December 24, 1998

At The Movies: "The Prince of Egypt"

By Malcolm Ritter

Move over, Cecil B. De Mille.

``The Prince of Egypt'' is a powerful, moving dramatization of the story of Moses, filled with enough spectacle to make De Mille envious.

Huge vistas, mass crowd scenes and stunning special effects make this an epic tale. It would be easy to sit there and just wait for the next visual treat, but the story itself is too engrossing to let you go.

Parents, beware. Just because this movie is animated doesn't mean it's right for all kids. It's rated PG, and it doesn't sugarcoat grisly aspects of the Old Testament story. The viewer is right there with the slaves as they're whipped and with the Egyptian soldiers as they're swallowed up by the Red Sea. A prominent hieroglyphic plainly shows soldiers dropping babies into crocodile-infested waters. And don't expect any comic relief.

Most disturbing to kids might be an absolutely chilling scene where a mistlike Angel of Death snakes through town at night, killing first-born children. You see a child's arm fall limp; you hear the wailing of the mothers; you see Pharaoh carrying the body of his son. If you take your kids, be prepared to explain why God would do this.

The movie follows Moses from the time his mother sets him afloat to a better life - a surprisingly touching scene - to his descending from the mountains with the Ten Commandments. But this story isn't quite the one from the Bible. At the opening, a printed announcement says it's an adaptation, and that if you want the real story, read Exodus.

Fair enough. In the Dream-Works version, Moses (with the voice of Val Kilmer) grows up in his adoptive family as a son of Pharaoh and the brother of Rameses (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). Moses is shaken when a chance meeting with his biological sister Miriam (voice of Sandra Bullock) makes him realize his Israelite origins. He flees the palace, finding love and a sheepherder's life.

But when he encounters the burning bush, he has a new mission: to free his people from slavery under Pharoah. He returns to the palace and discovers that Rameses is now on the throne. From here, the movie plays the story as a conflict between brothers. It makes for a powerfully human tale.

The filmmakers blended traditional and computerized animation, with outstanding results. For example, a chariot race between Moses and Rameses is dizzying as they dart through streets and careen down a collapsing scaffold. There's also a clever dream scene where hieroglyphics come alive and dash across a textured wall.

The biggest visual stunner, as one might guess, is the parting of the Red Sea. DreamWorks says it took more than 318,000 hours of work by animators, technicians and others to create these seven minutes of screen time. The result is spectacular.

Two quibbles. The last scene, where Moses comes down from the mountain with the stone tablets, just seems tacked on. And while the music deftly turns the mood from somber to hopeful as Moses and his people leave their former captors - a scene that includes the moving ``When You Believe'' - the songs and score in general don't stick with the viewer after the show.

No matter. There's still a lot to savor.

``The Prince of Egypt'' was directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, and produced by Penney Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins. In addition to those already mentioned, among the actors lending their voices are Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin and Martin Short.

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