Drawn Out

Race and religion: DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt

The Prince of Egypt
area theaters, starts Friday

Our decade-long animation revival is also a rut, a worn path facing limited horizons. Anyone who's seen more than a couple of abrasive/cuddly Disney sidekicks knows what I'm talking about. DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt suggests some avenues away from this rut; for one thing, it has no sidekicks, abrasive or cuddly. On the other hand, its horizons are flat enough as it is.

Aggressively hyped as a serious, theologically respectful alternative to other cartoons, this dramatization of the life of Moses would seem to point the way to a safe new franchise. Even though there's already a small market in spiritual videos for kids, there hasn't been much business yet for religious animated features. There's an even greater "branding opportunity" for film/video product that addresses Jews as well as Gentiles on their shared territory, the Old Testament. In fact, a well-made movie that fits this niche would amount to a license to print money--and with no pesky author's rights to negotiate.

Given this leeway, the DreamWorks animators often rise to their opportunity as they apply ink and paint to Exodus's great story. The first impression The Prince of Egypt makes is its scale; as little Moses drifts off in his bulrush bassinet, he quickly enters a raging torrent of hungry hippos and uncaring oars, shown from his level. Later, as a headstrong teen (voiced by Val Kilmer), Moses skids around the Pharaoh's city as if it were his own immense and luxurious playground. In hot-rodding chariot races with his adoptive brother Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), he encounters precipitous drops, wide vistas, and testosterone overload--we're in James Bond/Indiana Jones/Jackie Chan territory. That's clear long before the parting of the Red Sea, which is as strong a scene as it needs to be.

As with Disney's Mulan, The Prince of Egypt's visual power is its greatest asset and innovation. Added to the sense of scale is a stronger reliance on pure imagery to tell the story: One passage establishes a new benchmark of animated introspection, as Moses confronts his growing doubts about his heritage during a dream sequence rendered in the form of animated hieroglyphics. The Pharaoh's edict to kill firstborn Jewish boys, his enslavement of the Jews, and Moses' own hidden identity are all acted out, pantomime-fashion, by stylized figures with a hint of incised "depth" along the contours of a palace wall. It's a knockout effect. Similar show-off peaks occur with the final plague against the Egyptians (a nasty vortex of white death, creeping into households and draining the city of color), and practically all of the renditions of such natural phenomena as swirling waves, sand dunes, and placid waters. The animators' style is both distinctly non-Disney and nearly photographic at these points.

If only the entire movie were so trusting of its images. Happily buying into other current ruts, The Prince of Egypt revisits the Broadway musical. Understandably, the model isn't Grease or Kiss Me Kate this time out, but more ponderous fare--Les Misérables, say. At least the music is vaguely Middle Eastern, with some lyrics sung in Hebrew. But why does The Prince of Egypt have to be a musical in the first place? So Whitney Houston can sell yet another crossover album?

Certainly, the movie's limitations would be more glaring without songs, since the scripted dialogue is perfunctory, expository stuff. It's not so much aimed at a kid-level common denominator as it is stripped of poetry. There's some energetic verbal sparring between Moses and Rameses, and the Yank/Brit vocal disparity sets off an interesting subplot. (So, Moses is a Yankee boy, then?) But other celebrity throats--Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Sharon Stone, and even Steve Martin and Martin Short--are entrusted to material more worthy of a bland fundraising concert than an ecumenical work of art. (In addition to all the religious leaders DreamWorks consulted, the studio might have sought a few top writers of children's literature.)

For centuries, proselytizers and evangelists have been trying to get the masses hooked on faith. Sometimes they sidestep the thorny language (and deeper ideas) of religion with the pure emotion of pictures, as with stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and those lame filmstrips I once saw at Vacation Bible School. The Prince of Egypt takes up this same challenge, and at times it seems a state-of-the-art equivalent to an extraordinary altar triptych. But in the process, it assumes that rote musical numbers are enough to put behind the pictures. This may sound like an unfair requirement, but for much of its length, The Prince of Egypt fails to present its hero as a human being. Even by the standards of book-loving Belle or the misbegotten Buzz Lightyear and Woody, this Moses character just isn't as well-drawn.

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