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Tales of the Night (2011) and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

Silhouette animation is an animation technique with a long history, but is not overly used, especially for feature films. Employing articulated cut-outs as characters, the forms are moved and filmed in ways similar to stop-motion figures: one movement at a time. The use of “silhouette” means the figures are all black, though may have cut out or differently colored eyes, or sometimes a mouth. The backgrounds can be rendered in any style, and can be in color, so the silhouette characters stand out from them. As you can imagine, the cut-outs are often finely detailed and the backgrounds elaborate; the combination can produce great beauty, and often extraordinary delicacy. The beauty is in the details, with striking profiles a pre-requisite to create an understandable and moving film.
Silhouette animation is not often used today. Perhaps the lack of expression, because there are no detailed faces, can make watching silhouette animation more difficult over a longer period of time. This makes the detail of the silhouette, the opulence of the backgrounds, the voice acting, and even the music that much more important to the entire film. These difficulties and details both come into play with the films we are looking at. Both, surprisingly, are feature length films. The oldest surviving animated feature film was actually created with silhouette animation. This is Lotte Reiniger’s silent film, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed). The considerably more recent “Tales of the Night” (Les Contes de la nuit) follows the same silhouetted path eighty-five years later.

By request, AFA’s 100th Review was to be for “Tales of the Night” so let’s begin there (and I hope the requester does not mind two for the low price of one). French director Michel Ocelot is the creator and director. He is also known for a delightful 1998 debut feature, Kirikou and the Sorceress. “Tales of the Night” features six separate short tales, each a fairy tale of a sort and each starring a boy and a girl. The tales are presented within a framework, wherein a man, too old to remain working at a cinema, and a young man and woman, too young and inexperienced to get hired in the film industry, join forces, at night, to create their own stories. Making use of historic reference materials and a machine able to produce their costumes and backgrounds suitable for each chosen setting, they then act in each tale.

The six Tales of the Night are:

The Werewolf, set in Medieval Europe. A prince is to marry one sister, but it is the other sister who actually loves him. She aided him in the past. He reveals he is a werewolf to the sister he will marry, but she plots to leave him in wolf form. The sister that loves him begins to figure the whole story out.

Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connaitre, set in the West Indies. Tijean, while exploring, finds himself in the Land of the Dead. Typical of fairy tales, he then helps three animals, though he is really just trying to get past them without being eaten. The three then come to his aid when he needs it desperately.

The Chosen One and The City of Gold has an Aztec setting. A dragon holds sway over a city of gold, getting human sacrifices in return for gold. When a young hero refuses to allow this, the city might fall.

The Boy Tam-Tam, set in West Africa. A boy enjoys playing the drums, but annoys everyone in town. His skill comes in handy when the irresistibility of dancing to his music prevents a foreign army from killing the entire village.

The Boy Who Never Lied is set in Tibet. A man who never lies is tested by a king to see if he can be made to lie. His beautiful daughter volunteers to try to tempt him into lying by telling him he must kill the faithful horse he watches for The King so she can eat the heart and get well. When she disappears afterwards, will the man lie to explain away his foolishness?

The Doe-Girl and the Architect's Son, the last story, is set in medieval times again. A young man must free his love from a high tower. Of course, it is even more complicated than that!

“Tales of the Night” follows directly – though eighty-five years later - on the path of fantastic tales as presented in “The Adventures of Prince Achmed.” The earlier film also features a structure of shorter segments (called here Acts).

ACT 1: Introductions, in which we get introduced to most of the characters. The African magician creates a flying horse and offers him the King for the king’s daughter, Dinarsade, in return. When her brother, Prince Achmed, protests, the Magician persuades him to try the horse. The horse flies away with the Prince, who does not know how to bring him back to ground. The Magician lands in prison.

ACT 2: The Story of Prince Achmed, in which Achmed learns to land, but comes down on the magical islands of Wak-Wak. Here he finds the ruler of the islands and the demons that dwell there, the beautiful Pari Banu. He falls in love with her. But the Magician has escaped. When Achmed chases him, he is trapped in a pit with a fearsome snake.

ACT 3: Adventures in China, in which the Magician sells Pari Banu to The Emperor of China. The Magician makes sure Achmed remains trapped by setting a stone on him. The Witch of the Flaming Mountain, the Magician’s rival, frees Achmed and helps him rescue Pari Banu. However, the demons of Wak-Wak steal Pari Banu back, leaving Achmed locked out at the door, where he finds Aladdin.

ACT 4: Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, in which Aladdin tells Achmed a story: of how the Magician asked him to retrieve a lamp from an underground cavern. When he did so, the Magician tried to take it, causing him to drop the lamp and the Magician to then seal him in the cavern. He accidentally discovers the genie of the lamp, who saves him and creates a palace for him. This allows him to win the love of the princess, Dinarsade. The Magician steals the lamp, the palace disappears, Aladdin flees, and finds himself on the island of Wak-Wak.

ACT 5: The Battle of the Spirits at Wak-Wak, in which the demons and the Magician meet their match, and the tale might just end with a reunion of both pairs of lovers…

The plot is rather more complicated than you would expect for a 1926 silhouette animation film!

Both films are pure fantasy, delving into Arabian Nights-style tales of princes, princesses, heroes, villains, and magic. Due to the literally flat characters in silhouette animation, I think these shorter story segments work best. Without the depth of performance in an actor’s features, the designs of the silhouette’s need to relay the emotional content of the performance. Movement can do a remarkable amount of this work, and does in these films, but also has its limits. The shorter segments help focus the narrative on a tale that can be told completely but before we start missing components we are more used to. Reiniger’s animation with detailed cut-outs is rather remarkable, since she worked without even voices. Subtle movements in her figures express fuller emotion than seems possible. Tellingly, five of the six “Tales of the Night” were previously produced for a French television series (Princes and Princesses), with one additional tale created specifically for the film. Each segment does work wonderfully on its own, and with voices, the characters are even more appealing and full than what Reiniger could achieve. However, I do think that at 84 minutes, the entire film may be too long to sustain full impact through the silhouettes. “Achmed,” at 64 minutes, fares better for being shorter, but has its own issues, specifically the lack of voice, for our modern viewing habits.

Silhouette animation skilfully done puts the focus squarely on the artistic choices and skills of the artists. The profiles of the silhouettes and the background designs are the tools available to tell the story (music also, and both films thankfully have wonderfully expressive soundtracks) but even the beauty of design cannot sustain a narrative in the longer form. In “Tales” each separate tale might be more effective seen alone, so I would guess the television series they originally appeared on was wonderful. “Achmed” only fares better because each segment is part of a whole, but the whole may have benefited from having five to ten minutes edited down.

However, it does seem too harsh to complain about too much of a good thing! The beauty and skilled movement Reiniger brings to her fairytale, not to mention her mastery of this style so early in animation history, makes “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” a historical animation classic.

“Tales of the Night” is sadly less than the sum of its parts. The connective narrative doesn't add much, so I do think these stories would work better watched one or two at a time. And then, they are effective and wonderful! There is much to be said for carrying on this traditional and beautiful animation technique. It is also rather bold to produce a modern feature film in the style. With this film in mind, I often think that being able to screen more animated shorts on bigger theater screens would be a really good thing. There really is no current model or venue to consistently screen shorter animated films, though.

It is wonderful fun to see other techniques of animation, as most animated features use the same techniques these days, but perhaps not all of the other myriad techniques available to animate with are really suited or practical for longer forms. However, both of these films are must watches for the animation fan, the fantasy fan, and anyone who likes a tale. And who doesn't like a good tale?

Both films available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.