It's fair to say that when DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg began dreaming up his new studio with his partners David Geffen and Steven Spielberg he would probably have been shocked to know his studio would soon become a byword for popular but unremarkable kids' films. Katzenberg already had a prominent role at Disney doing just that, but a combination of internal politics, his frustration at getting overlooked for promotion and his desire to see animation reach greater heights lead him to launch first the DreamWorks studio with Geffen and Spielberg and then to head up its animation wing.
"I didn't want us to tell fairy tales" Katzenberg explained at the time, "I wanted us to pick an interesting, dramatic, epic...embracing all the techniques of animation"1 It was an artistic vision that Katzenberg's team on The Prince of Egypt really bought into. As Nicola LaPorte wrote in her book charting the birth of DreamWorks "for visual inspiration, the artists had studied the painterly visuals of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, nineteenth-century illustrator Gustave Doré's Bible woodcuts and Monet".2
As if to underline the point Thomasine Lewis was commissioned to produce a "Movie Scrapbook" for the film which devoted a two page spread just to explain the film's emotional beat board and explaining how the "selection of colours for each scene was influenced by the emotional tone of that scene". "At the movie's darkest point, when Ramsees' son is killed, the film became monochromatic".3 I wouldn't claim to be an expert in the field of 'books written to tie-in to animated movies', but I can't think of many that would even think of going behind the scenes, let alone go into them in such detail.
The result of all this thought, care, love, referencing and attention to detail is a stunning visual experience. Created at a time when traditional, hand-drawn, animation was still strong, but CGI was finally getting to the stage where it could have an impact, the film blends the two techniques to great effect. It's as if hand-drawn knew it no longer quite had the dominance of its past and CGI had not yet got too big for its boots and so was still eager to serve.
Indeed despite voices being provided by household names such as Val Kilmer (Moses), Ralph Fiennes (Ramsees) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), the real stars are the incredible backdrops. Richie Chavez's sweeping deserts and Darek Gogol's towering architecture make Prince of Egypt seem bigger and more splendid even than films such as DeMille's Ten Commandments, Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and Wyler's Ben Hur; all of which are given notable tributes as the film progresses. As the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt 75 minutes in, the film's catchiest song - "There Will be Miracles" - strikes up a reprise. The accompanying images, revealing the extent of destruction wrought on this once great kingdom, flick by. Each "scene" lasts only a few seconds but many are so immense in scope that no live action filmmaker would dare to attempt them. In one sixty second section alone there are thirteen shots, many of previously magnificent structures now brought low. The cost of producing the sets for just one of these shots with live action - let alone all of them - would be impossible to justify for the brief few seconds for which they flicker across the screen.
Gogol's work is particularly notable for the way his dominating architecture is so interconnected with the Egyptian psyche. The Egyptian's all encompassing self-belief reflected in stone and marble, physically towering over the slaves building it, as if as an expression of their masters' systematic dominance. At times both Ramsees and his father Seti unknowingly match the shapes and poses of the art that both surrounds and honours them (see above). All of which forms a startlingly contrast with Chavez's more expressionistic mountains and deserts.
Yet the most celebrated sequence in the film takes place inside, as Moses' world begins to unravel with the sudden revelation that he is a Hebrew saved from the very man he had come to call father. The moving hieroglyphics scene is repeated in Prince of Egypt's prequel Joseph King of Dreams but it is not a patch on the original. Here, there's a combination of drama, inventiveness and technical mastery as the story hurries from one surface to another, simultaneously providing an objective account of the events that happened in the past alongside a subjective account of what Moses is feeling at that very moment. And then the the two threads merge as Seti coincidentally appears at Moses' side to offer an unconvincing justification which morphs into Hitchcockian strings and the camera fading to black.
