`PRINCE OF EGYPT' A MUCH CLASSIER VERSION OF `TEN COMMANDMENTS'.
The Pharaonically ambitious ``Prince of Egypt'' does indeed take feature-length animation in impressive new directions. Arguably the most beautiful film ever drawn, this telling of the biblical Moses story is an unequivocal masterpiece of both design and that rarest of cartoon qualities, good taste.
Narratively and theologically, the results are a little iffier. While certainly reverent, ``Prince's'' screenplay, which is credited to Philip LaZebnik, strains strenuously to make it play for contemporary sensibilities.
But even though the movie dispenses with key passages in the book of Exodus and has a tendency to depict God's messenger as something of a California dude (Valley boy Val Kilmer provides the voice of Moses), there are more than enough moments of carefully wrought religious spectacle to validate the piece.
Indeed, complaints that it's like one big, colorful Sunday school lesson are a matter of individual experience.
Exciting/comic chariot races and a magic show production number straight out of Siegfried and Roy won't invoke most folks' memories of childhood religious training. At the same time, though, the story unfolds in a kind of walking-on-eggs manner, as if the filmmakers were too awestruck - or, more likely, too worried about offending the slightest sensibility of a single potential customer, believing or secular.
One thing's for sure, though: ``The Prince of Egypt'' is infinitely classier than its closest cinematic forebear, Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 ``The Ten Commandments.''
The acting's better (and these are cartoons!). Interpretive ideas are smarter; there's a fine, Genesis-like subtext here about fraternal love and conflict, both between Moses and his virtual brother Rameses (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and his blood siblings Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and Aaron (Jeff Goldblum).
In perhaps its most felicitous modern touch, ``Prince'' dispenses with ``Commandments' '' rampant misogyny. In this one, Moses' shepherdess wife, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), is not only a tough customer, she's her husband's primary earthly support when he returns to Egypt. And there's no Nefertiri figure to turn the Moses-Rameses conflict into an overheated love triangle; the conflict between the Pharoah and the Hebrew leader is purely a matter of politics, conflicting interests and perceived personal betrayals.
``Prince of Egypt's'' real elegance, however, is in its visuals. Truly inspired by Egyptian art, the film has an architectural scope as imposing and graphically audacious as the pyramids themselves. Cities burst with beautiful, gigantic structures; the grandly composed color scheme is only enriched, rather than dulled, by its sun- and sand-blasted qualities; and water has never been animated more effectively, whether as a tear on a mother's cheek, the Nile expelling a plague of frogs or - the show stopper - the Red Sea parting, then reforming with a mighty vengeance.
It's smart, too. The still-princely Moses' nightmare, from which he realizes his true identity, is done in a stiff, scary, hieroglyphic motif. And when the Angel of Death comes to claim Egypt's firstborn, the screen mutes into a palette of mournful grays that stirringly evokes the terror, tragedy and necessity of it all.
In the minus column, the songs aren't so hot (Stephen Schwartz, of Disney's ``Pocahontas'' and ``Hunchback of Notre'' fame, composed). Only the Whitney Houston-Mariah Carey shouting match, ``When You Believe,'' is really memorable, and that's never a good sign for a musical soundtrack.
Others might regret the short shrift given the Commandments here. All we get on that subject is a single shot of Moses carrying tablets down from the mountain; there's no hint as to why Exodus is not just a great story of liberation but of the lesson that freedom without law is worthless anarchy.
Reckon they didn't want to come off too preachy.
``Prince of Egypt'' is credited to three directors - Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells - but it's fairly common knowledge that this is really DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg's baby. As he did at Disney before forming his own studio with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, Katzenberg oversaw everything about the movie and has tried his best to move the medium into worthy new territory with it.
He succeeded at that; no one will mistake ``Prince of Egypt'' for a Disney product. But it is definitely a Hollywood product, something that plays it as commercially safe as it can while charting a path of divine inspiration.
The film: ``The Prince of Egypt'' (PG; violence).
The stars: Voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Goldblum.
Behind the scenes: Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells. Screenplay by Philip LaZebnik. Produced by Penney Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins. Released by DreamWorks Pictures.
Running time: One hour, 39 minutes.
Our rating: Three stars.
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|Title Annotation:||L.A. LIFE|
|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Article Type:||Movie Review|
|Date:||Dec 18, 1998|
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