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It's Taken More Than One Leap of Faith

Creating 'The Prince of Egypt' led Jeffrey Katzenberg and his DreamWorks associates to throw out most of animated film's rules. Will it pay off at the box office?

November 22, 1998|AMY WALLACE | Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

The meeting, as Jeffrey Katzenberg described it to the four DreamWorks SKG executives who gathered in his Glendale office last month, was "11th hour, 59th minute." Eight weeks before the December opening of "The Prince of Egypt," the animated biblical epic that has been Katzenberg's obsession for the past four years, two trailers advertising the film were about to air. One wasn't working.

"The original trailer has a rhythm going through it. This one doesn't have the same grandeur," Katzenberg said, his voice urgent, his gaze fixed on a monitor as the offending promo played. Around him, sunk deep in overstuffed armchairs, sat marketing chief Terry Press, co-heads of production Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald, and creative exec Peter Adee. Katzenberg stood fidgeting against the wall, too wired to sit.

As the VCR whirred, everyone agreed where the problem lay. The promo slowed down in the middle, when Moses--the film's central character--and his brother-turned-nemesis Rameses traded heated words. Katzenberg acted swiftly. "Take out Moses' response," he said as the reel ended with a burst of song from Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

Then, as Carey and Houston wailed, Katzenberg did something strange: He shivered. "I have an involuntary response whenever they sing that note," he told the room, his words suddenly warm. For a moment, the 47-year-old executive looked calm, as if the biggest gamble of his life might pay off after all.

These are nervy times for Katzenberg. Four years after he founded DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, the studio's first home-grown animated film--"The Prince of Egypt"--will be released Dec. 18. (The computer-animated "Antz," released by DreamWorks in October, was produced by a sister company, PDI.) This movie is the story of Exodus. It is serious (not funny), aimed at adults (not kids) and, dauntingly, religious.

It's never wise to bet against Katzenberg, but the talk in Hollywood these days goes like this: He's either a genius, or he's nuts.

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Katzenberg, who spent 10 years at Disney shepherding huge hits like "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King," has set out to redefine what animation can do, using advanced technology to tell the kinds of adventure dramas and romances that usually are reserved for live-action films. But instead of nipping and tucking at the time-tested formula invented by Walt Disney himself, DreamWorks has used "The Prince of Egypt" to turn animation on its head.

There is an earnestness about the film and its makers that is at once charming and odd, given the genre's usual playfulness. "POE," as the movie is known at DreamWorks, has no fast-food tie-ins or movie-related toys. Instead, the Wal-Mart chain--unabashed promoter of family values--has signed up to hype the film in its stores. Hundreds of religious leaders and scholars were consulted during the production. And this may be the first animated movie ever to begin with a disclaimer.

"While artistic and historical license has been taken," the card reads in part, "we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide."

Sound a tad heavy? If you had as much at stake as DreamWorks--and particularly Katzenberg--you'd be solemn too. The driven executive, who has yet to collect on his $250-million breach-of-contract suit against Disney, has made no secret of his desire to best his former employer. Though he can speak graciously about Disney as the place where "I met animation and fell in love with her," it seems important to Katzenberg to be seen as having graduated to a higher level of the craft. Comparing Disney films with "The Prince of Egypt," he says, is like comparing "apples and submarines."

"There's a 70-year tradition that we've all grown up on called fairy tales for toddlers told in cartooning. What's 180 degrees to the other side of that? I believe that's what we've made," said Katzenberg, who is so proud of the project that he took an executive producer credit for the first time in his career--an unusual move for someone at his level. "This isn't live action and it's not a cartoon. It's something new. Therein lies both its greatest potential and its greatest hurdle."

For DreamWorks Animation, an entire creative philosophy is riding on the back of "The Prince of Egypt," which the studio says cost about $70 million (competitors put the figure closer to $100 million). DreamWorks already has several more films in the pipeline, which, while more conventional, still break many of the rules of traditional animated fare.

Katzenberg says he will happily be "on the table dancing" if "POE" merely makes back its production costs, becoming the second-largest-grossing non-Disney animated film after "Antz." But clearly, the better it does, the rosier the future for DreamWorks' upcoming projects and the sweeter Katzenberg's personal vindication.

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