Program Notes: The Prince of Egypt (1998)
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Animated features have for so long been the realm of the frivolous that The Prince of Egypt is a bit disconcerting.
No cute animal sidekicks. No big musical production numbers. For that matter, there's little overt humor.
Instead we get the biblical story of Moses, told with visual sophistication and remarkable fidelity to Scripture.
This Prince isn't fooling around. The characters' voices are provided by actors of genuine dramatic weight: Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Val Kilmer, Danny Glover, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren.
Moreover the designers and animators have done a magnificent job of creating a living, breathing universe from mere drawings.
Even the musical numbers are low-keyed, delivered not as show-stopping extravaganzas but as internal recitatives. These tunes from Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer are delicate and intimate, more reflective of recent Sondheim than of Tin Pan Alley.
If there's a downside it's that The Prince of Egypt doesn't even attempt a reinterpretation of what is, for many, a terribly familiar story. Few liberties have been taken with the material, and there's nary a hint of revisionism.
That's all she wrote.
One must wonder, in fact, if the creative team behind Prince of Egypt, including 16 writers and three directors, hasn't been too reverent. The project is likely to strike many viewers as the world's most elaborate Sunday school lesson.
The film begins with the slaughter of the Hebrew children by their Egyptian masters and the setting adrift on the Nile of the infant Moses in a reed basket. Discovered by a princess, Moses (voiced by Kilmer) is reared as a member of the royal household. In one of the film's few purely speculative elements, he grows up viewing Pharaoh-to-be Ramses (Fiennes) as his brother, and together the two young hellions indulge an adolescent proclivity for chariot-racing down city streets.
Then Moses discovers his true origins as the son of slaves and is moved to protest the treatment of his people. Estranged from Ramses, he goes into exile, marries a nomadic shepherdess (Pfeiffer), and reluctantly accepts God's commission (delivered by the burning bush) to return to Egypt and force Pharaoh to release the Hebrews.
The film climaxes with the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh's army, a sequence that pulls out all the animation stops. At one point the torch-bearing Hebrews, winding their way between towering walls of water, are amazed to see a whale passing behind this curtain of brine. This is jaw-dropping stuff.
But then just about every scene in Prince of Egypt marks some sort of visual high point. For example, the water effects are stunning, with myriad reflections in the Nile's surface, which undulates gently to suggest the currents and eddies at play deep below. Nighttime scenes are illuminated by torches and candles, creating effects worthy of de la Tour.
The "camera" rarely just observes a scene; it's usually a participant, moving through and around the animated figures, which have been brought to life with a degree of realism only hinted at in stills.
And occasionally the film achieves greatness. In one breathtaking sequence, Moses learns of his heritage when an Egyptian wall painting comes to life, its stiff human figures re-creating the horror of the slaughter of the innocents. Pure magic.
Ultimately The Prince of Egypt may be more memorable for its graphic inventiveness than for its drama.
Still, it’s something of a landmark for attempting to push American animated features into genuinely serious territory.
Other films in the series “Tinseltown Testament”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- July 2: The Nativity Story (2006) Rated PG
- July 9: Samson and Delilah (1949) Not Rated
- July 16: The Prince of Egypt (1998) Rated PG
- July 23: King David (1985) Rated PG-13
- July 30: The Sign of the Cross (1932) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.