film knowing it is worth a try in the coming months.
The film took three years to make. Every frame was individually created and it took 24 frames for a second of screen time. The silhouette puppets are incredibly detailed, contorting and twisting as they shapeshift, grow or even just when they change outfits.
Although it’s not the first animated feature film, two movies predate it, it is the oldest that we can watch today. The two Argentinian films from 1917 and 1918 are considered lost.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed blends three stories into a single narrative. The director Lotte Reiniger uses elements from One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin and The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri-Banu to create and almost shared-universe for Prince Achmed.
Tricked into flying away on a magic horse by an evil Sorcerer, Prince Achmed finds himself in the homeland of Peri-Banu, who he falls in love with. Taking her to China, he’s ambushed by the Sorcerer, who takes his horse and the fairy princess with him. Left for dead in a volcano, Achmed is rescued by a witch who wants his help defeating the Sorcerer. Joining forces with Aladdin, Achmed sets off to fight the Sorcerer and rescue Peri-Banu.
Split into five short acts, the story fairly blazes along with a perfect balance of action and stillness. Throughout the film, the animation is breath-taking. The slightest move of a character is captured in incredible detail, especially during fight scenes where Achmed faces a range of ever-changing monsters. Each moment is accompanied by an inspiring score from Wolfgang Zeller, who brings tinges of quiet sadness and bursts of fanfare as battles rage.
Disney fans will spot a range of references throughout the film, highlighting the reverence animators hold for this movie. Most notably, Aladdin borrows much from the design of the Sorcerer in Jafar’s old man disguise, from his crooked face to his insectoid, almost dislocated, limbs. The fight between Merlin and Madame Mimm where they shapeshift into various creatures is a direct homage to one here between the Sorcerer and Witch, only with the roles reversed. There are also hints of the Night on Bald Mountain segment in Fantasia where the Sorcerer summons a horde of dark beasts from a volcano.
At just over an hour, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a beautifully animated tale of adventure, magic, monsters and far-off lands. Despite its age, it stands side-by-side with any well-loved animated classic. Kids may struggle with the lack of dialogue, but the action, intricate shadow play and wonderful score more than fill that modern void. Give this one a watch with the family, you won’t be disappointed.
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