From a baby's harrowing ride down the River Nile to a parting of the Red Sea that would make even Cecil B. DeMille smile, DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt" is that rarest of film creatures: a biblical epic that does both its subject and its medium proud.
That its medium is animation makes the feat even more impressive. Seven decades of talking critters and lovers who live happily ever after has made animation largely a kids' domain. True, adults helped make "Snow White" and her successors classics, but it's the non-threatening nature of animated films that has made them staples, films that generations of parents and even the youngest children could enjoy together.
"The Prince of Egypt" looks to alter animation from a kids' toy to a filmmaking tool, one that can be used to tell almost any story. And it works, thanks primarily to some wondrous artwork from animators one senses were given great artistic freedom. (Too bad the songwriters didn't have the same enthusiasm; the score is rarely better than ordinary, although it is fun listening to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston try to outdo each other on "When You Believe.")
The film opens with Moses' mother saving her infant son from Egyptian executioners by setting him adrift down the Nile. As fate would have it, young Moses floats right into the royal palace, where he is adopted by the Queen (Helen Mirren) and raised alongside the true prince, Rameses.
The two "brothers" grow up as fast friends with a penchant for mischief -- particularly Moses (Val Kilmer), who loves nothing better than goading Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) into raising the sort of ruckus sure to get him in trouble with Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart).
Moses begins the film as a happy, regal soul who rarely gives a second thought to the thousands of slaves. But then two things happen: He learns of Pharaoh's decision to have the sons of the Hebrews killed (the better to ensure his slaves' continued servitude), and he learns that he was one of those Hebrew children, alive only because his mother had set him adrift.
So Moses flees the palace and goes to live with his people, where he meets up with his sister, Miriam (Sandra Bullock), who urges him to work for his people's freedom. Moses isn't so sure until God himself, in the form of a burning bush, makes an even more persuasive argument.
Thus Moses returns to Egypt, where Rameses has succeeded to the throne, and begins the work of setting his people free.
As the voice of Moses, Kilmer brings just the right combination of confusion and quiet strength to his characterization. Equally well-cast is Fiennes as Rameses, who is portrayed not so much as a devil, but as a son struggling to live up to the legacy of his father. Rameses is not evil, but stubborn and proud -- a combination that causes his people considerable agony, in the form of a series of plagues that culminates in the death of the firstborn son of every Egyptian family.
The film also makes its female characters integral to the plot -- something most biblical epics fail to do. Bullock is just a little too girlishly exuberant for Miriam, but Michelle Pfeiffer brings strength and courage to the voice of Moses' wife, Tzipporah.
The plague scene and others, including a frighteningly imaginative hieroglyphic depiction of the earlier slaughter of the Hebrew children, are way too strong for very young children. Such scenes, plus the absence of any real comic relief -- a pair of high priests voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short are the closest to comic sidekicks the film has, and they're barely on screen -- may keep pre-teens from embracing the film.
But that certainly shouldn't stop their parents, for whom "The Prince of Egypt" should prove a welcome Christmas gift indeed -- a film that's both smart and visually exciting. Of such things are movie classics made.
'Prince of Egypt'
Starring voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock
Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells
Released by DreamWorks
Rated PG (some violence and adult situations)
Running time 99 minutes
Sun score ****
Pub Date: 12/18/98