The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)
German Title: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
It's quite funny actually how today's animators and their crew of thousands of techno-wizards spend months and millions of dollars just to perfect the movement of each individual hair strand of an animated character. The animated films being made today have forgotten the reason why they are animated and not live action; the animation facilitates the burst of the imagination. By giving so much away, you take away room for participation, interpretation, or even creation from the viewers. Nowadays, watching those CGI-flicks (wherein everything looks so perfect and beautiful, you suddenly get the urge of doubting whether your movie date is real) have become mere perfunctory tasks, with you just sitting in that darkened room with your skull pre-emptied for a dose of glossy visuals, bombastic sound effects and a lot of fart jokes.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving feature length animated film. Made by Lotte Reiniger (with the help of husband Carl Koch, who did the photography in most of her films) in 1926, the film made use of shadow puppets (very complex, multi-jointed puppets) to create an intoxicating and always engrossing tale based from the Arabian Nights. The puppets themselves are very lovely. Made from cardboard cut-outs, there's a painstaking detailry that impressed me. The elaborate dress worn by the princess Dinarsade, or the delicate strands of hairs or tiny fingers are all intricately crafted. The workmanship here is tremendously beautiful, from the individual puppets, to the simple yet evocative backdrops.
There's always that sense of magic that pervades while watching the film. Beginning from the curious conjurations of the African wizard wherein hideous shapes form from blurry smokes, there's already an attention-grabbing awe that is at once established. Reiniger continues to astound with her next set-up: the birthday of the caliph, with dozens of entertainers, trumpet-players and where we first get to see the exquisite beauty of the princess, and the heroic posture of Prince Achmed.
Set-up after set-up, Reiniger never seems to run out of creative juices. She mixes adventurism with a tinge of eroticism when Achmed first lands in the fairy land of Wak-Wak. Dashing Achmed finds a harem full of lustful female attendants, all of them wanting a taste from probably the first male human being they've seen in their entire lives. It's something I thought was ahead of its time --- it's a naughty, undeniably funny scene only topped by the next set-up. Achmed lands in a nearby island where he witnesses the fairy princess Pari Banu bathing with her other female companions. There's a thrilling sense of voyeurism (despite the fact that all we see are shadows of what I imagine is a perfectly beautiful female form), of repressed testosterone and other hormones boiling to unbearable levels. Once Pari Banu sees Achmed viewing her from underneath tropical plants, the voyeurist mood turns into something more playful; a lively chase between a hapless lover and his enchanter, evolving into a lovely romantic interlude amidst the graceful slopes of Chinese mountains.
And quite predictably, it gets better. Pari Banu gets spirited away by the African magician, who masters the art of transfiguration. A good (yet surprisingly un-beautified) witch introduces herself as the magician's arch-enemy, aiding the good guys along the way. Action scenes as tense and as marvelous as any done by Rudolph Valentino are staged with precision. Otherworldly monsters make appearances and are defeated with eye-popping gusto. Seriously, unbelievable as it may seem, these puppets do make quite brilliant heroes; Achmed jumps, swings his cutlass, and shoots arrows with intense fervor. Moreover, there's a magic duel between the wizard and the witch that is just so good, my meager description fails to do justice: it's a battle of transforming magic experts --- every moment they transfigure into an animal or an abomination of nature, each transformation more tremendous than before.
Then there's that final battle, which makes the huge, larger-than-life battles of George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and Ridley Scott pale in creativity. The jealous demons of Wak-Wak versus the good guys, with the help of nebulous white good spirits. Those thinking that since Reiniger's animation method is mere shadow puppetry, thus limited and flat, would be overwhelmed because the presumption is simply untrue. In that final showdown between the forces of good and evil, while the heroes are fighting it out to save the fairy princess from a monstrosity, the background is kept busy by hordes of demons and good spirits in tumultuous battle.
Of course, the experience of viewing The Adventures of Prince Achmed can only be as rich and fulfilling as one's ability and openness to imagine. In my case, each lovely movement by a puppet is enunciated by me imagining the more specific gestures (the facial expressions, that sorrowful tear of despair by Aladdin when his magic palace and his love is snatched in the course of one night). Reiniger merely transports me to that fantastic land of caliphs, demons, witches and fairies with her marvelous artistry and craftsmanship. Especially with the moving and rousing score specifically composed by Wolfgang Zeller for the film, my experience in viewing this stunning work is what I can vividly describe as the complete cinematic experience --- wherein just enough is contributed by the filmmaker to rouse each viewer's ability to visualize fantastic worlds and tense and daring moments. Hopefully, humanity hasn't lost that ability.