Dreaded Purple Master

The Prince of Egypt

We took Oreta to see The Prince of Egypt for her birthday. I can best describe it in terms of what it is not.

It is not You’ve Got Mail, which hit the theaters the same day and got all the press. I was expecting Egypt to get more publicity than Mail, being more of a creative gamble.

It is not a Disney picture. Jeffrey Katzenberg managed the Disney animation unit throughout its recent glory days from Little Mermaid through the initial stages of Mulan. He left Disney to go into partnership with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen as Dreamworks SKG. At the time, nobody knew what that meant. Since then, the studio has come up with a few hits (Saving Private Ryan) and a few, er, less-than-hits (Antz, Deep Impact), and it has rewritten a few rules about how movies are made.

It is not a children’s story. The Prince of Egypt was supposed to be the film that brought American animation to an adult audience at last. It may yet. Not that there is anything in it that children shouldn’t see – but it is not specifically targeted for a children’s market. The review in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution threw in a snide "Somebody should tell Katzenberg that C B DeMille already made this movie." That’s true, and that’s the point that the reviewer is missing: POE does not suffer in comparison to any live-action treatment of the same story. You might even find yourself forgetting it’s animated.

It is not part of a multi-million dollar merchandising machine. It was almost guaranteed to lose money, since animated films traditionally make their money not at the ticket booth, but with merchandising. Katzenberg deliberately chose not to go that route: Although there are plenty of books, there are no Ten Plagues of Egypt Happy Meals.

I think Prince of Egypt works very well indeed. I’m not qualified to judge it as a religious experience, but as a story it works. The character designs are not traditionally cartoony; there are no pure comic relief characters (no cute dog, no gargoyles, no "sidekicks"); there are very few dedicated voice artists in the cast; everything about the film encourages the viewer to take it seriously.

It’s as much about Rameses, and Moses’ failure to convert him, as it is about Moses himself. Where many such movies fail is to portray the Right Side as flawless, and the Wrong Side as cardboard. In this story, as so often in real life, you’ll feel the anguish that comes from having no easy way out, but only the Right Thing To Do – or not.

It is a fascinating movie with compelling special effects and not a single false step. Passover, in particular, is a horrifying scene, not watered down in any way.

Any film that gets good reviews from both Rolling Stone and Focus on the Family is worth seeing just for the novelty of it.

: Friday, January 01, 1999