23 January 2011

PLAYING WITH THE BIG BOYS

The second of two reviews request by Kara Wild with her donations to the Carry On Campaign; the first is here.

Well do I remember when The Prince of Egypt opened: for it was 18 December, 1998, which happened to be my 17th birthday, and I recall my mother asking if I wanted to see it.* I scorned this idea, of course, but for exactly the wrong reason: not because I was taken up in those days pot and surreptitious drinking and sex, and nice, normal things like that, but because I had already chosen my side in the Disney/DreamWorks war, and I wasn't going to see no god-damned Jeff Katzenberg movie, the fucker.

Don Bluth's departure from the Walt Disney Company in the late '70s might have been prickly and contentious, but it didn't have anything on the bile-soaked blood feud between CEO Michael Eisner and studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that came to a head in 1994, shortly before the release of Katzenberg's greatest financial triumph at Disney, The Lion King. A man of his enviable talents would not remain untethered for long, and before the year was over Katzenberg had joined forces with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form a new entertainment company, DreamWorks SKG. Katzenberg's presence meant that DreamWorks would spend plenty of energy on animated films; his personality meant that DreamWorks Animation would be devoted to the task of crushing Disney.

The first battle came in the fall of 1998, when both companies released computer-animated films about ants (according to a legend that seems too perfect to be true, John Lasseter pitched his ant movie in the very last meeting that Katzenberg attended as a Disney executive). Disney handily won that first engagement both at the box office and in history, with the aid of by Pixar Animation Studios - brought into the company fold by Katzenberg himself, which must surely have galled him - for although A Bug's Life might be oftener counted among Pixar's weakest films than its strongest, when was the last time you remember having any conversation at all about Antz?

That little scuffle was nothing at all to DreamWorks Animation's second feature, one that sought to meet and top Disney at its own game: a traditionally-animated musical about a young man finding a better life, taken from folklore. And just to be sure, it was given a budget higher than any animated film had ever received, even in the days when Disney was pitching huge amounts of money at any project that would stand still. In the end, The Prince of Egypt turned out to be the highest-grossing animated film produced by any studio other than Disney, for a little while at least. It also proved to be the start down a dead end path for DreamWorks, which tried to do the "male protagonist adventure film" thing for a few years until realising that there was much more money in unendurable slurries of pop culture jokes and soulless post-modernism. But for a little while, at least, the house that Katzenberg built was still making a good-faith effort to create sincere, engaging art.

"Good faith" - a curious term to use, for of course The Prince of Egypt is unique in being an adaptation of the first part of Exodus, making it the most overtly religious major animated film ever produced (for all its founder's all-American conservatism, Disney generally shied away from actively Christian stories). For some of us, this might not seem like such a big thing: Disney focused on medieval European fairy tales, DreamWorks was going to dabble in ancient Middle Eastern fairy tales. Not that much of a difference, really. Except that Katzenberg and company were obviously trying to pull a Passion of the Christ on their audience, making a rollicking entertainment that doubled as a spiritual lesson, at least to judge from the opening title card, which solemnly and neurotically assures us that though liberties have been taken with the letter of the story, the spirit remains the same. Oh, and the closing card, which points out using the primary texts of three different major religions that Moses is regarded as a dominant figure not just by Jews, but by Christians and Muslims as well. Which is why The Prince of Egypt was briefly banned in a few Muslim countries with particularly strict laws on creating artistic depictions of prophets, but that's mostly just trivia.

The sad fact is that The Price of Egypt is actually terrible theology, unless you define "good theology" as "carefully dabbing out all the unpalatable material in the Torah so that it won't offend modern viewers". There are, in truth, only a few specific changes to Exodus; and nearly every single one of them is designed to obscure the degree to which the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible is a mean-spirited piece of work; i.e. in the film, we are told that Pharaoh is stubborn and prideful and for this reason he will not permit the Hebrews to leave Egypt; in the source material, he several times decides to let them free, until God "hardened his heart", apparently because God wasn't done showing off. But going any further in this direction would be tedious and pointlessly confrontational of me; let it suffice to say that The Prince of Egypt is exactly as religiously correct as you anticipate from anything that Steven Spielberg signed off on.

Happily, the film taken on its own terms is nowhere near as broken as I've probably indicated so far: its biggest flaw as a movie is that it turns much too serious for its own good, though it otherwise is an entirely satisfying animated adventure story, one that would have given me pause were I a Disney exec (though it also does not suggest in any way the degree to which DreamWorks would begin stomping Disney following the release of Shrek in 2001). It suffers from what would become the chronic DreamWorks problem of casting voices based entirely on the marquee value of the actors involved, and the songs save one are on the mildewy side (they're by Stephen Schwartz, who was also one of Alan Menken's post-Ashman lyriscists in the mid-'90s; if you've ever rolled your eyes in disbelief at the candy corn inanity of "Colors of the Wind", you owe him a punch in the gut, and if you like "Colors of the Wind" you have my pity).

