The TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto’s foremost review cinema house, is putting on an extensive stop-motion animation retrospective for the public over the next few months. Titled ‘Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation,’ the first screenings are set to take place this weekend. Two of the initial weekend screenings, King Kong (1933) and The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), are particularly noteworthy features in the development of cinema. Both films laid an early blueprint for the future of action-adventure motion pictures.
Marian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong has been channeled countless amounts of times – in both narrative and visual senses. Not only has the film been remade on a number of separate occasions, it has also generated spin-offs such as Mighty Joe Young, Son of Kong, King Kong Escapes, and King Kong vs. Godzilla. There is no doubt that King Kong remains one of the greatest, most-recognizable movie monsters of all time.
King Kong endures years later in its iconography. It has created a number of indelible images that will exist in the canon of cinema forever. Some of these images include: Ann being strapped by the wrists to twin pillars as a sacrifice on Skull Island, King Kong beating his chest before battle, Carl Denham presenting Kong to a gasping theatre audience in New York City, and Kong ascending the Empire State Building with Ann in hand. These images almost feel played out when revisiting the film in 2015 because they have been shown or reinterpreted so many times.
However, in the context of this stop-motion themed retrospective, it is worth looking at the film from a technical perspective. Willis O’Brien, the legendary special effects mastermind behind the project, found a groundbreaking way to combine animated and live-action elements in a single scene.
Even though King Kong and the other monstrous inhabitants of Skull Island might have been fashioned out of tiny dolls, they move with a lifelike fluidity that must have been extremely startling for audiences at the time of the film’s release. The monsters’ thrashing presence unquestionably illuminates the screen.
When Kong and a Tyrannosaurus Rex wage battle against one another, they fight with the same grapples and quick strikes that MMA fighters use today. Ann and Jack Driscoll look on from the foliage as this melee goes down. It feels like you are right there along with them in the midst of the action. The most amazing element is how the cuts are used to turn the live action actors into dolls in the middle of a monster’s clutches. One second Ann is running away from Kong, and another, she is in doll form flailing in the palm of Kong’s hand.
Action and animation aside, the greatest moments of the film are the quieter ones. The scene before the voyage is one that stands out in particular – with the film director Carl Denham taking Ann Darrow to a diner in order to have her commit to acting in his mysterious film. The white interior of the diner coupled with the lighting on Darrow’s face paints her as an innocent beauty on the verge of making an unfortunate decision. Denham’s persuasive manner of speaking in effect corners Ann in an unassumingly devious way. The audience can feel the corrupting powers of show business lingering in the air, ready to attack its next victim.
It must be mentioned that the film certainly does feel dated in its portrayals of non-white cultures. The boat’s cook, Charlie, is adorned in stereotypical Chinese garb that could not have been popular in America at the time. As well, he delivers his dialogue in a broken English. Same goes to the natives of Skull Island – shamefully portrayed as mindless savages who speak in tongues and act irrationally.
Maybe it was Cooper and Schoedsack’s intention to show the film through this uncultured perspective as a sort of meta-narrative on American racism at the time. But, that might be giving them too much credit when it could most likely be chalked up to poor taste. Yet, despite these miscues, there is still an awful lot to enjoy in King Kong. The dialogue is snappy and the thrills are palpable even over 80 years later.
The agelessness of The Adventures of Prince Achmed is also astounding given the fact that the film is seven years older than King Kong. The film was even lost to the world for years and then pieced back together from a number of black and white prints. It was then coloured accordingly. The film is considered to be the oldest surviving animated feature film and, to this day, looks like nothing of its kind.
Written and directed by Lotte Reiniger and filmed by her husband, Carl Koch, The Adventures of Prince Achmed’s silhouette animation looks exactly how it is described. The two-dimensional aesthetic makes everything on the screen look like a series of fluttering shadows. The characters dance past each other to a stunning score by Wolfgang Zeller. The movements are perfectly matched to the soundtrack. When the Fairy Pari Banu is introduced bathing on the spirit island, the fluttering music accompanies the flying birds above.
Reiniger’s settings evoke a certain abstract quality. Nothing is quite to scale, rendering the textures and details all the more beautiful. The Caliph’s kingdom is full of twinkling stars and swirling minarets. Guards, soldiers, and horses emerge from every angle donning intricate garb of a far off Arabian kingdom.
One of the animations that is particularly indelible is the Magician’s hands. His claw-like fingers contort in sinister ways. It feels like his evil grip over the characters extends out of the frame to the outside world. He conjures himself into different living forms throughout the story and the audience is never sure if he’s in the frame or not. Indeed, something wicked this way comes.
Memories and spirits twirl throughout the film, bestowing upon the picture a certain dream-like quality. The wispy textures of cloudy mountaintops and Chinese wilderness project a simple beauty – that familiar yet unknowable foreign land.
The simplicity of The Adventures of Prince Achmed is perhaps its best quality. We are used to seeing shadows in our daily lives, but how often do we stop to pick out their details? Reiniger’s film allows us fall in love with characters we hardly get to know, all because of the richness of the atmosphere and curiously shaped silhouettes. It’s a magical world full of abstractions that we couldn’t picture even in our wildest of imaginations.
King Kong screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, November 27th at 9 pm. Purchase tickets here.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, November 28th at 4 pm. Purchase tickets here.
Click here for a full schedule of the Magic Motion: The Art of Stop-Motion Animation retrospective.