The amazing fluidity of contemporary animation — Look! That river ripples just like real water! — has, by now, lost its ability to startle, and that’s one reason I greatly enjoyed the beautiful pastel angularity of The Prince of Egypt. The first animated musical from DreamWorks, it has been drawn in a variation on the Disney photo-realist style, only here, the Egyptian setting, with its towering pyramids and intricately chiseled sphinx, its poker-faced hieroglyphics (which, at one point, come to life in spectacular pantomime), gives the animators a chance to create a mood of sunbaked sandstone vastness.
The Prince of Egypt is no more a vulgarization of the Old Testament than The Ten Commandments was. It may turn the stormy figure of Moses into a slender, mild-spirited young man (whose wispy beard makes him look like a draft dodger), but it takes him on a moral journey that’s swift, sure, and compelling. Moses, as a baby, is sent floating down the Nile by his Hebrew slave parents and is adopted by the dour Pharaoh Seti. As Moses and his older brother, the jockish, self-doubting Ramses, come of age, they have a high time tearing around the urban-primitive maze, racing chariots, dropping water balloons, treating the edifice of civilization as a private playground. Before long, however, Moses begins to notice who’s building the playground. All around him are broken-backed Hebrews laboring on the construction of Egypt’s stately wonders.
Respectfully DreamWorked, The Prince of Egypt is now the story of a young man who redeems himself by freeing his people. The voice of Val Kilmer goes a long way toward lending Moses’ gee-whiz ingenuousness some virility and heft, and Ralph Fiennes plays Ramses with a delicate quaver of vulnerability. Patrick Stewart makes the Pharaoh an imposing fascist. That said, there’s a nagging disharmony between the grandeur of the tale and the lazily anachronistic dialogue, which spoon-feeds the audience. When Moses rears up at Ramses and says, ”Let my people go!” I realized that the famousness of the line was all that prevented the screenwriters from turning it into something like ”Hey, can’t you give us Hebrews a break?”
The songs, by Stephen Schwartz, are mostly ”operatic” show-tune pap (though I did enjoy the Carl Orffian opening number), and their lack of splendor ties in to what’s missing from the movie. What The Prince of Egypt doesn’t get at — it’s nothing less than a biblical cornerstone — is that Moses wasn’t simply saving the Hebrews from captivity. He was elevating mankind to a place closer to God. I’m afraid, though, that the Big Guy’s presence is rather muted here. He does come through with a few miracles, but even they seem like mere special effects within the magical world of animation, where visual wonders tend never to cease. In The Prince of Egypt, the Red Sea parts, and the feeling it gives you isn’t awe; it’s closer to deep impact. B