|Prince of Egypt, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 14 September 1999|
Historically, the combination of animation and religion has not been thought of as either sophisticated or engaging. The mixture has generally resulted in pieces that are stiff in scripting, acting and artwork, usually to be banished to some barbaric hour of the morning on a local station.
"The Prince of Egypt" broke the mold on all counts when it was released theatrically in 1998. A full-length animated feature film from DreamWorks, this retelling of the Biblical saga of Moses not only has remarkable special effects and a script (credited to Philip LaZabnik, with additional material by Nicholas Meyer) more nuanced than many live-action screenplays of recent years, but it boasts some wonderfully rich characterizations. The team of animators, under the direction of Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, creates performances so emotional and varied that at certain moments, it’s possible to forget that the characters’ facial expressions are brought to us by illustrators rather than actors.
It would be hard to grow up in Western culture without hearing some version of the Moses story. A carefully-worded prologue, eager to avoid giving offense, explains that while some details have been altered, the spirit of what we’re about to see is in keeping with a story that is key to three of the world’s great religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
When Moses is a Hebrew infant in Egypt, his loving mother places him in a wicker basket and casts him into the Nile, thereby saving him from the soldiers of Pharoah (voiced by Patrick Stewart). Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) is found by Pharoah’s wife (voiced by Helen Mirren) and reared as a prince, younger brother to heir to the throne Rameses (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). The siblings have a loving if competitive relationship. Moses is at first stunned, then livid, when the Hebrew slave Miriam (voiced by Sandra Bullock) insists that he is really her brother, who will surely lead his people to freedom.
A dream – an ingenious use of frieze-style art in Chapter 9, contrasting with the more fluid, naturalistic animation of the film’s depiction of waking life – allows Moses to recall his infancy. He realizes that the man he calls "father" is guilty of genocide. When Moses kills an Egyptian overseer who is brutalizing a Jewish slave, he flees into the desert. There Moses falls in love with the beautiful Tzipporah (voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer) and lives contentedly as a shepherd – until he hears a voice emanating from a burning bush that commands him to return to Egypt and lead his people out of bondage.
What follows – the 10 plagues (in Chapters 20, 21 and 23), the Exodus (Chapter 24, with the soaring ballad "When You Believe"), the parting of the Red Sea (Chapters 25 and 26) – are so visually dramatic and disturbing that at times they border on classic horror imagery, rather than hewing to the soothing vistas more readily associated with popular American animation. The deployment of the plague that strikes at the first-born of the Egyptians is especially creepy, yet nothing in "Prince of Egypt" is so graphic that it cannot be viewed by most youngsters (although it may be too strong for very small and/or timid children).
After listening to two DreamWorks animated musicals on DVD within the span of a few days, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the team supervising the mix for home video really know what they are doing. The elements on the DTS mix are often placed discretely within the system. On songs, the melody emanates from the center, with harmonies in the left and right mains and music fill and ambient sounds in the rears, all blending together beautifully for a rich, encompassing effect. In Chapter 7, a song begins a cappella in the center and is then dramatically joined by music from the mains and rears.
As for sound effects, "The Prince of Egypt" can give "Die Hard" a run for its money. it is seriously advisable to remove sensitive house pets from the room prior to the ferocious rumbling of Chapter 3’s chariot race, punctuated by the fall of a huge stone from a great height that seems to slam earthward into all of the speakers, sub emphatically included. Chapter 11 proves that the delicate effects are equally well handled, with the tiny splashes of birds landing on water provided for the corresponding imagery. Chapter 12 goes back to high volume, with masses of running feet traveling directionally through the system. Chapter 13 has a deafening sandstorm. By Chapter 15, you notice the extreme contrast between the quiet ambience and the power of the sound effects track in full cry, with soft but distinct whispering voices and the tinkling of sheep bells in the left main. The parting of the Red Sea in Chapters 25 and 26 is everything that the preceding acoustic excellence would lead you to expect.
The most intriguing part of the plentiful supplemental material here is what’s billed as the "multi-language" presentation of the Oscar-winning ballad "When You Believe." As we watch, a caption tells us what language we’re hearing as the vocals switch apparently seamlessly from English to Dutch to Japanese to you name it – including two different dialects of Spanish and two more of Portuguese.
Describing "The Prince of Egypt" runs the risk of making the film sound like something other than what it is. While it is sober-minded compared to many other animated musicals, it is still made by people who innately understand that they are in the entertainment business – there is humor, romance and accessible heroism of the sort found in live-action features, simply brought to us in different form. The filmmakers avoid easy animation attention-getters – talking animals, wisecracking sidekicks – but the action sequences are still remarkably vigorous. God is a mysterious, powerful presence, but the Supreme Being doesn’t lecture Moses on whys and wherefores.
The big flourishes like towering walls of water separating or the land being overrun by every type of disaster are so impressive that one might overlook what is arguably the greatest example of the animators’ craft here. The range of emotions brought to each of the main characters’ faces is outstanding.
The voice cast is excellent, especially Fiennes, who makes Rameses’ misery at being abandoned by his brother and his panic at the idea of letting Dad down so palpable that we feel just a little sorry for him despite everything. Kilmer does a fine job with Moses’ initial playfulness, eventual bafflement and final sad determination. He also provides the voice of the Almighty – oddly enough, Kilmer sounds more like himself as the burning bush than he does as Moses.
"The Prince of Egypt" manages to dramatize a religious epic in a manner that should be palatable to believers and non-believers alike. This is no mean feat in itself, and the film also holds its own as engrossing filmmaking.