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THE PRINCE OF EGYPT

by: Michael Dequina

"It's unlike anything you've seen before"--words that have been intoned many times by many a studio chief trying to wrap a veneer of freshness around another stale assembly-line product. But coming from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the "K" in DreamWorks SKG, in reference to the company's first traditional animated feature, The Prince of Egypt, the statement is, well, gospel. Prince is unlike any animated feature ever made, a musical drama that just happens to be completely drawn. It's epic in every sense of the word, from subject, spectacle, sentiment, and, most of all, seriousness--and, as such, I have no idea how it will be received by the public.

Prince's larger-than-animated-life intentions are clearly--and most memorably--spelled out by directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells in the prologue. "Deliver us to the promised land," pray the Hebrews held in bondage by the Egyptian pharaoh Seti (voice of Patrick Stewart) as Yocheved (Ofra Haza) sets her infant son Moses adrift on a river in an attempt to spare him the life of a slave--and possibly free his people in the future. Moses is rescued from the sea by the Queen (spoken by Helen Mirren, sung by Linda Dee Shayne), who takes Moses in as her own. This sequence is truly astonishing, from the visuals to the haunting song that scores it, "Deliver Us," composed by Stephen Schwartz.

The opening is just one in a long line of spectacular sequences in this treatment of the Book of Exodus, in which Moses's (spoken as an adult by a full-voiced Val Kilmer, sung by Amick Byram) bond with adoptive brother and eventual pharaoh Rameses (Ralph Fiennes, well-cast) is broken after he discovers his true identity--and calling--and crusades for his people's freedom. The animators exploit all that the medium currently offers and then elevate it to the next level: a harrowing nightmare scene is made even more chilling by being told in pantomime through hieroglyhics; and computer-generated effects are effectively, and unobtrusively, used to enhance such crucial scenes as Moses's encounter with the burning bush, the deaths of the firstborns, and the dazzling parting of the Red Sea. Artistically speaking in the literal sense, Prince is easily the most impressive animated feature ever made.

But there's more to the film than awesome visuals, which would be empty without an absorbing story and characters. Prince has both, regardless of the viewer's religious beliefs; the themes of brotherhood, freedom, and faith (in oneself) are universal, and they resonate strongest in the film's quieter scenes. In fact, these quieter scenes hold the most lasting impact: simple moments like Moses feeling the desert sand blow over his entire body, or, my personal favorite, the song number "When You Believe," which is currently out as an overblown pop single performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. The film version, sung to Moses by his sister Miriam (spoken by Sandra Bullock, sung by Sally Dworsky) and wife Tzipporah (spoken and sung by Michelle Pfeiffer, in fine vocal form) is beautiful and transcendent, building a muted yet no less powerful crescendo of complex emotion; in the pop version, any and all emotion is lost under all the diva bluster.

Schwartz, a veteran lyricist for Disney animated efforts (the two most underrated, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), also writes the melodies here, and his song score is not without a couple of missteps. "Playing with the Big Boys," sung by Rameses's court magicians Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short) is a throwaway, and the just-OK "Through Heaven's Eyes," sung by Tzipporah's father Jethro (spoken by Danny Glover, sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell), is redeemed by the dramatic importance of the scene it accompanies. By and large, Schwartz does a more than adequate job, exemplified by his two standout compositions, the aforementioned "Deliver Us" and "When Y

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