Prince of Egypt, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For many centuries, those producing mass entertainment have recognized the inherent drama and majesty in the story of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. The tale has inspired countless plays, a renowned oratorio (Handel's "Israel in Egypt"), and one of the most beloved epic motion pictures of all time (Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments). Now, the Exodus has been used as a basis for The Prince of Egypt, which marks Dreamworks SKG's entrance into the field of glossy, big budget animation. Like Fox (with Anastasia) and Warner Brothers (with the disappointing The Quest for Camelot), Dreamworks intends to challenge Disney's reign as the King of Animation. The Prince of Egypt is a worthy starting point. It ranks alongside the Magic Kingdom's Mulan at the top of the year's traditional-style animated pile.

Of course, telling a Biblical story has forced Dreamworks to do a great deal of creative tap-dancing to avoid offending potential viewers. The last thing the studio wanted was an organized protest outside theaters on opening day. Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious leaders were consulted about the script. Every effort was made to follow the source material faithfully, although a disclaimer appears before the opening sequence reminding viewers that, while the movie uses "artistic and historical license," every effort was made to remain "true to the essence" of the tale as related in the first 14 chapters of the Book of Exodus (Moses' birth, exile, then return to lead his people out of Egypt).

As in Mulan, the subject matter is fairly sophisticated for animated fare (witness the PG rating). In keeping with Exodus, the mistreatment of the Hebrew slaves is depicted (albeit not graphically), as is the mass slaughter of Egyptian firstborns that leads to the Pharaoh's freeing of the slaves. And, as if the story wasn't grim enough to begin with, the screenwriters invented a friendship between Ramses and Moses to elevate certain aspects of The Prince of Egypt to the level of a Shakepearean tragedy. At times, Moses is depicted as a brooding, Hamlet-like hero. Like Antz (another Dreamworks production), The Prince of Egypt seems aimed at an older crowd, although the core audience of children will still find plenty to enjoy.

The Prince of Egypt neither skims over nor dwells upon the least happy elements of the story. Overall, it's a story of triumph and adventure - of oppression ended and freedom begun. The comedy elements that have become an integral part of animated features are downplayed. The Pharaoh's two chief priests are sly and fatuous, and some of their antics are amusing, but they offer little more than occasional, momentary comic relief. For the most part, The Prince of Egypt plays it straight. As for the other "necessary" aspect of the successful animated feature - the musical numbers - The Prince of Egypt features about a half-dozen (from Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the lyrics for Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame). And, while none are as memorable as those from the early entries into Disney's recent wave, they fold nicely into the story.

The animation in The Prince of Egypt is truly top-notch, and is easily a match for anything Disney has turned out in the last decade. The artists effectively mix hand-drawn and computer-generated images to good effect, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the characters' lip movements are in synch with the soundtrack. The final product is polished, with a number of standout sequences (the chariot race, the plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea). While last year's Anastasia managed to come close to Disney's visual elegance, The Prince of Egypt matches it. This impressive achievement uncovers yet another chink in Disney's once-impregnable animation armor.

As far as vocal talents are concerned, the film makers have gathered an impressive cast, with even the minor characters being voiced by recognizable names. The plum roles of Moses and Ramses, the leader of the captive Hebrews and the King of Egypt, belong to Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes, respectively. Michelle Pfeiffer supplies the voice of Moses' wife, Zipporah; Sandra Bullock is his sister, the prophetess Miriam; Jeff Goldblum is his brother, Aaron; and Danny Glover is his father-in-law, Jethro. Other voices include Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren as Ramses' parents, and the team of Martin Short and Steve Martin as the foolish Egyptian priests.

Jeffrey Katzenberg (the former Disney honcho who is the "K" in "Dreamworks SKG") has gone out of his way to emphasize that The Prince of Egypt is not a religious movie, despite the nature of the source material. This is not intended to be a big budget Bible Story cartoon, but a rousing animated adventure. However, even without resistance from religious groups, The Prince of Egypt still faces a significant obstacle: the large number of family-oriented features clogging the theaters this holiday season. Nevertheless, even in a field that includes A Bug's Life, Babe: Pig in the City, The Rugrats Movie, and Mighty Joe Young, this movie is worth a trip to the local multiplex by viewers of all ages, races, and religious persuasions.

Prince of Egypt, The (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-18
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1