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Prince of Egypt a box-office disappointment

After much hype, the newest animation isn’t
pulling in the expected bucks


By Peter T. Chattaway
ChristianWeek film critic

The ads said it was the most anticipated movie of the Christmas season. Insiders said its production and marketing costs could have run as high as $180 million. The reviews were generally favorable, and Christians of all stripes, sensing an opportunity to prove their box-office clout, endorsed the film with a rare unanimity.

Despite all that, The Prince of Egypt is not the blockbuster that many people, especially its producers at the DreamWorks studio, hoped it would be. After 11 weeks, the film has earned only $97.1 million in North American theatres—a respectable sum for most movies, but lacklustre for a film that was treated to so much hype.

Showbiz pundits were calling the film a "disappointment" last December when it earned only $14.5 million in its opening weekend. By comparison, You’ve Got Mail, which opened at the same time, made $18.4 million, and Patch Adams opened a week later to a box-office gross of $25.3 million, despite poor reviews; both films have gone on to accumulate over $110 million each.

The Prince of Egypt also lags behind recent Disney flicks A Bug’s Life ($158.5 million) and Mulan ($120.5 million), as well as the modestly budgeted and modestly hyped non-Disney cartoon The Rugrats Movie ($98.3 million). However, Prince has done relatively well overseas, earning just over $100 million.

William D. Romanowski, a communications professor at Calvin College and author of Pop Culture Wars, told ChristianWeek that the film’s tepid reception may indicate that the full-length animated genre has run its course, having reached its peak with The Lion King ($312.9 million in domestic ticket sales) in 1994.

He noted that the demographic behind those earlier hits—the children of the baby boomers—has grown up to become the teenage audience that made huge hits of Scream and Titanic.

Aimed at teens

"Dreamworks aimed Prince of Egypt at the teen audience, as illustrated by the PG rating, but may not have been successful at generating repeat business," said Romanowski. "It is still, after all, an animated film, which in the teenage mind is still associated with kids."

Romanowski said his own children "were not blown away by the film; I liked it well enough." He added that surveys indicate evangelicals have pretty much the same viewing habits as the general public, so targeting the religious audience specifically may not have been that profitable an idea.

God watered down?

Curiously, Christian critics tended to affirm the film’s portrayal of God, applauding the filmmakers for tackling such thorny subjects as the plague of the firstborn, while a number of secular critics said the film’s portrayal of God was watered down.

Movieguide’s Ted Baehr—who made much of his role as one of several hundred consultants on the film—said the film "proclaims the sovereignty of God and his miraculous intimate involvement with mankind." World’s Gene Edward Veith wrote that the film might "inject into the popular culture the barest glimpse of holiness" and "play a providential role in bringing a biblical worldview into the public imagination."

But the film wasn’t biblical enough for some secular critics. Newsweek’s Jeff Giles complained that the film "wants an interfaith audience so badly that it reduces God to a stern voice uttering, ‘I am that I am.’"

Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman observed: "What The Prince of Egypt doesn’t get at—it’s nothing less than a biblical cornerstone—is that Moses wasn’t simply saving the Hebrews from captivity. He was elevating mankind to a place closer to God. I’m afraid, though, that the Big Guy’s presence is rather muted here."

Despite these perils, more Bible-based cartoons are in the works. DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg told Movieguide his studio is working on a straight-to-video prequel on the life of Joseph.

The British-Russian team behind Testament: The Bible in Animation –an Emmy-winning mini-series just released on video—is now working on an animated film about Jesus starring the voice of Ralph Fiennes (who also provided the voice of Rameses in The Prince of Egypt).

And at least two projects based loosely on Noah’s Ark loom on the horizon. Bill Cosby is adapting his 36-year-old stand-up routine "Noah" for MGM’s fledgling animation division, and Disney’s Fantasia 2000 will cast Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant in a sequence set to Sir Edward Elgar’s "Pomp and Circumstance."

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