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Review: 'Prince of Egypt' boasts heavenly animation

Web posted on: Monday, December 21, 1998 2:23:19 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Dreamworks' first stab at usurping Disney's traditional animation stranglehold, "The Prince of Egypt," certainly won't deliver anybody from blockbuster evil - vocal-magnates Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey team up for a polyester carpet-bombing over the end credits - but the movie, though a tad nutty, is still a marvel to watch. Visually speaking, this may be the most exquisite animated film ever made, teaming computer graphics (to a far more ambitious degree than we've seen in Disney's recent classics) with the old-fashioned pencil-and-paint technique.

Theatrical preview for "Prince of Egypt"

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The basic plot is a Cliff's Notes version of the Book of Exodus, with funny-faced camels, sappy show tunes, and a lot of giddy fibbing thrown in to keep the kiddies happy. Exodus, of course, follows Moses' attempt to free the slaves from the strong-armed, pyramid-building rule of his half-brother, Rameses. Their freedom was eventually accomplished (according to the best-seller by God that serves as the screenplay's source material) via the systematic application of locusts, frogs, water-into-blood theatrics, and a Black Angel-delivered death curse.

As you can well imagine, this lends a certain degree of seriousness to the proceedings that's somewhat removed from the waltzing gush of "Beauty and the Beast." However, as much as I enjoyed feasting on the visuals, the movie's major flaw is that it badly wants to be a Disney-type money-minter without blatantly massaging the audience the way Disney sometimes does ... but not really. The odd coupling of self-serious lesson-teaching with often rather suspect songs occasionally hamstrings the story's momentum. You're not given much time to snicker, though, before you're gawking at another bit of richly-textured razzmatazz.

All-star cast

An all-star group of actors deliver the dialogue, and (with two noticeable exceptions) they all do an exemplary job. Val Kilmer, who plays Moses, gives my all-time favorite Val Kilmer performance, mostly because I didn't have to actually look at him while he was doing it. Disney sometimes likes to shade their characters' mannerisms with those of the actor speaking the lines, but Dreamworks has passed on the chance to have Moses stare vacantly into the middle-distance during his impassioned monologues. Ralph Fiennes (still, as far as I know, mispronouncing his own name) is also a highlight, lending his Pharoah the same air of jaded elegance that so brilliantly informed Amon Goeth, his Nazi commandant in "Schindler's List."

Kilmer and Fiennes get to chew on the biggest emotions, but you can easily detect the dulcet tones of a wide variety of Hollywood big-shots throughout the film. There's also Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren as the original Pharoah and his wife; Michelle Pfeiffer as Moses' possible love interest (I know, I know); and Martin Short and Steve Martin as a bit of comic relief that's neither relieving nor particularly comic. Though they do a solid job with what little they're given, Short and Martin are forced to deliver a howler of a song called "Playing With the Big Boys Now" when Moses first confronts Rameses with his demand to stop the madness. (The wooden stick turning into a snake looks real cool.) The supposedly comic lyrics don't fit the tone of the other songs, and the sequence stands out like a sore thumb. It's actually sort of embarrassing.

The missteps as far as the performances go come courtesy of Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum as Moses' biological sister and her anxious husband. Neither actor makes any attempt to camouflage their modern-day accents, not that I think flowery, Yul Brynner over-enunciation is in order. They just sound too much like they've recently returned from the mall to be completely believable as a couple of slave laborers who are routinely in danger of getting lashed across the back if they take too much time churning out the bricks. A couple of times I thought Bullock was about to ask Moses if he wanted to super-size his fries.

Sights to see

But, as I've already said, the animation wins out in the end. The opening sequence is obviously reaching for some "Lion King" dazzle, and almost gets there ... no mean feat when you consider that film's awe-inspiring opening salvo. The water that Baby Moses' basket floats down shimmers and swells to a startlingly believable degree, and the trip down the river is filled with surprising little detours. This is quickly followed by a chariot race between the now-grown Moses and Rameses that streaks down a twisted scaffolding as it crumbles into pieces behind them, splintered wood and debris flying everywhere. The imagery swoops and swirls, with the characters moving in a much more realistically human manner than Disney's hot-dog animators have ever managed.

From the looks of things, directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells haven't had much free time on their hands for the past couple of years. Every image features some startling detail that's worthy of a quick gasp. The plagues are perhaps the most cinematic element of the actual story, and they're completely effective, with the creepy-crawly grasshoppers being narrowly upstaged by the stark rendering of the spectral mist that descends from the heavens one night to snuff out Egypt's first-born sons. (A memorably terrifying touch: You actually hear children gently whispering their last breaths as the vapor enters a room.)

The story ends with the parting of the Red Sea (not as extraordinary as you expect it to be, for some reason), so the producers conveniently side-step the unappealing episode in which a bunch of lewd revelers dance before a golden calf. It probably hit too close to home. These guys do work in Hollywood, you know.

Your kids should fully enjoy "The Prince of Egypt," but it's probably more fun for adults. There aren't any amusingly smug candelabras, if you know what I mean. Do yourself a favor and let somebody else buy that spiritually-bereft Whitney/Mariah monstrosity. Every man, woman, and child in America will be able to recite it in their sleep before the marketing guys are done with us. Rated PG. 97 minutes.

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