VOD film review: The Prince Of Egypt (1998)
Mark Harrison | On 09, Nov 2018
Director: Brenda Chapman
Cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfieffer, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Martin Short
As mentioned in our look back at Antz, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of DreamWorks Animation’s first feature films. While it was eventually leap-frogged into cinemas as part of a very public feud about Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, The Prince Of Egypt was originally intended to be the studio’s first film and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the better of the two.
Originally conceived as a musical remake of The Ten Commandments, this adaptation of the book of Exodus takes in sun, sea, and suspicious parentage, starting when the infant Moses is sent up the river in a basket. Found and adopted by the royal family, Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) grows up as a spoiled prince, with the heir to the throne, Ramses, (Ralph Fiennes) as his elder brother.
When his Hebrew heritage is revealed in the form of his estranged sister, Miriam (Sandra Bullock) ,and a vision of God as a burning bush (also voiced by Kilmer), Moses discovers his destiny. Determined to free his people from slavery, he returns to confront his adopted brother, before an almighty reckoning falls upon Egypt.
The roaring success of Shrek was both a good and bad thing for DreamWorks. While the original really holds up, its brand of broad, pop-culture parody became the studio’s default mode for a while afterwards. Shrek is as different from Antz and The Prince Of Egypt as they are from each other, but from that point on, the studio mostly cranked out comedies to mark themselves apart from the struggling Disney.
In retrospect, The Prince Of Egypt feels torn by that feud with Disney, and it’s at its best when it’s striking out and showing what DreamWorks can do, rather than apeing the House of Mouse. While Hollywood animation was undergoing a transition to CG, this film makes excellent use of traditional techniques combined with computer animated elements. In terms of design and animation, this is one of the best-looking animated films of the last 20 years.
The opening disclaimer speaks to the film’s creative liberties, which range from a fast-paced chariot race to the bulked-up brotherly conflict between Moses and Ramses, but these all serve to make a more reverent version of the mythology than, say, Disney’s Hercules. Heck, it even does the brotherhood thing better than Ridley Scott did later on, when he explored the same angle in the live-action dirge, Exodus: Gods & Kings.
But still, those Disney renaissance tropes hold sway over a film that’s otherwise striking out in a different direction. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Song for When You Believe (which was quite competitively performed by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston at the ceremony), but in the main, the songs don’t really fit the film. Without an Alan Menken or a Howard Ashman onboard, there’s little to cohere generic, wildly different songs like Deliver Us and Playing With The Big Boys as part of the same songbook.
More pressingly, these serve to distract from the really bold sequences in which the plagues arrive in Egypt. The depiction of God in a children’s animated movie is thorny enough, but to do the Old Testament version, embodied in a cruel wind that sweeps through the land and takes the souls of every first-born child, is really daring.
The heartbreaking development of the central brotherly relationship is the best part throughout, but elsewhere iconic and important sequences feel somewhat rushed. Songs take up screen time, and if you want to give equal time to a comedy villain song by Steve Martin and Martin Short, and the climactic parting of the Red Sea, there’s a clear imbalance of tone.
On the plus side, this marks the high point of the studio courting known Hollywood stars to provide vocal performances. In particular, Kilmer’s vocal performance is instrumental in creating a more human take on Moses than previous cinematic treatments manage. The cherry on top comes from casting him as God too, literally representing the Almighty as the voice we hear in our heads in a way that no other portrayal has really managed.
With striking visuals and a terrific voice cast, The Prince Of Egypt has a heck of a lot going for it, but ironically, its story of a man caught between two ways of life is reflected in the film’s own cross-purposes. Ultimately, the Disneyfication plays a bit like that Oscars clip – Whitney doesn’t even notice how annoyed Mariah looks at being upstaged.