A 90-year-old Arabian Night

Several years ago I discovered the films of German animator Lotte Reiniger, who used intricately cut paper silhouettes to retell such stories as Papageno, Sleeping Beauty, and The Frog Prince.  But her magnum opus, which I just saw for the first time today, is a loose adaptation of several tales from the Arabian Nights.  At ninety years old, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) still looks stunningly beautiful.  Reiniger’s finely wrought puppets move with a lifelike fluidity, sailing through vibrant tinted backdrops of blue and yellow.  

The story is pure Orientalist fantasy, a picaresque in which Our Hero, Prince Achmed, falls in love with the fairy princess Peri Banou.  With the help of a grotesque but good-hearted witch, as well as Aladdin (yes, that Aladdin), Achmed must rescue Peri Banou first from the clutches of a Chinese emperor, then from a meddlesome African magician.  In a thrillingly devised sequence late in the film the witch and the magician face off against each other and proceed to shape-shift into a series of animals.  (It looks ahead to a similar scene in Disney’s The Sword and the Stone some forty years later.)

Speaking of Disney, it’s sometimes noted that Prince Achmed, which runs 65 minutes, would seem to beat Snow White (1937) as the first feature-length animated film ever made.  Whether or not one wants to quibble about the definition of “feature-length,” it’s clear that Reiniger’s animation work in Prince Achmed not only precedes the Disney masterpieces by a good fifteen years, it also rivals them for sheer imaginativeness and visual flair.


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