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Prince of Egypt
DreamWorks tries to lead animation out of bondage
Prince of Egypt
DreamWorks
Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, & Simon Wells
USA, 1998
Finally sitting down in a cinema to watch Prince of Egypt was like exhaling after holding my breath for three years. It was in the first half of 1995 that I first heard that Jeffrey Katzenberg, after leaving Disney and forming DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, had announced that their first animated feature would be a retelling of Exodus.

It seemed almost too bold, too awesome a task. Taking on a Biblical epic of liberation (and Cecil B. DeMille's classic Ten Commandments) was a feat that would require a certain mixture of boldness and finesse.

But hey, this was the same person who brought us The Lion King, with its powerful themes of divine rule, fratricide, and mythical heroism. By the same token, this was the same person who brought us the irreverent Aladdin, with all its anachronisms and, to some, offensive imagery. To an extent, he was also responsible for keeping Disney animated features within a certain formulaic mold, which others have spent time and money emulating (often badly). This fear was compounded with the news that Prince of Egypt would be a musical, much like the Disney features and their ilk. It wasn't necessarily bad news, but the potential was there.

Tidbits of information kept coming over the years, all of it positive: there would be no merchandise tie-ins, save books and music; the story would stick fairly closely to past interpretations of Moses; Katzenberg sought the approval of various religious authorities; the film would have a PG rating, which meant it wasn't guaranteed to be pablum. But there was still that voice in the back of my head, telling me all the ways it could go wrong.

Happily, it turns out that I didn't need to worry that much. Prince of Egypt succeeded for all the reasons I expected it to, and in some ways that I didn't.

One of the reasons I expected Prince of Egypt to do well was because of the story's inherent grandeur. Grandeur is one of those things that Disney did well under Katzenberg (it's worth noting that Disney has largely faltered in this regard since his post-Lion King exit), and there's so much to work with here, it's almost a playground: the magnificent structures of ancient Egypt; the (literal) acts of God; the liberation of a people; the divide of brother against brother. As directed by Brenda Chapman (story supervisor on The Lion King), Steve Hickner (producer on Balto), and Simon Wells, every frame of the movie drips with grand portent: we admire the opulence of Egypt, knowing that it's doomed to collapse; we see a pre-prophet Moses chiding Rameses for caring too much, knowing that Rameses's heart will soon be like stone.

Then there are the unexpected delights, such as Moses' dreaming that the hieroglyphics around him have come alive. Hieroglyphics and animation share the ability to tell stories through a sequence of images, and seeing them come together through such creative computer-generated imagery was a treat.

Some of the less overt work pulls a lot of Prince of Egypt together: the facial expressions, which were at times surprisingly subtle; appropriate vocal casting (Patrick Stewart as the pharaoh Seti is at turns majestic, compassionate, and unknowingly heartless); and various frame compositions, which visually underline what's being said. That last point is the most interesting, my favorite example being the last time we see Rameses' son alive--a lingering shot of him standing between his father and Moses in front of a particularly significant series of hieroglyphics, which brings together the past, present and future.

If you're into Biblical epics--and I know I am--this is almost the perfect film.

Almost.

Try as he might, Katzenberg can't seem to shake his legacy completely. First, there were too many songs. Again. So far as I'm concerned, the last North American animated film to have just the right amount of songs was Aladdin, where each song advanced the story and served some sort of purpose while being entertaining and catchy. Here, there are some good pieces, which fit the grand themes of the film. Two--"Deliver Us", which opens the film and introduces us to the plight of the Jews, and "Through Heaven's Eyes", which plays over the montage of Moses's life in the desert--do their job well, setting the tone and keeping the story going. The rest seemed a bit more by the numbers, and therefore tiresome. One, "Playing with the Big Boys", was downright disappointing, as it came at a time when I was expecting an exciting scene which was instead played for anachronistic yuks.

That brings me to my second gripe, as embodied by Huy and Hotep, the court wizards. Voiced by Martin Short and Steve Martin respectively, they were played as the only two comical characters in the film. While they were far less comical than any Disney sidekick in recent years, everyone else in Prince of Egypt is so serious they stick out like sore thumbs. It's too bad, because they could have been truly scary characters. As it was, the scene where they turn staffs into snakes (to show that they can do anything God can do) was clichéd, anachronistic, and prolonged. It was funny, but it didn't belong in this film.

But really, the movie is about the title character--the prince of Egypt. Actually, it's about the princes of Egypt, focusing not just on Moses but his relationship with his brother, Rameses. There's an undercurrent here, where both men follow their respective overpowering father figures: Moses, of course, is in the shadow of God, and through him His will works. Rameses is haunted by the spectre of his father's words and deeds, and his presence is always there to guide and goad him. Freud would have had a field day; the DreamWorks crew use it to build human sides to both Rameses and Moses that we rarely see.

Oh yes, Moses is human. Usually portrayed as a stern father figure, this Moses visibly regrets every life lost at his hand, directly or indirectly. After he kills a slave driver (which prompts his flight from Egypt), he is inconsolable; when Rameses finally allows the Hebrews to leave after Egypt's first born male children have died, Moses breaks down and cries outside the palace.

Then there's the title characters' love for each other. Both display a deep and abiding regret at what happens in the movie. Moses, standing on the shore after the Red Sea has closed up, looks back with regret, thinking that he has lost everything he knew before; he especially mourns his brother. Rameses, on the other side, roars Moses's name to the heavens, but it seems as if the anger is mixed with a sense of loss.

The theme of sibling love and rivalry is what ultimately allowed me to forgive Prince of Egypt's missteps. It's a good film to watch, and a definite step away from the animated feature fornula we've seen on these shores in the last decade. I'd like to see it do well, and I'd like to see what it leads to not only for DreamWorks, but for the animation industry as a whole. Maybe this is the birth of a new era. Maybe, like Moses, Katzenberg will lead animation out of bondage but never actually reach the promised land himself. Either way, it should be a journey worth watching.

A Critical Eye exclusive (November 25, 1998)