Holy Moses! In their attempt to challenge Disney's dominance of the animated film front, DreamWorks Pictures has taken the essentials of two classic biblical epics ("The Ten Commandments" and "Ben Hur"), thrown in the requisite musical numbers, tossed in two buffoonish henchmen and added a mishmash of computer animation styles to come up with "The Prince of Egypt," their first animated musical. The only thing missing from this messy project is talking animals and any true sense of fluent style, storyline or emotional drama.
"The Prince of Egypt" pulls out the big guns in the beginning with an animated explosion. The beautifully sweeping Egyptian landscapes and an adventurous chariot race between Rameses and his adopted brother Moses are truly breathtaking, while a dream sequence where hieroglyphics come to life to reveal the true reason for Moses' arrival in the home of the pharaoh is jaw-dropping animation. But the dichotomy of styles quickly becomes more of an annoyance than an asset. The animators have given far more depth to their portrayal of the landscapes and heaven-sent disasters than to any of the characters who wear angular and emotionless faces and walk as if one leg were shorter than the other. Sadly though, the animation is surely the strongest thing about "The Prince of Egypt."
Even though the film boasts big names for the characters' voices, the majority of the stars cast in the roles are known more for their camera appeal than their vocal dexterity. Val Kilmer's Moses, Michelle Pfeiffer's Tzipporah, and Ralph Fiennes' Rameses come off extremely flat, lending little to no emotion. Even Steve Martin and Martin Short as the Pharaohs bumbling priests of Ra are indistinguishable.
But the film's biggest problem is its incoherent take on a book of the Bible that is already extremely well-known. In order to make the religious saga told at break-neck speed more palatable for the secular sect, the script focuses more on the relationship between Moses and Rameses, a la "Ben-Hur," as they confront their childhood love and their adult antagonism, than it does on the relationship between Moses and God. God's miraculous appearance through the burning bush, with a sultry intonation also voiced by Kilmer, never establishes any true sense of connection with Moses. Meanwhile, his wrath on the Egyptians, which finds them running around with pinkish-purple lesions and having their eldest sons slain, comes off as far more vile and tyrannical than the Pharaoh's atrocities.
Stephen Schwartz, the former Broadway wunderkind who found his niche in the animation pantheon by penning the lyrics to several Disney features, provides some extremely blasé tunes which do little to further the plot. One song which pits the Hebrew God against the Gods of Ra, the laughable "Playing With the Big Boys," is almost blasphemous.
The biggest disappointment of all is the lack of any type of cathartic feeling as Moses accepts his destiny and finally leads his followers to the land of milk and honey. By this time, the parting of the Red Sea, which is visually splendid, comes across simply as high-tech animation and "The Prince of Egypt" turns out to be the biggest and most expensive Sunday-school cartoon ever made.