But it's a beautiful film, and it opens huge: a grand, soaring aerial shot over the Giza pyramid complex, where countless Hebrew slaves are singing that one good song, "Deliver Us", as the directors focus in on individual acts of torment, then dart back out for a wide view, than back; thanks to particularly dramatic and thunderous music that feels as much like an oratorio as it does like Broadway, it's all very imposing and historic and impressive. As the focus starts to tighten on a woman placing her infant son in a reed basket to save him from the Egyptian murder squads, the music becomes less portentous, more winsome and pained, as the mother sings a lullaby to her child and sends him down the river to his fate, where he's found by the Queen of Egypt (Helen Mirren), who adopts him as her own - the only significant change to the story not plainly motivated by a desire to jolly up mean ol' YHWH, the change from Pharaoh's daughter to his wife is made for purely dramatic reasons, as it then allows the story to be about two brothers having a terrible falling-out.

(About the film's directors that I so casually mentioned: none of them went on to be tremendously important forces in the world of animation, though all remain employed: Steve Hickner does storyboards at DreamWorks, Simon Wells did the same though he's directing a mo-cap film for Disney, while Brenda Chapman, the real reason I've launched into this parenthetical in the first place, has recently become dubiously famous for being punted as director of Pixar's Brave, and made history with The Prince of Egypt as the first woman to serve as director on an American animated feature).

After the mini-opera of "Deliver Us", The Prince of Egypt skips ahead and never quite comes up to the same level of visual beauty and dramatic profundity; but it also never drops so far as to become particularly problematic. In a nutshell: the adopted boy, Moses (Val Kilmer, a wildly bad choice: not because he isn't up for the acting challenge, but because he sound like he just took the bus in from Iowa) does not know that he is a Hebrew, but just accepts life as the naughty younger brother to Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), heir to the throne, and constant disappointment to the Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart, another bad choice: his voice is much too distinctive and horribly distracting, but at least he's not in the movie much).

The usual personality conflicts in any family-oriented brother vs. brother story occur; Moses finds out that he's a Hebrew and flees Egypt after accidentally killing a slave-driver; he falls in with a Midianite tribe and marries Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer, yet another bad choice: she sounds banally American despite being drawn to look "exotic"), daughter of the Midian chieftain Jethro (Danny Glover). Years pass, and Moses hears the voice of God (a melange of sounds and numerous different voices, but Kilmer's predominates; he's a better God than Moses) coming from a burning bush. And from this point on, it's pretty much exactly the story told by all three Abrahamic religions: "let my people go", ten plagues, Passover, parting the Red Sea.

As far as taking a classic piece of folklore and using it as the basis for a story of family ties and the desire to find one's place in the world, The Prince of Egypt is every bit as successful a narrative as most of Disney's movies from the same decade, though it is, like I said, a bit hamstrung by its absolute desire to be thought Very Serious and Significant. There's very little room for fun anywhere, and the designated comic relief villains, the Egyptian priests Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short) are noteworthy primarily for being mostly dreadful, both in their design (they're the only cartoons in a steadfastly realistic film, or at least one where the stylisation is largely inspired by Egyptian art), and particularly in their ghastly big number, a tonally incoherent piece of comic menace that benefits from some dramatic animation and nothing else.

Still, the central nugget of the film, which is emphatically not one of spiritual awakening but of the pressure of being torn between duty and family, is entirely convincing, not least because of Fiennes's best-in-show performance, a warmly human take on a schematic literary figure. It is thanks to him above all that the matter of Moses and Rameses is shown to be a personal conflict, not a religious or political one; though the script keeps stating this over and over again, nothing in the film's depiction of Moses really makes it believable. But in Rameses, in him we can see the pain of being abandoned by a loved one, and while reducing the Exodus story to "Pharaoh was upset at Moses and took it out on the Hebrews" is terribly theology, it's remarkably compelling drama (this is all ultimately taken from the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, but the DreamWorks version is infinitely more intimate than DeMille's starchy melodrama).

It helps everything that the characters are so convincingly animated by a great team, many of whom followed Katzenberg from Disney, some of whom returned there. At this point, DreamWorks was still trying very hard to replicate that studio, not present a new way forward, so it's hardly surprising that most of the characters feel so Disneyesque, nor that the fluidity and quality of their expression is at times the equally to anything Disney was putting out around the same time (The Prince of Egypt was released the same year as Mulan, and a year later than Hercules; the latter in particular is a fine film for many reasons, but exquisite character animation isn't clearly one of them). Again, Rameses is a highlight: even underneath his make-up, designed to further connect the film visually to Egyptian art, his feelings are quite plain. But the animators in charge of Moses pick up where Kilmer's performance never reaches, creating a sensitive figure quite the equal of his adopted brother. It's in these two gracefully-drafted characters that The Prince of Egypt finds its best footing: for all the sturm und drang all over, it's the littleness of the central humans that makes it a good film, not the epic scale - though by all means, the epic stuff is often quite good, though at times it goes a little over the top (the plague of fire is excellent; the passage of the Red Sea is kind of silly and too self-conscious, as in a moment where a whale's silhouette can be seen in the wall of water. It's meant to be dramatic, but it's mostly goofy, and though the filmmakers could not have anticipated it, recalls the already-completed "flying whales" sequence from Fantasia 2000 in a most uncomfortable way.

