Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Movie Review: Prince of Egypt (1998)

Well, contrary to my review of The Swan Princess and my repeated bitchings about how awful and cheap Quest for Camelot was, there actually are animated films not made by Disney that, on occasion, can be top-notch. One is Cats Don't Dance - but that's not what I'm reviewing here. No - I'm going with Prince of Egypt.

It's the standard Biblical story of Moses, but with a few changes of artistic license - one example is that in the film he's adopted by the Pharaoh's wife, not daughter, and I'm hard-pressed to explain which version is less realistic - that the king of Egypt would allow his wife to take up a baby she found in the freakin' river (she doesn't even know where it's been!) and raise him as a Prince of Egypt, or that he would allow his (presumably) unmarried daughter to do so. Either way, a bit of suspension of disbelief is required.

Another change is the cut made to Moses' mother's involvement in her son's upbringing. In the Bible, she's permitted to be Moses' nurse until he's weaned, and then he goes and lives with the princess. In the film, there's a very sad, teary, and musical (natch) moment where the mother weeps as she watches her baby's basket float into the current, because she knows that although he'll now be free of the Pharaoh's order to kill all baby Hebrew boys, she'll never see him again. In the movie, she never does - although Moses gets a glimpse of her in a cool hieroglyph-designed dream. I'm not sure whether, in the Biblical version, Moses was aware of his Hebrew heritage or not, although I assume his adopted father and other family members would know about it.

In Prince, however, he has no idea. AT ALL. After a fantastic opening musical number in which the Hebrews' plight and Moses's adoption/destiny are colourfully explained ("Deliver Us"), we open on a scene in which Moses (Val Kilmer) and his older brother Ramses (Ralph Fiennes, in another role as The Fellow Who Is Not Fond of the Those Jewish People [see Schindler's List]) destroy a temple and a construction site in a reckless chariot race. Moses is depicted as a pretty jolly type, cheerful, mischievous and easy-going. As a Prince of Egypt, he's accustomed to luxury, but as the second son he conveniently escapes the you-are-destined-to-rule-after-me-so-please-try-not-to-destroy-3000
-years-of-history pressure heaped upon Ramses by their father (Patrick Stewart). Basically, he gets away with a lot more - but he still claims responsibility for the damage he causes, and he and Ramses are shown as having a very affectionate relationship.

After taking pity on a captured desert woman (Tzipporah, played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and helping her escape, Moses runs into Miriam and Aaron - his actual siblings. Here's where there's another difference from the source material. In the film, Moses and Miriam (Sandra Bullock)share the closer relationship, whereas Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) is a bit of a dick. In the Bible, Moses meets Aaron first (and this is after he runs away, too), whereas Miriam gets leprosy. Anyway - Miriam jumps the gun, assumes Moses knows his heritage, and starts gabbling away about freeing the slaves and all that jazz. Moses, realistically, has harboured no urges to free the slaves, and is offended when Miriam suggests they're related, going so far as to assault her. Miriam responds by singing the same tune their mother sang when she gave Moses to the river, and Moses comes to an appalling realization when he recognises it.

Cue shift of world-views! In painfully quick succession, Moses learns he's Jewish, that his "father" ordered the drownings of thousands of babies, and that, like, y'know, the slaves actually suffer. Unhinged, he snaps and kills an abusive slave-driver, flees, meets Tzipporah, marries Tzipporah, cue burning bush, magic staff, bloody water, bugs, boils, and more dead babies.

Let me just say first off that the animation is amazing. Dreamworks seems to have switched to CG after the crash-and-burn of Sinbad was paired with the green-cash-cow success of Shrek, but the imagery here is just breathtaking. I love hand-drawn animation, but it seems now that my favourite visuals are when the film is primarily two-dimensional, but supported by "invisible" computer-animated segments. For instance - The Hunchback of Notre Dame used CG people in its crowd scenes and for the enormous bells, and Beauty and the Beast had that famous swooping-in-on-the-ballroom scene which is gorgeous. Well, they use that to pretty nifty effect in Prince.

Also, in keeping with the subject matter, the film was pretty serious. It had some moments of humour, of course, and the comic relief characters (Steve Martin and Martin Short play Ramses' sneaky court magicians, and get their own music number: "Playing with the Big Boys Now"), but for the most part the film is pretty respectful. No goofy sidekicks, no singing hairbrushes, and most important of all - no talking animal sidekicks. I mean, if every frog that rained from the sky had something to say, the film would be days long, and a raining-frog-musical-number might not have been appropriate for the film's tone. That's not to say I'm opposed to talking animals/inanimate objects, but there is a time and place for a tap-dancing mirror, and that's not when first-born Egyptians are dying in the streets.

I really enjoyed the character dynamic the movie set up between Moses and Ramses. I mean, they start out as the lazy second son with no responsibility, and his stressed-out heir brother, but by the second half of the movie their positions are switched: Moses is the one with his people's burden, and Ramses is the pampered Pharaoh who doesn't give a crap about his slaves' lives. Despite the brothers' former affection, the narrative ably explains Ramses' refusal to simply give his brother what he wants - the first half of the film tells us pretty clearly that Ramses is terribly insecure about his place in his father's dynasty, so much so that he feels he can't take the risk of freeing the slaves and dealing with the inevitable social/political/economic fallout that would result. And holy crap, what a fallout - lots and lots of animation work apparently went into the rain of fire, the locusts, the cool evil-cloud mojo of the Angel of Death - and the parting of the Red Sea. One of the best images of the movie is when the Hebrews, walking along the Red Sea, see the shadows of whales and sharks following them. Cool!

Anyway, along with gorgeous animation, there were cool songs, too. The music was composed by Hans Zimmer (who also composed the score for The Lion King), and the songs are grand - I mean that in the positive way, and in the, well, big way - they're catered to an epic style, which fits with the movie perfectly. They're great tunes, they serve the tone, and they have great lyrics ("By the might of Horus/ you will kneel before us!"). So you have great songs, fantastic visuals, good story, and fairly decent voice-acting. Plus, there's God and stuff. Apparently, Disney doesn't have a monopoly on fantastic hand-drawn films, although they own most of the shares. ^_^

Crush du Jour Rating:

Topher says: Let those people go! (Translation: "Involving. Pretty. Cool songs. A.")

1 comment:

  1. It was a nice romantic movie of that era. The animation used in this movie are terrific. I was also very much touched by the loving story.