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The Prince of Egypt: DreamWorks' Biblical Epic

Toby Bluth discusses DreamWorks' long-awaited feature, The Prince of Egypt. While the animation and effects are stunning, the storytelling leaves something to be desired...

One of my great loves in life is the artform of animation. It has lifted me, moved me, transported me and claimed much of my working life. So when anyone or any studio undertakes the creation of an animated film, my very best wishes go out to them...for if they succeed, it is a success for all of us in the world of animation and if they fail, it, likewise, is a failure for all of us.

© DreamWorks LLC.

I believe that the animated film is still in its infancy. The possibilities for this magical medium are limitless. It seems obvious that animation can and has rocked cradles and entertained young audiences very well, but there are many (myself among them) who feel very strongly that this genre of entertainment is in no way limited to children.

That is why, if you'll forgive this rather lengthy introduction, I have looked forward to The Prince of Egypt with the greatest anticipation. When one considers the time, subject matter, budget, and talents involved with the men creating this film (Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen) how could the wonderful world of animation expect anything less than pure magic, emotion, and maybe even a film that will explore new heights and open up new possibilities for our artform.

© DreamWorks LLC.

I cannot remember ever looking forward to any animated film with such excitement and hope, first and foremost because I consider Steven Spielberg one of the best storytellers in Hollywood. I will forever be grateful for E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan. Thank you Steven Spielberg. You made me laugh, you made me cry, you've kept me, and countless others, spellbound on the edge of our seats while you entertained us with your marvelous storytelling. But I regret to say, this time I was not entertained, and it all boils down to one thing -- and that is the thing Steven Spielberg seems to do best -- "story." The Prince of Egypt skips over the true meat of the story of Moses in favor of special effects and action.

When I left the theater after seeing The Prince of Egypt, I was angry. I felt let down. I felt the charge to advance the animated film had been fumbled. Not that there isn't exquisite artwork, great animation and camera work -- the likes of which the animated film has never seen before -- but none of that really matters if there is not a compelling story. Prince is all the very best icing, but underneath, there's no cake. It really doesn't matter how eloquently you say nothing, you've still said nothing, and Prince says "nothing" very well and with a lot of hype. Basically like a live-action film, this is a film about breath-taking special effects, but if you've seen the trailer you've seen the best parts of the movie. It somehow seems that the life of Moses and the Book of Exodus has more to offer than a couple of teenage kids (endlessly) drag racing in their chariots and the parting of the Red Sea. The characters had little to do with the way they are presented in the Bible. Now, that doesn't bother me so much, as long as the characters are amusing, entertaining and compelling, which these were not. I think this is because rather than placing the emphasis on plot and personality, the emphasis is on action.

© DreamWorks LLC.

Many facets of the story were skimmed over, leaving those without a detailed understanding of the story confused. Moses (Val Kilmer), who is historically referred to as "the great lawgiver," appears with stone tablets containing the ten commandments in the very last few moments of the film. Anyone not familiar with the story would not know what these props are, where he got them, why he has them, or what is inscribed on them. Significant locations such as Mt. Sinai are sometimes only painted on the backgrounds. Since they were never referred to, if one isn't knowledgeable about the story, one would never know what they are. The same applies to the "plague montage." Rameses' temple in the background of one sequence turns to black, while Moses remains in the light in the slaves' neighborhood. One would never know from this that continual night was one of the plagues which drove the inhabitants of ancient Egypt mad. A very important plot/personality element was deleted by using this montage technique. What we missed was the continual wearing down of Rameses (Ralph Fiennes). After each plague he told Moses he could go, but before the Israelites could leave each time, he hardened his heart and withdrew permission. It just seems that each time an opportunity was there to steal into the center of the story -- the filmmakers backed away. Because of the highly sensitive nature of the core material, it appeared as though the filmmakers were taking every precaution not to offend anybody and as a result didn't delve into the heart of the story. The charged core material was so seriously diluted that it lost its great dramatic punch. In this respect it was quite similar to Fox's Anastasia. They dealt with everything except the meat of the story. God knows the Book of Exodus is a hell of a story. It is hard to see how it could have been missed. Rather than being concerned about offending various religious sects, perhaps it would have been wiser to have taken a clue from Cecil B. DeMille and first and foremost focused on making a great piece of entertainment. This film seems caught statically somewhere between church and entertainment and is a little like having Sunday school rammed down your throat when you thought you were going to the beach.

© DreamWorks LLC.

The characters are shallow, stiff and two dimensional. Rameses is the "bad guy" and Moses is the "invincible good guy" with a powerful staff capable of conjuring up all kinds of magic -- hardly a fair match. What about driving home the fact that both Rameses and Moses were Princes of Egypt? They were brothers. It must have been extremely painful and difficult for both men to fight each other because they had such a close relationship when fate dealt them their lot. This is even heightened by the realization in their minds that one of them has to be destroyed. Both the bonding of the brothers and their painful struggles, with each other and internally, are again glossed over. Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the obligatory liberated woman which according to the current crop of animated films means she's entitled to kid the hero around, which is a strange concept of liberation. Even in his heaviest dramas, Shakespeare realized the audience needed time to catch their breath and invariably his device as a writer was to give us relief through comedy. It appears as though this was the intent with Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short), two extremely funny men. However, they were never given any funny lines or funny business. In addition they were the wrong characters to make comic. How can they be funny and the menacing henchmen of the Pharaoh at the same time?

One particularly shocking story point is when the Angel of Death visits the Egyptians and kills all of the first born. This means that there are dead babies and weeping mothers all over Egypt. But at this point the character of Miriam leads her people in a song of rejoicing. Such an act of insensitivity to the suffering all around her renders her character and her people somewhat callous, and therefore, unlikable. This rejoicing seems even further out of place when you consider that these people had experienced the same trauma only a few years before. Surely the Angel of Death must have brought with him a painful reminder of what they had also experienced, hardly a moment for singing. Which brings me to the heart of the matter. The film is lacking in heart -- that humanity that binds us all together. The Dream Team has never been shy about giving us heart before. Come on guys, give it to us again. Toby Bluth is a writer, director and designer. He is a veteran of the American musical stage and has performed in, directed or choreographed nearly one hundred musical comedies. He has also directed live-action films. In animation, he has recently directed and designed MGM's Babes in Toyland, and is currently art directing Disney's Winnie the Pooh feature Tigger's Family Tree.