PRINCE OF EGYPT, THEPG
In an era when 'entertainment value' is often the only measure of success or failure, it isn't any wonder the movie musical has been reincarnated as an animated feature. Billed as 'family entertainment,' these films probably won't provide any cathartic moments; on the other hand, you can usually take the children and be reasonably amused-The Rugrats Movie is a good example. However, when the animated musical meanders into the murky waters of what some regard as religious mythology, and what others consider the origin of their religious identity, it reaches the outer realm of its credibility. Witness DreamWorks' second animated feature release, The Prince of Egypt, which traces the life of Moses up to the time of the Exodus (the journey of the Hebrews from Egypt). Whether or not Moses and Aaron actually lived, and whether in fact the Jews existed in large numbers in Egypt at the time of Rameses II-both the topic of historical debate-is perhaps beside the point. The Exodus marked the beginning of Judaism as an organized religion, and it was the birth of monotheism or, in Western history, the shift from the Ancient to the Modern world. Myth or reality, Moses' life is entrenched in the canon of so many disciplines-including psychology and philosophy-that perhaps he's a reasonable subject for all sorts of storytelling.
Despite its masterful animation, and a glib version of Old Testament (a Christian designation) events, The Prince of Egypt leaves you feeling like you've witnessed something that misses the mark. It begins with the popular story of how Moses was set adrift in a reed basket to be found by an Egyptian queen. Unlike its Biblical equivalent, in this version Moses doesn't learn he's a Hebrew until he's an adult. By then, it's difficult for him to break his familial tie to Rameses, his 'brother' and the future Pharaoh, until he mistakenly kills an Egyptian foreman. The foreman is beating a Hebrew slave laboring in a new temple. In the Bible, Moses' act is a crime of passion that sends him into a period of wandering and contemplation. Here, it's fear that compels him to leave his palace home-hardly the stuff of great drama. But who wants drama? This is supposed to be family entertainment, isn't it?
An army of animators, a costume designer and some new technology that allows animators to combine 2D and 3D elements in a scene really do differentiate The Prince of Egypt-the crane shot of an Egyptian temple at the beginning of the film is one example of what the new technology, invented by DreamWorks and Silicon Graphics, can achieve. Animators also created new techniques which allow crowd scenes to look far more realistic than they have in other animated films. Spectacular scenes like the Passover, the dream sequence in which hieroglyphics become animated, and the parting of the waters, combine to make The Prince of Egypt a memorable visual experience. While the songs don't qualify as toe-tapping melodies, they're often cleverly used to advance the plot, as they are in the Passover sequence. (Listen for Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses-the only actors who sing their own songs.)
DreamWorks is banking on adults buying movie tickets for animated features. While The Prince of Egypt can boast 'adult themes'-racism, revenge, sibling disputes and divine intervention-what it doesn't have is the ability to involve adults emotionally. It's rare to feel anything for an animated character. Parents may perceive the film as an opportunity to introduce children to Biblical themes, but children are likely to become bored by a story about adults, and young children could be disturbed by brief, but nonetheless disturbing, events such as the death of the first-borns or the bloodying of the waters. Richard Schickel's concluding sentence in a 1966 review of The Bible-'Read the book'-is worth mentioning here: The themes inherent in the story of Moses, for the religious and for the non-religious, have been the subject of so much scholarly debate in so many disciplines that to make it the inspiration for an animated musical is, in some ways, to do the story a disservice. Recounting the life of Moses in a visual medium by simply focusing on the events of his life is to greatly misunderstand his accomplishment. When God handed Moses the Ten Commandments, he demanded that the Hebrews avoid graven images of him and of nature. God was delivering the Hebrews from idolatry, from the empty worship of physical objects, opening up the possibility of imagination, psychic awareness, and the modern idea of an interior life. In an ironic twist too glaring to ignore, in The Prince of Egypt the picture is all.