The Prince of Egypt
directed by Brenda Chapman
& Steve Hicker
(DreamWorks, 1998)

As possibly the best-selling author of all-time, Moses -- five books, all of them on the best-seller list -- has himself become the stuff of books and movies.

In 1953, Cecil B. DeMille gave him the star treatment in The Ten Commandments, though it's true he gave more screen time to the golden calf orgy than would seem warranted.

Now we have The Prince of Egypt, the first full-length animated feature about the life of Moses, and possibly the first musical version as well.

Set in a very dusty and brown North African desert where the Jewish people have been forced into servitude in the name of building a better Egypt, The Prince of Egypt purports to tell the story of Moses from his birth until his delivery of the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai.

Or does it?

The Prince of Egypt may also be the first film to open with a disclaimer. The film is based on the life of Moses, the disclaimer says, but the real story of the charismatic leader who led the Jews out of slavery is contained in the book of Exodus.

Indeed, The Prince of Egypt contains much material that's not in Exodus. No surprise there. Exodus is a minimalist narrative that must be fleshed out if Moses' life story is to have drama and visual impact.

As indeed it does, especially in the chariot race between Moses (voice of Val Kilmer) and his half brother, Ramses (Ralph Fiennes), which nearly takes out the Sphinx and half the pyramids before it comes to a halt. It's an effective piece of animated cinema, even if it does owe more to Ben Hur than to the Bible.

There are some nifty production numbers, too, not the least of which is "You're Playing with the Big Boys Now." It gives the Egyptian high priests plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their talent for magic and illusion; at its best, the number is almost hallucinogenic, and it moves the story along nicely.

The question is, what did directors Brenda Chapman and Steve Hickner sacrifice to get The Prince of Egypt to that point? Let me count the ways:

1. Context. The opening song explains that Moses' mother puts him in a basket and lets him float down the Nile because she has nothing to offer him, and there are shots of heavily armed Egyptian soldiers walking into Hebrew dwellings, but nowhere is it mentioned that she did so because Pharaoh had ordered death to all Hebrew males.

2. The facts. The Prince of Egypt would have you believe it was Moses' sister (Sandra Bullock) who kept him in touch with his family and his people. According to Exodus, it was his mother: she was a wet nurse for the woman who retrieved Moses from his tiny ark, the pharaoh's daughter.

3. The drama. We know Moses had a testy relationship with the Lord. Surely that would make for a better story than anything Moses could manage with Ramses.

And what we get in their place? The hormonal hijinks of the teen-age Moses, comic-relief priests (Steve Martin and Martin Short), well-scored but poorly explained plagues and an extended wrestling match with a female slave (Michelle Pfeiffer).

If The Prince of Egypt really was, as is claimed, made for adults, then why dumb it down? If it was made for children, wouldn't a clearer narrative and better explanations be in order?

The story of Moses is great drama. The Prince of Egypt is not. Too bad.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]



Buy The Prince of Egypt from Amazon.com.