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'Egypt': The Newest Testament

The animation dazzles, but some of the biblical power gets lost in the retelling.

December 18, 1998|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

As the slaves of Egypt worked for years building impressive monuments along the Nile, so the hordes of considerably better paid workers at DreamWorks labored mightily (318,000 hours of rendering time for the seven-minute parting of the Red Sea alone) to create "The Prince of Egypt," the animated retelling of one of the Bible's greatest hits--the saga of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrews from bondage to Pharaoh.

From the point of view of the sheer spectacle of animation, the time was certainly well-spent. Using both computer-generated and traditional methods, the 400-member-strong "Prince of Egypt" team (led by directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells and ramrodded by executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg) have created a succession of visual wonders.

Even Cecil B. DeMille, who parted those waters twice in silent and sound versions of "The Ten Commandments," would likely be won over by this animated attempt, and miracles like a pillar of fire are potent enough to turn atheists into believers.

Equally impressive is the sense of scale and space the workers have given ancient Egypt. Apparently helped by a new piece of software that combines 2-D and 3-D animation in the same frame, "Prince of Egypt" creates buildings so immense and breathtaking they're capable of inducing vertigo as the camera tours us through them.

But even in an animated feature, visuals alone, no matter how successful, are not enough. And despite having this sturdy biblical tale to work with, despite being faithful enough to the spirit of the story to please a wide swath of scholars and theologians, the creators of "Prince of Egypt" have been unable to relate it in a completely compelling way. Perhaps inevitably, the film's modernizations have distanced the story from its birthright of biblical power.

Much has been made of "Prince of Egypt's" attempts to do without what's become the expected musical comedy structure for modern animation. While cute animal sidekicks have been banished, having a complete lack of humor was apparently unthinkable, so Steve Martin and Martin Short were brought in to voice a pair of wacky Egyptian high priests, Hotep and Huy.

What "Prince of Egypt" also decided it couldn't do without is musical numbers. The film's seven songs, written by Stephen Schwartz with music by Hans Zimmer, are acceptable, but not even vocal talent like the haunting Israeli singer Ofra Haza can make these interludes as memorable as we'd like them to be.

Also problematical is the way this Old Testament story is structured to fit into what's become standard animation forms. We have Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), the future bride of Moses, turned into a feisty protofeminist who takes no guff from the male sex. And by changing the woman who discovers the baby Moses from the Pharaoh's daughter to his wife (Helen Mirren), the stage is set for having the plot turn on sibling rivalry plus classic father-son conflicts between the Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart) and both blood son Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) and adopted son Moses (Val Kilmer).

Then there's "Prince of Egypt's" penchant for modern, colloquial dialogue. Amid all this visual pomp and splendor, it's disconcerting to have the royal family of Egypt act and sound like the folks next-door. It's not clear that we really want a Moses who walks around the palace saying, "This place, so many memories," and confronts the troubled new Pharaoh with an empathetic "Rameses, please, talk to me."

(Interestingly enough, "Prince of Egypt" does not have a "screenplay by" credit. Under the "story" category, Philip La Zebnik is listed as "writer" and Nicholas Meyer has an "additional screenplay material" credit, but it seems likely that the writing of this film was a kind of collaborative event.)

The film's most effective song is probably its first one, "Deliver Us," which capably sets up the situation of weary Hebrews slaving under the lash of the Egyptians and Moses' mother responding to a wave of infanticide by setting her baby afloat on the Nile.

We catch up to Moses and Rameses when they've become high-spirited young men, prone to damage-causing chariot races and in general acting very much like two irrepressible, irresponsible fraternity brothers at a large Middle Eastern university.

A chance encounter with the captive Tzipporah eventually leads Moses to secret siblings Miriam (Sandra Bullock), another strong woman, and the ambivalent Aaron (Jeff Goldblum). Moses is not happy to hear he's a Hebrew, but a terrifying dream (a bravura piece of animation the filmmakers call the "Hieroglyphic Nightmare") helps convince him.

Circumstances then force Moses to flee to the desert, where he runs into Tzipporah and her father, the jovial Jethro (Danny Glover), and has that celebrated encounter with a burning bush. That sends him back to Egypt to make the legendary request to stepbrother Rameses, the new Pharaoh in town, to let his people go.

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