What is also impressive is the way the "camera" thinks like a real camera, occasionally leaving part of the shot out of focus, or placing certain objects or characters on the edge of the frame. There are zooms and shifts in the depth of focus all of which make the images feel like they are more real than they actually are. The burning bush is first observed by the shadows and flickers it casts upon the cave wall and only then do we get the slow pan right to reveal the thing itself.
Indeed what's strange is that the weakest part of the visuals is the part that the team seemed most excited about at the time - the special effects. The burning bush, for example, becomes less interesting once it is actually appear in shot. The attempt to make the parting of the Red Sea extra dramatic results in it being over-the-top, a little too showy; likewise the pillar of fire. The plagues are a bit of a mix also. Generally they are carried out effectively - the use of fast cuts and short shots adds to the impression of terror - and generally the Angel of Death scene is eerily unnerving, but not dissimilarly the odd moment feels over fussy.
But that's a minor criticism, even less so when you consider how badly much CGI from the era has aged. Which is just as well as The Prince of Egypt does rely on its visuals to carry a lot of the plot and themes, from the way the camera moves through the mists upto the giant carved face of Pharaoh at the start, through to the various montages that accompany the musical numbers. Indeed, due to the film's relatively short running time (88 minutes, compared to 150 minutes for Exodus: Gods and Kings and 220 minutes for The Ten Commandments) these montages carry considerable weight, making the film feel like less of a musical than most of Disney's output (though more, obviously, than the majority of Moses films).
The film breaks with The Ten Commandments in other significant ways too, particularly in its portrayal of the two princes. Whilst both films contrast Moses with his 'brother' Ramsees, their characters are very different. In DeMille's film, even as an Egyptian, Moses is upright and honourable, whereas his brother is proud, arrogant and scheming. Here however, whilst both brothers are prone to bouts of teenage irresponsibility, Ramsees' problem is his worry and self doubt. As heir to the throne, his father repeatedly reminds him that he is a link in a chain going back centuries. Ramsees is weighed down by his fear of being the Pharaoh who lets his ancestors down and sees Egypt slide into ruin. It's a bitter irony that it's this fear of failure that leads him down the very path he is so desperate to avoid.
In contrast, Moses is the carefree playboy, getting his brother into trouble. When he tells Ramsees that is problem is that he "care(s) too much" his brother counters "your problem is that you don't care at all". It's not that Moses is callous - life simply hasn't exposed him to suffering. However things change for him when, in his desire to be the centre of attention, he humiliates the women who will eventually become his future wife. He laughs uproariously, but then he notices the effect his loutish behaviour has had on his victim and he's struck by a sudden pang of guilt. Moses is a hedonistic playboy with a heart. His killing of the Egyptian (above) is an accident - again the result of him witnessing a kind of suffering with which he is totally unfamiliar.5 As he later reflects "I did not see because I did not wish to see".
Given the degree of personal transformation Moses undergoes after his encounters with Tzipporah and Miriam, it's perhaps no wonder that the Bible's own moment of Moses' conversion is rather truncated. God commissions him and then gets angry with him for failing to grasp the point is what ends up being a few seconds. Pretty quickly, then, Moses is back in Egypt warning his much-missed brother, outsmarting lightly-entertaining priests, dispatching plagues and leading his people to freedom. The sea parts and the people go through, taking a smattering of Egyptians with them, and the film ends with Moses standing above a huge crowd nursing a couple of stone tablets. It perhaps feels a little rushed, yet, like so many of the shots that have preceded it, it is nonetheless an indelibly majestic image.
1 - Katzenberg from Making of documentary on DVD.
2 - "The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.", Nicole LaPorte p.116
3 - Thomasine Lewis, "The Prince of Egypt: The Movie Scrapbook - An in-depth look behind the scenes" pgs 32-33
4 - As my 7 year old son put it "you don't have to get so angry".
5 - Perhaps it's just the way my DVD player works but it you watch this in slow motion the falling Egyptian goes up instead of down, allowing the "fall" to take longer. Again the contrast of the shots from below and the overhead shot from above is particularly effective.