After four years of leading his people through the desert--southern California can get as dry as the Sinai--Jeffrey Katzenberg has delivered his tablets of celluloid. Percolating with biblical scholarship and Hollywood showmanship, burdened with more ambitions and pricey hopes than any movie since Titanic, The Prince of Egypt means to tell the most imposing old fable using the most sophisticated forms of animation. But old traditions die hard--as they should, when they are as supple as the Disney model. Led by directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, the DreamWorks team uses a more sumptuous version of that standard: romantic realism in the visual tones of 19th century storybooks. (Here the model is the etchings of Gustave Dore.)
Almost despite itself, The Prince of Egypt recalls familiar cartoon motifs. Like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King (and for that matter, Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, Forrest Gump and Hamlet), this is a coming-of-age story, a tale of youth pressed into troubled maturity during a national cataclysm. As for the film's basic plot--a bright misfit goes undercover to save his people from foreign domination--it's pure Mulan. You'll also find echoes of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 essay in panoramic kitsch, The Ten Commandments (including the climactic Red Sea parting), and its Oscar-laden sibling, the 1959 Ben-Hur (including the chariot race). All are about two young men, raised as brothers, whose proud convictions set them on a moral and political collision course.
Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) is a cunning lad, forever getting his pal Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) in trouble with dad Seti, the Pharaoh. At first Moses seems only incidentally vexed that his fellow Hebrews have been enslaved to help build the pyramids. But he gradually achieves an ethnic identity and flexes some vengeful muscle, thanks to a divine ally--a force as implacable as Clint Eastwood in a really dark mood--who, when bid, will kill each Egyptian firstborn male.
This scene--of a wraithlike pestilence casting a monochrome shroud over the pastel-painted Egypt and insinuating itself through the doors of the condemned--is splendidly eerie. It makes a compelling argument for the Exodus story to be told in the unique language of animation. The film's colors and textures are handsomely diametrical: the cool elegance of Pharaoh's palace as opposed to the burnished warmth of the Israelites' huts and, more daringly, the angular Jewish features against the Africanized Egyptian.
What doesn't work so well is the storytelling, traditionally a hallmark of Disney-style cartoon craftsmanship. The film lacks creative exuberance, any side pockets of joy. All those evangelists and rabbis who were consulted during the picture's gestation must have weighed like a rock on the filmmakers' impulse to soar. Artistic care gives way to religious caution, and the picture sometimes looks starched, stodgy. Except for the When You Believe anthem, Stephen Schwartz's tunes mostly bring not buoyancy but ballast to the proceedings. While Jeff Goldblum is good as a fretful Aaron, the rest of an exemplary vocal cast (Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart) can't add much shading or power. Steve Martin is here for muted comic relief, but don't expect to hear him sing King Tut. Any sort of irreverence would be out of place in this by-the-Book rendition. Nonetheless, it is missed.