San Francisco Chronicle (December 18, 1998)

 

BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS

 

DreamWorks''Prince of Egypt' is a daring mix of philosophy and Hollywood flash

 

By Peter Stack

 

 

With only a few apologies to Exodus and Deuteronomy, ''The Prince of Egypt'' is an inspiring translation of biblical grandeur, turning the story of one of history's greatest heroes into an entertaining, visually dazzling cartoon.
The new animated film from DreamWorks, featuring the voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer, Martin Short and Patrick Stewart, opens today in Bay Area theaters.

''The Prince of Egypt'' takes real chances with a character study, issues of slavery and ideas of faith that put the animated film on a high plane. But the movie is also a skillful interweaving of comedy and a handful of pop-style songs with hummable, spirit-inspired refrains.

The animators clearly took some cues from Cecil B. DeMille's stunning and corny 1956 epic, ''The Ten Commandments,'' that recounts the story of Moses leading the Jews' exodus from Egypt.

At first glance, Moses and his ancient scene seem sure-fire Hollywood fodder. But if you think about the man many consider the Bible's greatest hero, you'll realize that fervent faith lies at the core of his story. And it had to be daunting to try to capture the sizzle of that faith in a cartoon.

Yet ''The Prince of Egypt'' takes a mighty stab at it. And the result is a satisfying, ultimately moving, study of an ordinary man whose obedience to God was to echo through history.

The key here is that Moses (Val Kilmer) is portrayed as a mere mortal, a man whose extraordinary resolve is born of his sudden realization of injustice. This is no sanctimonious picture of Moses, who wrestles with moral awakening and battles self-doubt.

The tale begins with the baby Moses set adrift on the Nile by his Jewish mother Yocheved (Israeli singer Ofra Haza) to spare him from slavery or death. He's nearly drowned by waves and fishing craft but is rescued by the Pharaoh's Queen (Mirren), who adopts him as a son.

Raised with a rambunctious adopted brother Rameses (Fiennes), Moses lives a happy-go-lucky royal life. As teens the boys are full of vinegar, charging at breakneck speeds in their chariots, while all around them the Hebrew slaves do endless toil under the ruthless Pharaoh Seti (Stewart).

It isn't long before Moses sees the dark side to this paradise. Rameses is appointed regent and honors Moses with a Jewish slave as a concubine. But the hero lets the feisty young woman, Tzipporah (Pfeiffer) -- later to become his wife -- escape.

He follows her to a Hebrew neighborhood and encounters his blood sister, Miriam (Bullock), and his future father-in-law, Jethro (Glover). But he has no idea that he is one of their tribe. It isn't until his famed intercession in the flogging of an elderly slave that Moses begins to understand his arduous destiny.

''The Prince of Egypt'' takes up the story in extraordinary shadings for an animated film (in several sequences, new animation techniques give it a 3-D look). In some of the most stunning moments, grand- scale montages advance the story. Among the most striking is a plague sequence, in which God unleashes his wrath upon the Egyptians. It's dark, tumultuous, breathtaking. The depiction of the parting of the Red Sea is outstanding as well, showing the Jews' miraculous escape shaded by near-doom.

Some viewers may see the film as unusually dark or overwrought with action (a swirling magical sequence in which Rameses' conjurers try to outdo Moses' magical staff is pretty intense). But a PG rating seems appropriate -- the Bible ain't exactly a barrel of laughs.

Yet the film is also surprisingly fun, owing mostly to a handful of songs by Stephen Schwartz (''Pocahontas''), tuneful pieces that give the saga a Broadway-show mood. Songs include a Hebrew freedom cry titled ''Deliver Us''; a touching Moses solo, ''All I Ever Wanted''; a philosophical croon by Jethro, ''Through Heaven's Eyes''; and a high-energy comic production number that seems all-Hollywood -- ''Playing With the Big Boys,'' sung by Rameses' court magicians, Hotep (Martin) and Huy (Short). Hans Zimmer (''The Lion King'') wrote the score.

 

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