Tucked away in the Screen Worlds exhibition, like an ancient jewel waiting to be discovered, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926) plays on a small screen. It would be easy to miss it and walk on past to a bigger, shinier exhibit, but to do so would be to miss out on an iconic piece of film history. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is, after all, the oldest surviving animated feature film in the world.
To look at this film, you wouldn’t necessarily think it had been made in the 1920s. My first instinct was to compare it to 1980s videogames with 2D silhouette graphics and linear movements – think Pac-Man and Space Invaders. In saying that, the animation is also quite beautiful and delicate, as the ornate details of the black cut-outs are contrasted against brightly-coloured backgrounds. German animator Lotte Reiniger developed this silhouette technique herself using cardboard and thin sheets of lead under a camera. She was one tech-savvy lady.
There is perhaps one thing that gives away this film’s ripe vintage. Prince Achmed was made in the days of silent films, so it has no dialogue. It is accompanied by an orchestral soundtrack and intertitles (quite sweet ones, too). An effort was made to synchronise the music with the vision to give a more modern touch, but the lack of dialogue and that quaint, familiar structure that accompanies silent films are dead giveaways that this film is old!
But it wasn’t just the animation that made this early film remarkable – Reiniger was also a trendsetter in another way. While the idea of adapting classic fairy tales into animated film is most often associated with Walt Disney, he wasn’t the first. Eleven years before Disney’s release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Reiniger used stories from 1001 Arabian Nights as the basis for The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Ultimately, this film was way ahead of its time, leaving a rich legacy for animators to follow. And the fact that this little gem is tucked away at the back of Screen Worlds? I like it. It means I can have the prince all to myself.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed can be viewed in ACMI’s free Screen Worlds exhibition, open daily from 10am to 6pm.
Take home a piece of Prince Achmed!
This gorgeous film now has its own range of merchandise available at the ACMI Store, including an articulated puppet fridge magnet, a flip book, a cloth-covered notebook, a pack of die-cut notecards, a badge and a book of postcards.
To win a prize pack of Prince Achmed goodies (RRP $79) simply leave a comment telling us your favourite story from 1001 Arabian Nights. Winner drawn Fri 18 Feb. And if you mention the codewords ‘Screen Worlds’ at the ACMI Store during February, you’ll receive 20% off the range of Prince Achmed merchandise.
Read more about Prince Achmed over at the ASIFA Hollywood Animation Archive blog.