Far more than a cartoon rendering of a much-beloved Bible story, DreamWorks' four-years-in-the-making "The Prince of Egypt" proves an outstanding artistic achievement that, along with the studio's "Antz," further ups the ante in high-stakes feature animation.

Far more than a cartoon rendering of a much-beloved Bible story, DreamWorks’ four-years-in-the-making “The Prince of Egypt” proves an outstanding artistic achievement that, along with the studio’s “Antz,” further ups the ante in high-stakes feature animation. At once rich in historic and character detail and full of eye-popping tableaux, this new spin on the Moses saga sometimes out-DeMilles DeMille’s 1956 live-action epic, “The Ten Commandments.” Alas, the PG-rated pic’s appropriately dour tone and admirable refusal to play down to little ones with farcical time-outs — no talking camels or Sphinx-like Siamese, if you please — will hobble it at the box office. Discerning adults who don’t do animation solo would appear to be target audience for a film that will be more admired than enjoyed. B.O. promised land will be deferred until cable and TV playdates, when the story’s timeless appeal will translate into perennial holiday bookings as well as video.

An oft-described labor of love for DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who at Disney helped marshal “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” this loose adaptation of the Moses saga in the Book of Exodus plays like an abbreviated, considerably less vulgar version of the story DeMille filmed twice. To head off criticism from scholars for license taken (baby Moses is now rescued by Pharaoh’s wife, not daughter; Moses back from exile now resembles a goateed rocker rather than an ancient prophet), “Prince” opens with disclaimer that all to follow is true to the “essence and values” of the Bible story.

Clearly, changes were made by scenarist Philip LaZebnik and helmers Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells to make the tale more palatable to teens. With Rameses (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and Moses (Val Kilmer, who doubles for a Dolby-surround deity) rewritten as hellion stepbrothers, pic shrewdly milks filial love-gone-sour aspects found in the Joseph and Cain-and-Abel parables.

A seamless combination of traditional animation and state-of-the-art CGI, with Semitic-flavored score by Hans Zimmer (“The Lion King”) and original songs by Stephen Schwartz (“Pocahontas”), pic opens masterfully with an audacious eight-minute musical prologue establishing both the majesty and ruthlessness of ancient Egypt. Moses, per every retelling, is saved from Pharaoh’s forces by his mother, who launches him down the Nile.

New version relies on conventional cliffhanger moments, with Moses the newborn narrowly surviving river hippos and crocs, and the teenage Moses and Rameses drag-racing chariots and lobbing ancient versions of water balloons. The chariot race, up a monument’s switchback scaffolding, is as silly as it is ambitious.

Central conflicts emerge as Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart) reminds Rameses of his duties as divine successor, and Moses, after a chance meeting with his slave sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock), begins to question his own lineage. The truth about his past –and Pharaoh’s genocidal campaign against the Israelites — emerges via a brilliantly conceived dream sequence in which hieroglyphic wall paintings come to life in a mix of 2-D and 3-D animation.

The burning bush encounter and parting of the Red Sea — showstoppers in DeMille’s roadshow — don’t disappoint here either. Visually, both moments are at once reminiscent of the live-action version’s matte paintings and, thanks to 3-D imaging, a marked improvement. Even more impressive is the plague-and-pestilence sequence, which unfolds eerily in monochromatic grays as a ghoulish coil snuffs the life from Egypt’s first born. Grim and all-too-believable, the sequence can take its place beside “Fantasia’s” “Night on Bald Mountain” as one of the scariest moments to find its way into family animation.

In the best tradition of biblical epics, this one boasts a “cast of thousands,” here digitally drawn and rendered in close-up as well as overhead during the grand-scale exodus.

Dramatically, the filmmakers sidestep focus problems by concentrating on only a handful of principals. Of the voice talents employed, Fiennes as the confused and embittered Rameses, Jeff Goldblum as Moses’ older brother Aaron and Danny Glover as the high priest of Midian bring the most dimension to their characters. Kilmer makes a rather lackluster Moses, but manages just the right mix of impatience and pique as The Voice. Steve Martin and Martin Short leave little impression, comic or otherwise, as the Pharaoh’s constantly upstaged magicians, while Michelle Pfeiffer, as a strong-willed shepherdess who eventually marries Moses, suffers from the story’s ambivalent take on biblical sex.

Of the nine new songs — seven interwoven into the plot, two over end credits — only the opening “Deliver Us” (performed by Ofra Haza and Eden Riegel), the contrapuntal “The Plagues” (Fiennes and Moses’ singing voice Amick Byram) and the inspirational “I Will Get There” (Boyz II Men) have lasting appeal.

Martin and Short’s “Playing With the Big Boys” would be right at home on a Vegas stage. The gushy, heavily hyped Whitney Houston-Mariah Carey duet, “When You Believe,” sounds like something recycled from “Pocahontas.”

At 97 minutes, pic is longer than most animated features, but darn-near brisk next to DeMille’s nearly four-hour extravaganza. Appropriately, story ends with Moses delivering commandments, just short of DeMille’s golden-calf orgy.

Overall, material is treated with reverence and restraint, leaving one to question the PG rating, especially when Universal’s much darker “Babe 2: Pig in the City” carries a G.

The Prince of Egypt

(Animated Musical-Drama)

Production

A DreamWorks Pictures release and production. Produced by Penney Finkelman Cox, Sandra Rabins. Executive producer, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells. Screenplay, Philip LaZebnik.

Crew

Supervising editor, Nick Fletcher; music, Hans Zimmer; original songs, Stephen Schwartz; production designer, Darek Gogol; art directors, Kathy Altieri, Richard Chavez; visual effects supervisors, Don Paul, Dan Philips; costume designer, Kelly Kimball; sound (Dolby Digital), Lon Bender, Wylie Statemen; story supervisors, Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook; layout supervisor, Lorenzo E. Martinez; additional screenplay material, Nicholas Meyer; character designers, Carter Goodrich, Carlos Grangel, Nicolas Marlet; 2D department lead, Al Holter; associate producer, Ron Rocha; casting, Leslee Feldman. Reviewed at Camera 3, San Jose, Dec. 9, 1998. MPAA rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Moses, God - Val Kilmer Rameses - Ralph Fiennes Tzipporah - Michelle Pfeiffer Miriam - Sandra Bullock Aaron - Jeff Goldblum Jethro - Danny Glover Pharaoh Seti - Patrick Stewart The Queen - Helen Mirren Hotep - Steve Martin Huy - Martin Short

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