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[whitespace] The Prince of Egypt
Movie from a Mold: Minor attempts have been made to
free 'The Prince of Egypt' from the model of the annual
Disney juggernaut.

'The Prince of Egypt' uses the ancient Disney-tested formula of action sequence, Muzak and sassy heroine

By Richard von Busack

Satisfying, isn't it, that no one need worry about whether The Prince of Egypt might be too much for children. Just ask William Bennett--you're never too young to know that God kills bad people's kids. The stories of Jehovah's ornery side have terrorized children for centuries now. The ancient tale leads them either into fearful obedience or undying rebellion, depending on their natures. There's nothing Dreamworks can do to soften the heart of the material for children, and that's the best quality of the animated film The Prince of Egypt.

The Prince of Egypt is the story of Exodus, directed by Steve Hickner, Simon Welles and Brenda Chapman, the last of whom is wrongly described in the press notes as the first woman to direct a feature-length animated film. (The honor goes to Lotte Reiniger, who directed a shadow-puppet Arabian Nights tale, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, in Germany in 1926. Interesting character, Reiniger; she also directed a full-length animated version of Dr. Doolitte in the 1920s, with an original score by Hindemith and Kurt Weill.)

The Prince of Egypt follows the story of Moses from the bulrushes to the Red Sea. The son of Hebrew slaves, abandoned to the river, he's rescued by the old Pharoah's wife and is raised as her second son. Since Rameses (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) were raised as brothers, the conflict between them is portrayed as a painful fraternal dispute. It's the most inspired idea in the film. The Prince of Egypt has a nugget of sympathy for Rameses and sympathizes with his trust that he can talk his brother Moses out of his strange belief in monotheism.

Designing imaginary Egypts has been a Southern California specialty for decades, and the columns, diaphanous draperies, ibexes and lotuses here reminded me of the happiest, weirdest moments in our cinema: all of that plaster Egyptiana that once livened up the movies ... Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments and Joan Collins in Land of the Pyramids. And the parting of the Red Sea is impressive and fearful; within the parted water, fish and whales swim, illuminated by flashes of lightning. Also, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, the long-lost brother of Moses, evinces that skepticism which is Judaism's greatest gift to the world. He tries to talk his way out of a dispute with an Egyptian lord, saying that the misunderstanding is due to exhaustion after a 10-hour shift building the pyramids: "Not that we didn't love it," he adds hastily.

While The Prince of Egypt is better than any recent full-length animation, it's still uneven. Michelle Pfeiffer's clipped Orange County accent isn't suited to the voice of Tzipporah, Moses' wife. And computerized corner-cutting shows badly in a chariot race. Falling objects, when animated by computer, don't have the abrupt Wiley Coyote velocity of plummet as in classic animation. The plagues are condensed into one musical number (the music is a plague in itself). And why isn't the Angel of Death scary? What a bad year for death this has been! First, Meet Joe Black--Death, be not Brad--and now in The Prince of Egypt, the Angel of Death is represented by a smoky phosphorous flare bobbing down the streets. Were the firstborn of the Egyptians slain by Tinker Bell's evil twin sister?

Since The Prince of Egypt is based on a religious tale, they've dispensed with the customary talking animals here, and the comic relief villains (voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short) exit relatively early in the film, after no memorable jokes.

The songs by Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmers are the usual slices of processed cheese, no blander or chalkier than is common. (Since The Prince of Egypt is set in the Middle East, at least there are some token minor keys in the songs for a change.) The Prince of Egypt is the springboard for three different soundtrack albums, but the money is on the "historic" collaboration of Whitney and Mariah, "When You Believe." The tune, which will be stalking you everywhere you go for the next three months, is the usual exhortation to faith: "Miracles can happen when you believe." Concentrated sweetness turns acid; the divas duel to see who can etch the eardrum the deepest.

Minor attempts have been made to free the movie from the model of the annual Disney juggernaut. And there are glimpses of style throughout, in the leanness and angularity of the faces of the characters, and in the lovely faux-Egyptian design. Otherwise, this movie about "I Am That I Am" is what it is. An animated-film-based franchise is too expensive a trick to disturb the by now ancient Disney-tested formula of action sequence, Muzak and sassy heroine. More than once, however, it touches upon the mystery and darkness of the story that's kept the world wondering since it was first told.

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From the December 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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