When Dreamworks first set up an animation division to rival Disney, it was a lofty goal. And their first traditionally animated film, The Prince of Egypt, makes some bold steps. Telling the tale of Moses, the film eschews Disney’s traditionally comedic kid-friendly approach to animation, in favor of a more serious, more adult style of animation. Their experiment is a success. While not a perfect film, its rich visuals join with a strong storyline to create a true animated epic.
Fearing a population explosion, the Egyptian Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart) orders the murder of all Hebrew babies. One Hebrew mother (Ofra Haza) places her baby in a reed basket, and floats him down the Nile to avoid his fate. Miraculously, the child ends up in the royal palace, where the queen (Helen Mirren) adopts him and raises the baby Moses as her own son.
Flash forward several years. Prince Moses (Val Kilmer) and his elder brother Prince Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) are a pair of royal troublecausers. They’re particularly annoying to the royal priests, Hotep and Huy (Steve Martin and Martin Short). However, Rameses, the future Pharaoh, is also constantly worried about living up to the high expectations set by his father. Moses, on the other hand, is unaware of his true identity, until a chance encounter with his real brother and sister (Jeff Goldblum and Sandra Bullock), that is.
The brotherly conflict continues through adulthood, when each prince takes a different path. Rameses takes the throne and tries to expand and surpass his father’s empire. Moses abandons his adopted family, and instead opts for the life of a simple shepherd, and marriage to the fiesty Tzipporah (Michelle Pfieffer). But God has another destiny in mind for Moses…one which will put him at odds with his former brother, but which may finally grant freedom to the suffering Hebrew slaves.
With it’s star studded cast, The Prince of Egypt suffers from the same spot-the-star syndrome of Dreamworks’ previous animated film, Antz. Rather than blending seamlessly into the characters, the celebrity voices leap to the forefront of your consciousness every time someone speaks. (It’s particularly distracting when The Voice Of God issues forth, and, rather than being awe-struck, you’re thinking, “Hey, isn’t that Val Kilmer…”.)
The animation of The Prince of Egypt is nothing short of spectacular. The special effects are appropriately awe-inspiring, but the film excels at character detail as well. If you’re an animation enthusiast, the quality here alone makes this film a must-see.
However, good animation aside, The Prince of Egypt can never quite shake the mediciney feeling that this is animation which is supposed to be “good-for-you”…both spiritually and visually. The film flows best when it simply relaxes and lets the story unfold. However, there is a stiff formality that hangs over several scenes of the movie. It feels like everyone involved tensed up at the same moment when they realized they were doing something “important”, and that translated on screen.
The Prince of Egypt has a big story to tell, and only 100 minutes in which to tell it. As a result, the story feels awfully rushed. Some events are glossed over in montages, others (particularly the events after the Red Sea) are mostly ignored.
Young children might get confused or frightened during some of the film’s more intense scenes (the plagues, for example). But, for the most part, the film is structured simply enough that kids should be able to follow the story. And though comic relief isn’t stressed nearly as highly as the standard Disney fare, there are some good humorous bits here and there.
The flaws of The Prince of Egypt could be summed up by saying Dreamworks was trying too hard. The result is thoroughly watchable, and, at times, technically brilliant, but a little stiff, awkward and rushed in places.