The Prince of Egypt is a movie made by incredibly talented people, working to put together one of the most beautiful animated films of the late 1990s; they are undone only by the certainty that they are doing something important. There needs to be a bit more oxygen, is all, and a bit less hushed awe, and definitely less distracting celebrity voices (a close second to Patrick Stewart in this regard is Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, the kind of inspired miscasting that, taken in isolation, would make the film sound almost kitschy). But as far as an exercise in working out the kinks, The Prince of Egypt could have been a great first step for DreamWorks to take. They didn't unfortunately, go in the direction promised by this film; after a few mostly harmless light entertainments in traditional animation, they embraced the dark side and a decade later, we have Megamind. It did not have to be so, and while it is no masterpiece, The Prince of Egypt makes me weep for its promise of a road not taken.

12 comments:

Movies Now and Then said...

It was Ralph Fiennes, not Joseph Fiennes.

Too bad this wasn't a rave. It's one of my favorite non-Disney animated features, though.

K Wild said...

Thank you, Tim. This was fantastic!

It's always puzzled me that PoE has all but fallen off of the radar. Though it is somewhat heavier and more disturbing (the corpse of a dead child in particular) than a Disney film, it is still, as you say, highly entertaining. I don't think Dreamworks ever knew how to market it (the DVD cover of the young Prince doesn't give any hint of who he is or what's to come). You won't even find a reference to it on their website. Maybe it just makes their later work seem too embarrassing?

I don't think there's a badly drawn frame in the whole film. The only things I find puzzling are that (1) Moses's skin becomes noticeably paler about mid-way through the movie and (2) the character artists only thought to age him and Rameses; all of the other characters look the same. The first one I try to dismiss by thinking that Moses spends more time wearing that cloak and less time bronzing his shirtless body in chariot races.

Tim said...

Movies N&T- Absent mindedness, but fixed it now, thanks.

Kara- It definitely threw me that Moses looked so much older when Tzipporah didn't, but I think it's in keeping with the idea that, given the man-hours involved, animators like to spend the most effort on the most important characters and scenes. Since it only "matters" that Moses and Rameses get noticeably older...

Still can't explain what happens to his skin tone.

And I think the likeliest reason it's fallen off the radar is the new paradigm that DreamWorks did so much to create, that CGI is the only commercially valid form of animation now. Though I don't know; if they're still eagerly pimping out Sinbad, it might just be that they have awful taste.

Mike said...

Hey! Colors of the Wind isn't that bad! :)

K Wild said...

I actually like the song "There Can Be Miracles," but mainly for the "Ashira l'adonai" song that was grafted into the middle.

M.C. said...

His Pocahontas music was pretty banal, yes, but I really loved what Stephen Schwartz did in Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

franklinshepard said...

MC - Schwartz didn't write the music for Pocahontas or Hunchback - Menken did.

I quite like Schwartz's music, but IMO he is not one of the great lyricists, or even tier II.

I do quite like this movie - I saw it in HD and it looked fantastic. Even the celebrity voices don't bother me (with the exception of course of Steve Martin and Martin Short).

M.C. said...

franklinshepard - Oh, I was referring to his lyrics; I was aware that Schwartz only did lyrics for Disney, but just assumed that they stuck him with another songwriter at Dreamworks. Thanks!

javi75 said...

I haven't seen this movie but did see the direct-to-video sequel, "Joseph king of dreams", which follows the same style of character design, I think. What I remember the most is a dream scene that uses digital morphing and stuff like that to transition from imaget o image, painted simulating impressionism, I think.

brian said...

one problem with Prince of Egypt is its stereotypical racism as highlighted by Dr jack Shaheen in Reel Bad Arabs
http://www.reelbadarabs.com/
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko_N4BcaIPY
thats a problem with disney animation over all...stereotyping

K Wild said...

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think the ancient Egyptians were Arabs. The Arabs didn't migrate up to Egypt until centuries later.

javis75: Joseph King of Dreams is good, though PoE has far superior animation. JKoD has a surprisingly strong storyline for a direct-to-video movie.

Daniel Silberberg said...

@brian: Woah, yeah, I'm really not seeing the racism there. I'll give you Aladdin for sure, but I thought the Egyptians were very humanely portrayed in this, and, as K Wild says, they're not Arabs.

@Tim: Maybe it's because I was a few years younger than you when it came out, but the celebrity voices didn't bother me at all. The only one I recognized was Goldblum, and after watching the film a bunch of times, was stunned when I finally looked at IMDB and said, "Wait, that was KILMER? And STEWART? No way!" Also, I thought the whale was fucking rad. Again, younger when I first saw it.