"THE PRINCE OF EGYPT"|
99 minutes | Rated: PG
Opened: Friday, December 18, 1998
Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner & Simon Wells
Voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Patrick Stewart, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin & Martin Short
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 60%|
LETTERBOX: IT WOULD HELP
Epics don't translate well to the tube. Biblical epics, doubly so. This is a biblical that sidestep the plagues and pestilence and throws in silly sidekicks to boot. "Prince" was pretty iffy in theaters and to have its punch reduced on a 20" Trintron won't help.
VIDEO RELEASE: 9/14/99
'Prince of Egypt' tries too hard to mold Biblical epic into standard American cartoon
Who'd have ever thought Biblical plagues and pestilence could be summed up in a four-minute musical montage? Who'd have ever thought Moses could be reduced to an lightly austere cartoon hero with a furrowed brow and a sassy slave girl for a wife?
Welcome to "The Prince of Egypt," a handsomely animated but accelerated, pretentious -- and often silly at the same time -- glossing-over of the Biblical story of Moses.
A beautiful production with honorable intentions, this picture, a pet project of DreamWorks exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, trips over its lofty aims by trying to force the square peg of grim, heavy-handed Old Testament narrative into the round hole of the kiddie-oriented American animation market.
Featuring handsome, hieroglyph-inspired character design and powerful, stirring voice performances from Val Kilmer as Moses and especially Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, "Price of Egypt" attempts to stakes its ground as something more than just a somber cartoon. But over-produced (and sometimes very out of place) musical numbers and an over-simplified script that deceptively skirts anything truly unpleasant leave this movie balancing precariously between the two genres it tries to marry.
The story opens with the baby Moses being set adrift on the Nile river, but never adequately explains why. This is the first of several scenes in which a working knowledge of Exodus (or at least a previous viewing of DeMille's "The Ten Commandments") is necessary to connect the dots as the narrative tries to avoid becoming too dark.
Moses is found by the Egyptian Queen (voiced by Helen Mirren) and raised as her son with his brother Rameses, the heir to the throne, leading to a brotherly rivalry that is established in a playful and overly showy chariot race scene through the streets of Cairo.
But soon thereafter Moses meets his real brother and sister (Jeff Goldblum and Sandra Bullock) in the streets, discovers his Hebrew heritage and has an epiphany about the evils of slavery during the film's most ingenious sequence -- a symbolic, hallucinatory dream in which temple hieroglyphics come to life and act out on the sandstone walls the events of following Pharaoh's decree that all first born Hebrew males be murdered.
Moses leaves the Pharaoh's palace to find himself in the desert, and returns years later to lead the slaves to freedom after a pow-wow with the burning bush.
The strongest non-visual element of "Prince of Egypt" is the emotional bond between Moses and Rameses, who is now Pharaoh and refuses to release the slaves (until after the wrath of god plagues and pestilence montage).
But just as the film is beginning look like it might signal a new maturity for American animation, it falls back on those traditional 'toon accouterments, the bumbling sidekicks (Steve Martin and Martin Short voicing Egyptian priests) and the big production number (the priests answer one of Moses's miracles with an ill-advised and rather forced ditty called "Playing With the Big Boys" -- yeish!).
"The Prince of Egypt" is not inherently flawed, but its attempt to conform to the precepts of the family cartoon category while posturing as some kind of high brow epic leaves it coming up short in both regards.
The CGI-heavy parting of the Red Sea is the best example of how this mixed formula fails the movie. The exodus scene that precedes it, like much of the film, takes its visual cues from the 1956 "Ten Commandments" -- then comes this slick, computerized and, yes, very impressive sequence that includes such embellishments as a whale swimming by in the wall of water as if the Hebrews are passing through SeaWorld as they walk along the marine floor. The scene feels a bit out of place in the hand-painted, DeMille-inspired world of the rest of the film.
Then from the exodus and the Red Sea the film jumps immediately, in one instantaneous cut, to a triumphant shot of Moses, silhouetted against a golden sunset, descending Mt. Sinai with the Commandments in his arms -- and bang! The credits roll.
I guess all that intricate business about the Hebrews' losing faith and succumbing to paganism, orgy and false prophets was just too much for "Prince of Egypt" to handle.
Directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells try for the powerful and deeply symbolic, but because of the blinders they wear in order to keep the movie kid-friendly, they come away with something impressively staged but inconsequential.