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Prince of Egypt

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Prince of Egypt

Starring: Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock
Director: Brenda Chapman
Rated: PG
RunTime: 99 Minutes
Release Date: December 1998
Genres: Animation, Kids, Music

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Perhaps the most dramatic story in all of the Bible is found in Exodos, what with plagues and bugs, pestilence and floods, a burning bush, and a snake emerging from a rod. There's the parting of the Red Sea, the blood clot of the Nile, the voice of the Creator (not to be confused with "The Truman Show") and, golly, after all this, who could doubt that a man could walk on water? Only a major film studio could one-up all this, and which company (save Disney) could do the job better than DreamWorks, whose contribution so far this year must give many a kid second thoughts before stepping on a hill of ants? DreamWorks goes the Creator a few steps further. Not only do the hundreds of people who had been involved with the construction of "The Lion King" duplicate the vast miracles of the Old Testament's second book: they have the Egyptian hieroglyphics, already one of the world's marvels, come to life and bounce around while the animators pay homage to the ancient protocol of keeping the figures sideways.

With a bevy of original songs penned by Stephen Schwartz--who avoids the Andrew Lloyd Webber conventions to inject faintly Hebraic melodies--the cast of thousands act out the themes of the lyrics: everything from the suffering of the slaves to the prejudices of one people toward another, without ignoring the heroics of the title character who trusts in God though faced with possible death. These themes give the film its contemporary relevance, but of course a correspondence between art and life is only the beginning of what makes a grand movie. "The Prince of Egypt" is imposing because it pushes the animation into a whole new look, one which deals credibly and even thrillingly with human beings engaged in an epic struggle without the crutch of cute animals by their side and nary a trace of extraneous and contrived comic relief.

The voices of major performers in the U.S. and Britain are so robust and convincing that we wish only that they could make a regular movie with the force of this eloquent animation. The story of Exodus is embellished by dramatic effect but, as the filmmakers state, the emotional truths are retained.

In a widescreen shot that borrows from the Great Man Cecil B. DeMille himself, downtrodden slaves are constructing the pyramids under the whips of the Pharoah's overseers. How that ancient civilization was able to build such structures is not as mystifying as we thought, given the thousands toiling away, dragging stones and hauling them to huge heights, the skyscrapers of their day. Because Egyptians were killing Hebrew infants, Moses (Val Kilmer) is floated down the Nile in a covered basket, rescued by the Egyptian queen (Helen Mirren) and promised safe haven, where he is raised as though he were the brother of the crown prince, Rameses (Ralph Fiennes). The adolescent friendship between Rameses and Moses--who had every reason to believe he was a member of the royal Egyptian family--should please many a teen today. Then as now the young men got their kicks from risky adventures: in Moses' day the two "brothers" raced around town in chariots, not shying away from bumping each other like the drivers of the scooter cars in Coney Island.

Moses ultimately learns from his real brother Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) and sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) that he is one of the Hebrew people and not, as he had thought, an Egyptian prince. Doubting and resisting, Moses is convinced upon hearing the voice from the Burning Bush, "I am that I am, the God of your fathers."

When Moses agrees to chuck his regal prerogatives and fight for his people, all hell breaks loose on the Egyptians. Rameses, who has now become Pharaoh, soon tires of his "brother"'s pleas to free the Hebrew slaves, but when he refuses to let the oppressed people go, his kingdom turns into a modern Baghdad of woes, only far worse. And here is where the animators are turned loose. In a series of vehement and bloody scenes, some worthy of a Stephen King drama worked over by John Carpenter, a foggy presence seeps through the homes of all Egyptians, killing the first-born in each case while passing over the homes of the Hebrews (which have been marked by the blood of a lamb). Bugs crawl out of bread, ants cover the bodies of the overlords, fire drizzles from the heavens, and large insects descend like locusts from "The Good Earth." As Pharoah-- whose promises are as reliable as Saddam's--permits the Hebrews to leave, his soldiers attack. Moses and his followers sweep across the Red Sea, which has parted miraculously and which closes upon the armies of the Egyptian soldiers. Safely on shore, Moses ultimately receives the 10 Commandments and is shown holding the tablet aloft as thousands of his grateful adherents gaze in wonder.

If the makers of this extraordinary film have you seeing the Bible's most dramatic story through fresh eyes, credit the vision of the DreamWorks team. Eschewing the literal and using the story as a jumping off point, they have turned an already moving and universal written tale into cinematic poetry.

Just before the film began, the theater showed what is the most creative little histories of film, using muppets to explain the century's old story of celluloid from the beginning. First there was neither sound nor visuals--not very exciting. Then came visuals but no sound. Soon microphones were added and we entered the world of talkies, followed by color, wide- screen and special effects. What they might have added was that "The Prince of Egypt" is another historic breakdown, not as momentous a jump as the others, but nonetheless the first time an exciting, full-length animation utilizing both computer techniques and traditional procedures gloriously transcends the boundary between youthful fare and adult entertainment.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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