What marvels of ill assortment the film distributors perform when they dump their products at the close of the year in hope of award nominations. This December brings us the Bible, according to Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen; the adventures of a real-life Dublin criminal, as seen in CinemaScope and black-and-white; and a western, like which they don’t make ’em anymore. Also of note, in this far from exhaustive list, are an American morality tale in which brothers are separated by the love of money, and an English amorality tale in which sisters are drawn together by sex, illness and the finest in classical music.
To begin with the most venerable item on the list: On the theory that animation is the proper medium for dramatizing signs and wonders, DreamWorks SKG has given us an all-cartoon retelling of the Exodus, under the title The Prince of Egypt. The best I can say for the picture–and it’s saying a lot–is that DreamWorks had the good sense to respect a story that’s been sure-fire boffo for at least 2,700 years.
The screenplay (credited to Philip LaZebnik, with additional material by Nicholas Meyer) shows evidence of familiarity with both old puzzles and recent trends in Bible-reading. In keeping with Jewish feminism, for example, a strong role is reserved for Moses’ sister, the prophet Miriam (given an appropriately frank and forthright voice by Sandra Bullock). By contrast, Aaron, whose close association with the mass slaughter of livestock makes him a problematic figure for many modern readers, is pushed to the side–though his quickness of tongue is implicitly acknowledged, thanks to Jeff Goldblum’s voiceover. As for those ancient conundrums: How did Moses figure out he was an Israelite, when he’d grown up in Pharaoh’s palace? The filmmakers provide an ingenious solution involving an early, unruly appearance by Moses’ future wife Tzipporah (voice of Michelle Pfeiffer), augmented by the youthful talent for mischief-making of the prophet himself (voice of Val Kilmer).
But what about the animation? As directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, The Prince of Egypt features a handful of fine set pieces (such as a vision of the drowning of the Israelites’ babies, done as a pixilated bas-relief) but lacks the sustained inventiveness of the greatest cartoons. Still, the artwork is memorable if only for the obligatory comic song-and-dance, performed by two priests of Egypt (voices of Steve Martin and Martin Short). When first confronted by Moses in his character as an uncouth shepherd demanding freedom for his people, the priests unwisely assume he’s a trickster like them; and so they attempt to counter his genuine miracle with their standard hocus-pocus while singing a ditty titled “You’re Playing With the Big Boys Now.” What interests me about the sequence is its passing hint of self-knowledge on the part of the executive producer, Jeffrey Katzenberg. The priests’ magic is presented as if it’s showbiz high technology. Does this mean that high-tech DreamWorks might be on the wrong side of I Am That I Am?