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A-list voices flock to Dreamworks’ ‘Egypt’

Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Danny Glover, all in one movie? And an animated movie at that? Holy Moses!

Using top Hollywood talent to voice animated characters has become increasingly common. But for “The Prince of Egypt,” DreamWorks’ animated life of Moses from bulrush to exodus, which is currently in production and slated for a November 1998 release, directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells and the production team (including toon-buff studio chiefs Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg) never took their eyes off the A-list.

“I didn’t come in with the expectation that only one type of actor does animation,” says Penney Finkelman Cox, co-producer (with Sandra Rabins) of the film. “We went for our pipe dreams and we got them all.”

Among the reason so many top stars signed up for the assignment is that in terms of time commitment, animation is the easiest medium in which to perform. “Many of them may have worked only in three to five half-day (recording) sessions over a period of three years,” states Leslee Feldman, head of casting at DreamWorks. “And we do it completely at their convenience, wherever in the world they are.”

In the case of Kilmer, who portrays Moses, a recording team jetted to London, where the actor was on location. Another crew flew to Australia to grab an evening with Fiennes, who is cast as the Pharaoh Rameses. According to Feldman, the results are worth the trouble. “Frankly, we have gotten performances that we think are head-and-shoulders above anybody else who has done this before,” she says. “The biggest asset (of using superstars) is what wonderful actors these people are.”

Another important reason for the stars’ willingness, according to Feldman, is that many of them are parents themselves. “They want to do something that their kids can watch,” she says.

While most dialogue recording for animation is done one-on-one with the actors and directors, particularly in the case of busy superstars, the “Prince of Egypt” team tried to bring the performers together whenever possible. Steve Martin and Martin Short, playing comic court magicians, shared the recording booth, as did Goldblum and Bullock, who play Aaron and Miriam. For Fiennes and Kilmer, however, the scheduling proved impossible.

“We never got Ralph and Val together,” notes Cox, “but we finally came up with a system where we would feed Ralph’s lines on tape to Val, and feed Val’s lines to Ralph. Both of them found it quite helpful.”

The producers also tried to keep script writers close by during recording sessions, for on-the-spot changes. “You try to hear the way the actors take something and make it come alive, but if they’re in the booth and they don’t make it come alive, there’s got be something wrong with the line,” Cox states.

The film’s writing and story team (Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook are head of story) already had their hands full with the delicate task of taking a story that is a building block of three major religions and turning it into a piece of pop entertainment. “The more we investigated how meaningful and significant the story was, the more we felt the need to be responsible,” says Cox.

“At the same time, to spend four years of our lives making this an animated feature, or as Jeffrey (Katzenberg) prefers to say, ‘a live-action movie that happens to be drawn,’ we had to find a way to do it that was entertaining.”

The story’s built-in spectacles, including the parting of the Red Sea (which Cox anticipates will be “seven of the most exciting minutes ever done in animation”) and the exodus itself, were vital in achieving that goal. In addition, the filmmakers have added a “fun” chariot race between Moses and Rameses as boys.

While the animated pictures that follow “The Prince of Egypt” may not have that same level of spectacle, they will have voice casts of the same caliber. DreamWorks’ next animated project, the all-CGI “Antz” (produced with Pacific Data Images), features the voices of Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, Christopher Walken, Jennifer Lopez, Dan Aykroyd and Paul Mazursky.

“It’s hard to believe, but you will continue to see casts of this level,” promises Feldman.

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