One of the long-running controversies of Jewish history has been the Biblical account of the Exodus, in which Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt circa 1250 BC. While the biblical account of events narrates the story of Moses growing up in the pharaoh's court and eventually leading the Israelites to the Promised Land (in the land of Canaan), the archeological evidence to support it has been sketchy. In addition, the book of Exodus was not an eyewitness account of events-- it was composed from a patchwork of source material written more than two hundred years after the fact. Furthermore, Egyptian historical writings of the period do not mention the existence of Moses, a series of devastating plagues, nor a mass exodus of slaves. Regardless of the controversy over historical accuracy, the story of Exodus is still important because it was here that the roots of modern Jewish culture were founded.
"The Prince of Egypt" is the latest cinematic adaptation of the Exodus story, with the most famous one being Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 biblical epic "The Ten Commandments". Following on the heels of its financially successful and critically-acclaimed "Antz", Dreamworks has concocted another potent mixture of story-telling and visual delights. And while the story of Moses may seem well-tread and all-to-familiar, this latest rendition breathes life into the material by focusing on the fractured relationship between Moses and his adopted brother Rameses.
Opening up in ancient Egypt, a very young Moses is set adrift in a basket down the Nile by his mother (Ofra Haza), in a bid to save him from certain death at the hands of the Pharaoh's soldiers. After being found by the Pharaoh's wife, Moses is adopted into the royal family, where he grows up as the Pharaoh's second son. Two decades later, Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer of "The Saint") and Pharaoh-to-be Rameses (Ralph Fiennes of "The Avengers") have grown up into all sorts of mischief, which includes participating in reckless chariot races through the city or throwing water balloons at unsuspecting victims.
Spurred by a chance encounter with his older sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock of "Practical Magic") and brother Aaron (Jeff Goldblum of "Holy Man"), Moses comes to realize his true heritage. Furthermore, he discovers how his father, the Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek: Insurrection"), has waged a genocidal campaign against the Hebrews.
Unable to tolerate a growing distaste for the treatment of the slaves at the hands of the Egyptians, Moses exiles himself into the desert, where he is taken in by the High Priest of Midian (Danny Glover of "Lethal Weapon 4") and winds up marrying his daughter, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer). Having left behind a life of luxury as a Prince of Egypt, Moses is content to while away his days herding sheep. However, he ends up returning to Egypt when he is commanded by God (also voiced by Kilmer) to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, Rameses, now carrying the burden of his late-father's crown, refuses to grant Moses' request, unwilling to be the 'weak link' of the dynasty.
With its grand scope, artful direction, and powerful score, "The Prince of Egypt" is an incredible testament to the ability of animation to inspire and impress. There is a lot to like in the intricate details and cinematic techniques that the animators at Dreamworks have employed. Some of the more standout set-pieces include Moses' encounter with the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, and an extended plague and pestilence montage sequence. However, the most chilling pieces of animation would have to be a dream sequence in which Moses watches hieroglyphics come to life, and the wispy tendrils of Death moving through Egypt to take the first-born.
In a similar fashion to the strategy employed in "Antz", "The Prince of Egypt" is an animated spectacle intellectually-skewed more towards adults, though children will still find plenty to like. Obviously, the tone of "The Prince of Egypt" is much more serious and morose than your typical animated family-fare, which is obviously risky during the Holiday film-going season. Fortunately, the animated violence does not reach the level seen in "Antz", though some scenes have warranted this effort a PG rating. On the other hand, directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells have wisely decided not to saddle the weighty material with frivolous attempts at cheap laughs, a move which led to the uneven tone of this past summer's "Mulan".
Voice talents are also strong in this effort, notably Fiennes as the would-be Pharaoh afflicted with displacement of loyalties, Stewart as his malevolent father, and Goldblum as Moses' older brother. Kilmer manages well as the voice of Moses, as does Bullock as the voice of his sister. Unfortunately, the comic talents of Steve Martin and Martin Short get short shrift in their roles as the Pharaoh's magicians.
Overall, "The Prince of Egypt" is certainly a spectacular piece of work that showcases Dreamworks' ability to threaten Walt Disney's exalted status in the world of animation. With its lush visuals, inspirational music, and emotional loci centered around the relationship between Moses and Rameses, this is one animated feature that is a must-see.