Friday, December 31, 2010

Early Animation: The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Though opinions vary, most consider it the first animated feature film ever produced. It is also a benign example of German affinity for the Arabic world (of course, darker manifestations would develop during WWII). Judged on its own merits, Lotte Reiniger’s silent The Adventures of Prince Achmed (trailer here) is still a rich visual feast, ranking as a significant technical feat eighty-some years after its initial debut. Relatively recently restored, Lotte’s Achmed returns to the IFC Center this holiday weekend as the conclusion to its retrospective tribute to Milestone Films.

Reiniger was a multi-talented artist, but her signature animation films were not drawn. Rather, they incorporated her remarkable facility for creating paper silhouettes. Of course, describing Achmed as a series of paper cutouts would be akin to dismissing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a motley assortment of sketches. Frankly, it is hard to think of a modern equivalent, though some of the animation of Nina Paley’s utterly charming Sita Sings the Blues suggests Reiniger’s influence.

Granted, the Achmed’s characterization might seem a bit (forgive the term) two-dimensional, but the look and atmosphere of the film is so elegant, one cannot help but fall into the film’s exoticism regardless. Drawing on stories from the Arabian Nights, the Prince battles the evil African Sorcerer over a series of episodes, in order to protect the honor of his sister and rescue his true love, the Peri Banu, the former ruler of the spirit island Wak-Wak. Even Aladdin and the Emperor of China get in on the act.

These oft-told tales never looked better and that most definitely includes Disney versions. Indeed, Walter Ruttmann’s gorgeous backgrounds are suitable for framing. The restoration also re-recorded the original score composed by Wolfgang Zeller, adding sheen to an already classy package. This is film as an object of high art, yet smart kids ought to appreciate its charms. At a manageable sixty-six minutes, it should hold nearly every attention span, even without overly hip dialogue and obligatory Randy Newman songs.

Lovely to look at, Achmed is a rather impressive work of both filmmaking and film restoration. Animation enthusiasts should absolutely catch up with it, either at the IFC Center this weekend (12/31-/1/2) or streaming on Netflix.