Rated PG - Running time: 1:37 - Released 12/18/98

In this year we have had so many great animated cartoon features that I feel the Motion Picture Academy should consider designating a separate category for them at awards time. Films like Antz, Mulan, and A Bug's Life may not stand up against the best live-action films of the year, but they are all excellent in their genre and deserve to be judged against each other. In the case of The Prince Of Egypt, however, there is no question: Animated or not, it should be nominated for Best Picture. As a work of art it is superlative; as a cartoon it may be the best I have ever seen. Conceptually it even surpasses Disney's Beauty And The Beast (1991), which is the only animated feature ever to win a Best Picture nomination.

Produced by Dreamworks SKG, whose recent children's release was Antz, The Prince is not really intended for pre-schoolers. In every sense it is biblical, from its subject matter (the story of Exodus) to its unvarnished depictions of cruelty. Though it has a few hints at humor and several incredible musical numbers, there is little to laugh at here. This is a straighforward retelling of Cecil B. DeMille's famous 1956 film The Ten Commandments, pared down and rendered in cartoon form by writer Philip LaZebnik (Mulan, Pocahontas) and directors Brenda Chapman and Steve Hickner (both making their directorial debuts).

It is a dark period for the Hebrews in Egypt. Millions of them have been enslaved by Pharaoh Seti to build his temples. Though Moses is born a Hebrew, his mother spares him the life of a slave by setting him afloat on the Nile in a basket. He is rescued by an Egyptian princess, adopted, and reared as a brother to Ramses, the heir to the throne of Egypt. But after Moses reaches adulthood, he learns that he has no Egyptian blood in him; that, in fact, he was born of the people who have served him all his life. He leaves Egypt and wanders across the desert, finally coming upon a shepherd village.

Moses encounters the spirit of God in a burning bush; it tells him to return to Egypt and ask the pharaoh to let his people go. Upon returning, he finds that Ramses is the new pharaoh. He entreats his former brother to set the Hebrews free, but Ramses refuses, bringing on a wave of plague and pestilence that finally forces him to concede. As Moses is leading his people out of Egypt, Ramses changes his mind and gives chase. Moses calls upon God to help once again, and the pharaoh's army is swallowed up into the sea. Having freed his people at last, Moses receives God's ten commandments inscribed on tablets of stone.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this monumental film is the highly symbolic visual imagery. In the many memorable songs, it is pure art — alive with color and form. In contrast, the passover scene, where the deadly plague comes and destroys all the firstborn Egyptian children, is rendered in stark black and white. There are numerous other visual treats, from the Egyptian artworks to the burning bush to the parting of the Red Sea. But the spectacular quality of the visuals does not mean that the producers skimped on acting talent. With names like Val Kilmer (as the voice of Moses), Ralph Fiennes (Ramses), Michelle Pfeiffer (Moses' wife Tzipporah), and Patrick Stewart (Seti), and several others, this film could be a hit if it were drawn in crayon.

Though I don't recommend this film for very small children, it could be a great learning tool for teens, church youth groups, or aspiring animators. But you may be required to answer some tough questions. Better go bone up on your Old Testament. *****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive