I finally completely watched the DVD of Prince Achmed and the documentary on its creator Lotte Reiniger. The film is animated silouettes and was done over several years being released in 1926 making it the first animated feature film (assuming the rumours of a South American film fail to be confirmed)
The film tells the story of Prince Achmed who travels the world trying to get home after an evil magician tries to kill him so that he can steal his sister away. Its much more complicated than that but that will do as a brief description.
I have no doubt that you've seen Reinger's silhouette films for yourself since she made over 80 films for groups such as the BBC and the Film Board of Canada. When I started the film I knew what the style was to be, little did I know I had seen the artists work previously. She was a one man band and did pretty much all of the silhouette films you can think of...including one in color in the 1950's.
Whatever you think of those films this is better. When Reinger made the film there were no rules and no instructions as to what to do so she, along with her husband, and some friends set out to make the first animated film. The lack of rules and direction to me is what makes Achmed so wonderful, there is no formula, just the film. There is nothing like Achmed that I have ever run across, except perhaps in the realm of anime where animation can be serious and for adults. This is a serious fairy tale, borrowed from the Arabian Nights and its wonderfully told with a minimum of intertitles (its a silent film with an original score). This is sort of what Disney was trying for with Snow White, but the cute drawings got in his way.
Reinger had no one to tell her no, no market research and no audience to alienate if she got it wrong. All she had was her instinct and her desire to tell a story. The film is a fairy tale, with all its complexity come to life. Yes there are bumps in it, but it was a first and it was and is light years ahead of what was and is being produced by the majority of film makers working with animation. The story is the thing and there is no need to do anything but tell it. There is no product that has to be sold, no audience to protect simply the adventures of a Prince trying to get home and rescue the various Princesses.
How can I get a cross what a trip this film is? First off its a genuinely good film. Secondly its wonderful to look at the film and see how much may have been cribbed from it by Disney and other animated filmmakers over the years. The battle of the Magician and the witch reminds me of the battle of wizards in the Sword in the Stone- except not played for laughs. This would make a great lead into the Thief of Bagdad.
My mind boggles at what might have happened had the film been a success. The film bombed since no one was ready for a feature length animated film, let alone one that was told straight forwardly. Could animation of a feature length started earlier? Could the art form have been taken seriously say fifty to sixty years before Ralph Bakshi and those of his generation began to prove that animation could be a serious thing? Yes I know that there were others working in the field doing serious feature work but they were few and far between and rarely had any sort of real success on a large scale- Bakshi with, Fritz, Lord of the Rings, Coonskin and other films helped, along with the adaptions of Watership Down and Plague Dogs (talk about a failure to find an audience) to push animation towards into the view of an adult market in the West. (I'm not forgetting anime, thats another kettle of fish all together.)
Achmed is a great film, years beyond its time. Watching it you get lost in the world it creates as if it was illustrations for a tale you are reading, your imagination fills in details. One of the joys of the film is watching the film be animated better and more complexly as the film goes on. This is due not only to the learning curve of the filmmakers technically as it was being produced in a garage over three years, but also because as time went on they changed their minds and realized that they could do more, they could make things grander and fill the screen with demons.
The movie is a trip and should be seen not only if you love great animation but also if you like good movies. Its a great way to spend 67 minutes.