Many consider Walt Disney’s 1937 animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to be the first feature length animated film, when in fact it was pre-dated by a total of seven films created by studios all over the world. The two earliest animated features, the Argentinian films The Apostle (1917) and Without a Trace (1918), are unfortunately considered lost, which makes Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed the oldest surviving feature length animation.
The plot follows Prince Achmed as he is tricked into mounting a flying horse belonging to an evil sorcerer. The horse takes him up into the sky and when he finally manages to gain control, and bring it back down to earth where he finds himself in the strange land of Wak Wak. There he falls in love with the ruler of the Wak Wak, Peri Banu, only to see her kidnapped by the same evil sorcerer, and sold to the Emperor of China.
To rescue Peri Banu, Prince Achmed must seek help from the sorcerer’s arch nemesis, the Witch of the Flaming Mountain. And in the process also befriend a young man named Aladdin, who offers the use of his magic lamp. The film ends with an epic showdown between Prince Achmed and his allies, and the all-powerful sorcerer.
Reiniger made her way into the film industry via visual effects. First creating titles and later animated rats for Paul Wegener’s 1918 film version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. From there, she began creating her own fully animated short films using her own homemade animation technique, that involved creating silhouette characters from black card then animating them frame-by-frame. In 1923, she was offered the opportunity to make a feature, and three years later she completed The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Watching the film now, it is apparent that Reiniger was first and foremost an artist, and her film remains a work of incredible beauty. But the most striking element of the piece is how much it succeeds as a narrative feature. Silent films have a way of enduring through the ages, as the constraints of the medium required a style of visual storytelling that is bold enough and simple enough to be followed, without the aid of dialogue. That is particularly true here, where the unique and intricate character designs make it easy to understand who is who, and whether they are “good” or “bad”.
That said, it would be wrong to describe the storytelling of Prince Achmed as “simple”, because as the summary above suggests, Reiniger chose to tell an incredibly complex story, with multiple characters and layered subplots. This is precisely why the film works as well today as it must have done on its release, because Reiniger understands how to tell a visual story, despite working in what was still a fairly new medium at the time.
Prince Achmed’s story begins as a series of tragedies, as we watched the young prince suffer at the hands of the evil sorcerer. His fortunes change the moment he meets the Witch of the Flaming Mountain, and from that point onward, the film becomes a thrilling fantasy epic. Nowhere is this more evident, than in the magic duel between the witch and the sorcerer, during which each opponent transforms into various different animals in order to defeat the other.
It’s a seriously imaginative sequence, that Disney would later replicate in their 1963 film The Sword in the Stone. There are similar thrills in the moment Prince Achmed rescues Aladdin from a giant, angry elephant creature, and then there is the final climactic battle between the Prince and the sorcerer.
All of these moments are as exciting, and as accomplished as the final sequence of any contemporary blockbuster. Because not only is the action exciting, but the storytelling works to keep the audience invested. It is because we see Prince Achmed suffer so much in the first half of the film, that when he finally finds a way to fight back, we want to see him victorious, and we care about what happens to him. The result is a film that looks like a work of art, but plays like an epic, action rollercoaster.
Reiniger’s influence over the modern animated feature cannot really be overstated. Before The Adventures of Prince Achmed was released, animation was thought of as a short-form medium, and in most cases used to make audiences laugh rather than to tell a story. Reiniger not only helped prove that you could tell a feature-length story in animation, she did so in such away that really emphasised the fantastical sequences you could create in animation, that would be impossible to achieve in live-action storytelling.
It is this combination of ambition, narrative complexity, and visual simplicity in Reiniger’s work, that is why the film remains so accessible today. And will continue to entertain audiences in the future.