The Prince of Egypt
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1998
"The Prince of the Egypt" is the first feature-length animated film in many years to make a serious bid for an adult audience. Not, mind you, just to entertain the adults who have to see the movie with their children, but to attract adults on their own. With Disney reigning supreme over the animated world for the last decade, there has been little room for competing studios to make worthwhile projects for children, much less push the envelope by making a sophisticated, complex films with serious themes that also happen to be animated.
As the first full-length animated effort from DreamWorks Studios, "The Prince of Egypt" posits a serious challenge to Disney's dominion by heading in a different direction. Almost everything about it is different from the traditional Disney animated formula, from the angular manner in which the characters are drawn to the lack of comedic sidekicks (although there are two Egyptian priests voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short who are good for a few laughs). The film still feels the need to include Broadway-style musical numbers, some of which are more effective than others. Nevertheless, "The Prince of Egypt" is something of a landmark film, and how audiences receive it will serve as a strong indicator of just how far animation can stray from the traditional kid-based approaches.
The simple fact that "The Prince of Egypt" is a respectful religious film is enough to make it stand apart from most Hollywood productions. DreamWorks was so worried about offending people of faith, that it probably had more religious consultants working on the film than animators. However, this more than anything demonstrates how serious the producers were about their product, and how much they wanted to show that Hollywood can produce solid, thought-provoking entertainment for people of all ages and faiths.
The film tells the story of Moses, from the time his mother put him in a woven basket and set him afloat on the Nile to keep him from being murdered by the Pharaoh's army, to the moment he walks down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. In-between, the film includes most of the major points of the Biblical tale taken from the book of Exodus--God speaking to Moses from the burning bush, the ten plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and so on.
All of it has been depicted before, most memorably in Cecil B. DeMille's overwrought Technicolor opus from 1956, but directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells make the story their own by employing just the right amount of embellishment and elaboration. In particular, it concentrates on Moses' years growing up as a prince of Egypt, an aspect of his life not covered in the Bible. The film adds an extra dimension of brotherly tension by making Moses (Val Kilmer) the brother of Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), the Pharaoh he eventually has to convince to release the Jews from slavery. It also fleshes out his marriage to Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) and takes a few liberties with small details (for instance, it was the Pharaoh's daughter, not his wife, who discovered Moses in the basket).
Details aside, much of "The Prince of Egypt" is simply breathtaking to watch. Visually, the animators mix hand-drawn characters, huge painted vistas, and detailed computer animation to form a seamless whole. Often, in animated movies that also include computerized elements, the two media clash on-screen, unable to co-exist comfortably. However, the DreamWorks animators get the mix just right, and many of the film's lavish centerpieces--including a stunning opening sequence depicting the Egyptians enslaving the Jews and forcing them to build a city--are among the most stunning examples of the vast potential animation holds.
Somehow, the film always manages to find just the right tone to convey the most well-known scenes. It can be playful, such as when Moses and Rameses as racing chariots and destroy an entire temple in the process (this scene, which owes a tongue-in-cheek debt to the car-in-the-tree sequence in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," jokingly explains why the Sphinx has no nose). On the other hand, it can be deeply solemn, such as the burning bush sequence, which ends with a single tear coming from Moses' eye, letting us know more than all the eye-popping special effects that preceded it how much he has felt the hand of God.
The ten plagues sent down on Egypt are some of the most visually arresting sequences in the film, although the eight middle plagues--frogs, gnats, flies, livestock, boils, hail (which, in this case, is flaming), locusts, and darkness--are compressed into a five-minute musical montage that doesn't quite do justice to the damage they inflict in the Biblical account. However, the first plague--where the rivers of Egypt turn to blood--and the last plague--where God strikes down the Egyptian firstborn--are rendered with stunning impact.
The plague of the firstborn is depicted with a perfect resonance of horror and hushed solemnity. The film does not shrink away from displaying this gut-wrenching event, but it does it with quiet authority--a menacing cloud sweeps through the streets, entering the houses that do not have blood on the doorways as God commanded, and with an almost hideously audible release of breath, takes the child's life. No scene in the film is more moving than the end of this sequence, where the silence is slowly replaced by distant weeping and anguished cries as the Egyptian parents realize what has happened.
For sheer visceral impact, no sequence in the film (or perhaps any film this year) rivals the pillars of fire impeding the Pharaoh's army and the parting of the Red Sea. This scene is accomplished with an ingenuous use of computer animation, which renders the parting of the sea both awe-inspiring and completely plausible. As the Jews walk through the dry seabed, they are surrounded on both sides by towering walls of water in which can be briefly glimpsed whales and other sea creatures. The design of the sequence is impressive because it feels distinctly imaginative by portraying the event as it would have physically transpired.
And that, more than anything, is the strength of "The Prince of Egypt." It takes a familiar story and recreates it on screen in a bold new fashion. It stays faithful to the Biblical text where it can, while also fashioning a visually enticing new world of ages gone by. By not straying from the fundamental timeless themes of the Exodus story, and not trying to reinvent the tale or put a "modern" spin on it, "The Prince of Egypt" finds great success and should entertain and move just about anyone who sees it.
©1998 James Kendrick