By Liam Lacey
Friday, December 18, 1998
Genre: Animation; Fantasy; Musical; Drama
Directed by Brenda Chapman,
Steve Hickner and Simon Wells
Written by Philip LaZebnik
Starring the voices of Val Kilmer,
Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer
and Steve Martin, among others
Grand as the pyramids, flashier than a Vegas hotel, The Prince of Egypt may be the most-hyped film since Titanic. The movie fills the screen with bold architectural forms and a palette of burnished rose and blue, and, in telling the story of Moses, hits the narrative peaks with a succession of special effects show-stoppers. There's the burning bush with The Voice that seems to emanate in a series of sonar pulses. There's the eerie, wraith-like fog that takes the first-born Egyptian children, and, of course, the pièce de résistance,the parting of the Red Sea.
The Prince of Egypt is certainly spectacular -- an elaborately designed combination of animation and computer-generated imagery -- but at times it's a spectacular bore. The telling of the Exodus tale is so literal and cautiously inoffensive, it ends up being several monkeys shy of a barrel full of fun.
The opening titles promise the movie will be true to the essence and values of the Bible, though in practice, The Prince of Egypt tends to be more true to the essence and values of Disney, where DreamWorks producer Jeffrey Katzenberg previously worked, and where he oversaw Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Similar to those earlier movies, The Prince of Egypt is about the young rebel coming of age and finding his calling. Moses is initially portrayed as a rebellious teen-ager. Exercising dramatic licence, the script provides a relationship for Moses, a half-brother tie to the up-and-coming Pharoah, Rameses. This version, leaning toward the story of Cain and Abel (or the film Ben Hur,from which it borrows), casts the pair as reluctant adversaries on either side of a great historical clash.
After an opening overture, which shows the big architecture and brutality of ancient Egypt, as well as Moses's precarious journey down the river in a basket, the movie moves into the story of the teen-age Moses (the voice of Val Kilmer), who sports a contemporary-looking goatee and hot-rods around ancient Egypt in his chariot with Rameses (Ray Fiennes).
When not dropping water balloons on innocent passers-by, or knocking noses off statues, Moses and Rameses are a good-hearted, spunky pair of kids. But Rameses, who's destined to take over the family business from his father, Pharoah Seti (Patrick Stewart), tends to get treated more seriously than the flighty Moses. The convention that English accents equal oppressors and American accents equal oppressed is maintained throughout.
Soon, Moses turns into the rebel who finds his cause. His recognizes his Hebrew identity through the movie's most inventive piece of animation when hieroglyphics on the palace wall come to life and show him how Pharoah Seti slaughtered the Hebrew first-born.
Visually, The Prince of Egypt is at its best during such moments when it fills the screen with carefully designed detail. The animation of individual characters (inspired by Egyptian friezes) is less persuasive, coming across as a bit stilted. Similarly, their personalities are sketchily filled in as the movie tries to cover a lot of history in a tidy 95-minute package.
Shortly after learning of his roots, Moses runs off to join his nomadic Hebrew family, which includes brother Aaron (the voice of Jeff Goldblum) and sister Miriam (the voice of Sandra Bullock). Settling into the shepherd's life, he takes a wife, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), and some "join-the-dance" tips from a Fiddler on the Roof-type priest (the voice of Danny Glover).
There's a telling moment when Moses meets Rameses and throws down a stick that turns into a snake. Rameses counters by commanding his priests (a subdued pair of comic sidekicks; voices by Martin Short and Steve Martin) to put on a floor show. To a brassy song called Playing with the Big Boys,they uncork a series of colourful visual stunts. Unfortunately, it could serve as a microcosm of the movie: a series of big production numbers designed to awe, rather than genuinely move.
Not much help is provided by the nine original songs written by Stephen Schwartz (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). These include the Whitney Houston-Mariah Carey duet, When You Believe,and I Will Get There,from Boyz II Men. With the emphasis on miracles, belief and seeing the world through heaven's eyes, the songs could be from any recent animated feature. It's a philosophy that seems to have more to do with The Magic Kingdom than the Book of Exodus.