The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie Pre-1940

First of December and as I promised, here is my first article.

Up for consideration:

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) by Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette

The Tale of the Fox (1930) by Ladislas Starevich, Stop-Motion

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Walt Disney, Traditional

Gulliver’s Travels (1939) by Fleischer Studios, Traditional

In short, I took every movie which was made during that period and isn’t lost into consideration, with the exception of The New Gulliver (1937) by Aleksandre Ptushko on the grounds that I think that the live-action elements are too dominant in it, The Seven Ravens (1937) by the Brothers Diehl since the movie is only 53 minutes long (it is nevertheless considered a full-length feature, but I felt that under an hour is a little bit short, even though the stop-motion used is top notch. If it were only seven minutes longer, it would have not only be taken into consideration, it would have gotten the third nomination spot) and the Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons (1937) which isn’t really a movie at all, but a collection of Walt Disney shorts. Which left four movies to pick from, so I decided to discuss all of them briefly, even though Gulliver’s travels is not on my final nomination list. But I’ll explain why.

This movie has  a really good basic idea: It tells the story of Gulliver in Lilliput from a new point of view. So far, so good. But not only is all the political and social commentary from the book lost, it replaces it with the most generic love story I have ever seen. The animation is typical Fleischer Studio, which doesn’t really lend to give the story any weight, though there are one or two good character moments between the two kings. But what is good about the animation goes out of the window the moment when Gulliver turns up (which is more than half an hour into the story, they somehow manage to stretch the delivery of a message that a giant is lying on the beach over the whole first act of the movie). See, Gulliver is obviously rotoscoped, and apparently the Studio told the actor to move his legs as little is possible. It really shows. Nothing about his movements looks natural or as if this character even can exist in the same world than anyone else in the movie. But if you want to see for yourself, the movie is part of the public domain, so you can watch it legally in the net.

But let’s discuss the three movies which I think deserve to be on the nomination list:


The Tale of the Fox (1930), Ladislas Starevich, Stop Motion

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), Lotte Reiniger, Silhouette Animation

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Walt Disney, Traditional Animation

But lets be honest here: The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are the two which stand out, though for different reasons. I never had to consider for a second if either of them deserved to be on the nomination list. The big question was which movie deserved the third spot. “The Tale of the Fox” mainly got it, because of a lack of rivals, but that doesn’t mean that it is a bad movie by any stretch. It is a masterpiece of stop motion, and it is very entertaining to watch.

It is a really straightforward adaptation of the original fable, though, a simple retelling (there aren’t that many own touches by the director added), and while the animation in this movie is really, really impressive, it is mostly the knowledge that this was all done by hand which makes it stand out. There are some really nice designs in there, though.

It looks like this

See for yourself

The characters are pretty much what they are in the original story, but what really drags the movie down a little bit is the repeated use of a voiceover. To me, there are only a few circumstances in which a voiceover is an acceptable tool in a movie: Either for expressing thoughts of a character which are too complicated to show visually or to cover a lot of backstory as fast as possible (and even then it can easily come off as clumsy). In this movie, the voiceover segments are not even needed at some places. This movie is worth a watch if you are not put off by low quality in black and white and subtitles, but I think that the award should go to one of the other movies. And I can tell you, this is a really difficult decision.

If this award were about the most influential movie of all time, there is no doubt that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would win. This is the movie which kicked off the success of the Walt Disney Animation studios, which established traditional animation, the one which started it all. But this award is about quality. So let’s compare those two movies by discussing Story, Characters, Music and Animation.

  • Story: Both movies are adapting a fairy tale and neither are particularly close to the source text. Disney made a number of changes to make the story more palatable, Lotte Reiniger is using Arabian myths, combining them to one epic story. That has the advantage that the setting is grander from the get go. She introduces a lot of different places during the story, while the Disney movie only has the castle, the woods, the hut and the mine to offer. This has some advantages though, since the story is more streamlined and focussed. But also more predictable. If you take out all the singing and shenanigans of the dwarfes, you can easily summon up Snow White’s story in a few sentences. You can’t do that with Prince Achmed, who experiences not just one, but multiple adventures.
  • Characters: Here Disney clearly has the advantage, for two reasons: One, Silhouette Animation doesn’t really allow intricate facial expressions and two, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a silent movie, so it can’t elevate the characters with an impressive voice acting. As a result, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is full of stock characters with only very basic motivations. There is the heroic prince, the evil wizard, the love interest, and so on. Most of them turn up for one segment to never been seen again. Snow White and the seven Dwarfs falls back on old fairy tale clichés, too, but the characters are nevertheless way more memorable. Snow White is the epitome of innocence. The evil Queen is so terrifying, she literally made children in the audience piss their pants when the movie was released. Each of the dwarfs has a very distinctive personality, which is not part of the original story. The inner struggle of the hunter is portrayed very realistic. The only character which is short-shifted is the prince. But hey, at least he got “One Song”.
  • Music: The Adventures of Prince Achmed has a score which was specifically written for the movie and does an excellent job elevating the scenes which are shown. The score of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is just as impressive, especially the main theme and the piece “Chorale for Snow White”. The songs are kind of a mixed bag. Some of them are iconic and none of them are annoying, but a lot of them are only there fill time. They don’t really add to the story. Overall though, the soundtrack of Snow White is more memorable, less because it includes songs, but because the main theme is quite an earworm.
  • Animation: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was one of the first movies which used traditional animation. As a result, there are a number or areas which are quite experimental. The animation of the humans was still a huge problem, so there is a lot of rotoscoping and in a number of scenes Snow White is just sitting at one place while all the other characters are moving around her. The animation of some of the animals is a little bit iffy, too, especially of prince’s horse. Now, all this is excusable, Disney was experiencing with a new technique after all and all in all, the problems are very well hidden. But it is notable that Silhouette Animation was also a new technique and The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the movie which sets the standard for it to this day (yes, Silhouette animation is still used from time to time). Especially the transformation scenes in this movie are still jaw dropping.

So, which movie deserves the award, the artistic one, or the iconic one? I have to admit, I didn’t expect to be forced to make such a hard decision that early, but I go with the artistic one. As important as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is for the history of animation, The Adventure of Prince Achmed is a masterpiece which stands out entirely due to its own artistic merits. It is a one of the kind movie, and therefore deserves the award as the best (surviving) animated movie which was created before 1940.


Honestly, how can I not give the award to a movie which looks like this?




6 responses to “The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie Pre-1940

  • The Animation Commendation

    I’ve not seen Prince Achmed or Reynard, so can’t comment on them, but still somewhat surprised that Prince Achmed won over Snow White.

    I don’t really mind Gulliver’s Travels that much as it was only the 2nd American animated feature film released so I give them some leeway.

    • swanpride

      I would have given them more leeway if it were just about animation (I do the same for Snow White, after all), but the story is simply not well-written. It is one of those movies which start out interesting but then just become worse and worse.

    • swanpride

      This should give you a better idea, why. And the video is lacking some even more impressive scenes from the finale.

  • smilingldsgirl

    I hadn’t heard of the Tale of the Fox. Looks interesting. I can totally see why you’d go with Achmed. It’s pretty amazing and unique.

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