"It's unlike anything you've seen before"--words that have been intoned
many times by many a studio chief trying to wrap a veneer of freshness
around another stale assembly-line product. But coming from Jeffrey
Katzenberg, the "K" in DreamWorks SKG, in reference to the company's first
traditional animated feature, _The_Prince_of_Egypt_, the statement is,
well, gospel. _Prince_ is unlike any animated feature ever made, a musical
drama that just _happens_ to be completely drawn. It's epic in every sense
of the word, from subject, spectacle, sentiment, and, most of all,
seriousness--and, as such, I have no idea how it will be received by the
_Prince_'s larger-than-animated-life intentions are clearly--and most
memorably--spelled out by directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and
Simon Wells in the prologue. "Deliver us to the promised land," pray the
Hebrews held in bondage by the Egyptian pharaoh Seti (voice of Patrick
Stewart) as Yocheved (Ofra Haza) sets her infant son Moses adrift on a
river in an attempt to spare him the life of a slave--and possibly free his
people in the future. Moses is rescued from the sea by the Queen (spoken
by Helen Mirren, sung by Linda Dee Shayne), who takes Moses in as her own.
This sequence is truly astonishing, from the visuals to the haunting song
that scores it, "Deliver Us," composed by Stephen Schwartz.
The opening is just one in a long line of spectacular sequences in this
treatment of the Book of Exodus, in which Moses's (spoken as an adult by a
full-voiced Val Kilmer, sung by Amick Byram) bond with adoptive brother and
eventual pharaoh Rameses (Ralph Fiennes, well-cast) is broken after he
discovers his true identity--and calling--and crusades for his people's
freedom. The animators exploit all that the medium currently offers and
then elevate it to the next level: a harrowing nightmare scene is made even
more chilling by being told in pantomime through hieroglyhics; and
computer-generated effects are effectively, and unobtrusively, used to
enhance such crucial scenes as Moses's encounter with the burning bush, the
deaths of the firstborns, and the dazzling parting of the Red Sea.
Artistically speaking in the literal sense, _Prince_ is easily the most
impressive animated feature ever made.
But there's more to the film than awesome visuals, which would be empty
without an absorbing story and characters. _Prince_ has both, regardless
of the viewer's religious beliefs; the themes of brotherhood, freedom, and
faith (in oneself) are universal, and they resonate strongest in the film's
quieter scenes. In fact, these quieter scenes hold the most lasting
impact: simple moments like Moses feeling the desert sand blow over his
entire body, or, my personal favorite, the song number "When You Believe,"
which is currently out as an overblown pop single performed by Whitney
Houston and Mariah Carey. The film version, sung to Moses by his sister
Miriam (spoken by Sandra Bullock, sung by Sally Dworsky) and wife Tzipporah
(spoken _and_ sung by Michelle Pfeiffer, in fine vocal form) is beautiful
and transcendent, building a muted yet no less powerful crescendo of
complex emotion; in the pop version, any and all emotion is lost under all
the diva bluster.
Schwartz, a veteran lyricist for Disney animated efforts (the two most
underrated, _Pocahontas_ and _The_Hunchback_of_Notre_Dame_), also writes
the melodies here, and his song score is not without a couple of missteps.
"Playing with the Big Boys," sung by Rameses's court magicians Hotep (Steve
Martin) and Huy (Martin Short) is a throwaway, and the just-OK "Through
Heaven's Eyes," sung by Tzipporah's father Jethro (spoken by Danny Glover,
sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell), is redeemed by the dramatic importance of
the scene it accompanies. By and large, Schwartz does a more than adequate
job, exemplified by his two standout compositions, the aforementioned
"Deliver Us" and "When You Believe." However, Schwartz's work comes close
to being overshadowed by Hans Zimmer's towering score, which is sure to win
an Oscar nomination.
As superlative as _The_Prince_of_Egypt_ is, in all likelihood, it will not
receive its just due from the moviegoing masses weaned on the
tried-and-true Disney animated recipe of singing animals and easy comic
relief; there is neither here, and the religious themes will undoubtedly
keep many away. And that is a shame, for not only _Prince_ is a landmark
cinematic achievement, the entire fate of its medium is dependent on its
financial success. Robust box office would not only pose a long-overdue
animation threat to Disney, but it would also erase the medium's "kids'
movie" stigma, allowing filmmakers to explore the medium's heretofore
untapped potential through more complex, serious, and adult themes. But,
as the film's signature song goes, "There can be miracles when you
believe"--a statement that does hold some water in the fickle movie