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Dreamworks presents
Prince of Egypt (1998)

"Take this staff, Moses, with it you shall do my wonders. I shall be with you, Moses."
- God (Val Kilmer)

Review By: Robert Mandel   
Published: May 08, 2000

Stars: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michele Pfeifer, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover
Other Stars: Patrick Stewart, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Mel Brooks, Helen Mirren
Director: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells

MPAA Rating: PG for (violence, scary themes)
Run Time: 01h:39m:00s
Release Date: September 14, 1999
UPC: 667068485325
Genre: animation


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AAA A+

DVD Review

There seemed to be countless reasons why I couldn't get the family to see The Prince of Egypt at the theaters, and now having watched this on DVD I'm kicking myself for having missed it on the big screen. Now, so you know, I can rarely sit through an entire half-hour cartoon, unless it's Ren and Stimpy or Bullwinkle, let alone 90 minutes of silly animated characters sporting slapstick and 5th grade humor. But Prince of Egypt is anything but your run of the mill Saturday morning kiddy's fare. In fact, I'd say that Prince of Egypt is more for grown ups, or at least kids eight and up, than the normal Disney target market.

Why is Prince of Egypt so different?

First off it takes on a theme where the elves are enslaved Hebrews, the bad witch is a Pharaoh who is the protagonist's adopted brother and best-friend, and the animals don't talk, but the burning bush does. The story of Exodus is an inspiring, yet daunting task to film live (just ask Cecille B.) let alone animate for a full-length film. Now, if this film has a flaw outside of being cut short of the really interesting part (let alone that parts tie in to Raiders of the Lost Ark) is that it simplifies this complicated story for a larger audience. To their credit, DreamWork's admits right up front they took some liberties with the story of Exodus, which becomes apparent, I feel sure, since there weren't many musical numbers in God's original treatment. But hey, at least it's not Waterworld, er, the Noah's Ark miniseries.

Second of all, this is the most incredible blend of hand drawn, 2D, 2D-CGI, and 3D-CGI animation I have ever seen. I mean, the backgrounds are pieces of art themselves. Be honest, when you think of background you picture Wiley Coyote chasing RoadRunner past the same flat backdrop mesa scene after scene, episode after episode. The artists at the newly created DreamWork's animation studio received their inspiration a couple years back when the principle players took a trip to Egypt to get a first hand look at the "places Moses walked."

It was the creator's ambition to "extend the boundaries of animation" by calling upon an eclectic triumvirate of visual style elements: the intense Bible etchings of 19th century French illustrator Gustave Dore', the vivid colors of Impressionist painter Claude Monet's work, and the sense of scale from the works of director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). All three of these styles are evident in the background drawings first conceived on "fieldtrips" the background artists took to Death Valley, California. The hand painted backgrounds were then melded with 3d models of the city, 2D drawings of the characters, hand drawn artwork and shadows, etc. The included featurette about the creation of the animation is simply fascinating, as I'll talk about later.

But I'm only scratching the surface so far. Despite an uncanny resemblance between the characters here and in Antz! , it is the steady flow of "defining moments" that separate The Prince of Egypt from most other animated films. For instance, I was caught and reeled in when Moses falls into a nightmare where the hieroglyphs come to life. This seems to me a mesmerizing concept, which actually gives greater dimension to the rest of the film. Then, in the cave when Moses stumbles upon the burning bush there are two miracles, the one from the bible and the other playing itself on the screen—the ebb and flow of the light from the flames as it reflects off of the rippling water and shadow dance on the walls of the cave—incredible. There are so many more. The wrenching stomach drop as if it was you in the chariot and the ground beneath you had caved in. The backlighting of Jethro's tent. The shifting of focus as if shooting a live shot between different points of focus. But I swear I had an epiphany when the exodus reaches the water, the ebb and flow of the water and the light refracting off the shifting waves.

Yet still there is more. The parting of the sea, the pillar of fire, and the plagues, particularly the incredible sequence with the hand of god slaughtering the first born Egyptians...it's almost as if the hand of god had touched this film. And it did. Well, as directors Hickner and Wells tell it, the animators were planning the chariot race as a sequence of cut shots, but Spielberg told them to stay with the characters as one master, filming the scene as if it were a crane shot following the action. Tremendous idea, Steve, but it would cost a LOT more money to make it happen. It's my humble opinion that it is this creative based thinking which has so far differentiated DreamWorks Studios from the typical Hollywood business mindset.

"Jeffrey, Steven and David's decision to make this a film they had to make rather than a film that they were marketing was the best decision they could have possibly made. The focus isn't on putting out toys, or doing things other people want you to do, it's to do a film that they actually think is a good film."
-David Brewster, Supervising Animator (the queen)

Yet this is not Armageddon, with its Bruckenheimer action and bare bones script and characters. This is the epic tale that put epic in tales. Of course, if I really have to tell you the story, well...get thee hence to bible class. Moses, set adrift by his mother in a basket upon the Nile because the Pharaoh is killing male Hebrew babies, is discovered and adopted by the same Pharaoh's wife. Raised as an Egyptian, Moses is rambunctious brother and friend to Rameses, heir to the throne of Egypt. When a slave dancer beguiles him, Moses helps her escape then follows her through the city. Here he runs into his biological sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron, who tell him the truth of his origins. When it becomes apparent to him that his life as he has known it is nothing more than a lie, he stumbles into the desert where he nearly dies. Instead however, he is discovered and becomes a shepherd in Jethro's camp, falling in love with Jethro's Daughter, Tzipporah, and the same Midianite girl whom he chased into this world. After much time, he comes to peace with his role in life, only to stumble upon the burning bush and his true calling. Now, he must face his once brother turned foe to free the Hebrews from their oppression in Egypt. It is only when the plagues come to take the life of his son that Rameses finally relents. The rest, as they say, is history.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: DreamWorks presents this account of the biblical exodus with an anamorphic original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio. As you may have guessed by my gushing this is a stunning transfer, nearly flawless. There is a plethora of colors used throughout the film, all of which are deep, rich and rendered without bleeding or pluming. The image is crisp and sharp, despite that my TV does not receive the 33% increase in vertical resolution. I did notice that when I ran the subtitles, in at least one scene, there was slight jittering. While I did not check the entire film, from a quick scan of all scenes, this does not seem to be the case throughout.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The disc contains a very nice Dolby Surround 2.0 track, but it does not hold water to the extremely active Dolby Digital 5.1 track. One of the main differences between the two tracks is the ability of the 5.1 discrete channels to capture the movement of sounds across the soundstage, and separate the orchestration of the musical score. Hanz Zimmer's orchestration is quite beautiful, with high peaks during Moses' first encounter with god at the burning bush, and during the "hand of god" sequence. Because of the lack of discrete rear channels, the 2.0 mix does not sound as focused. Still, as this all unfair to the 2.0 mix, it is an excellent mix judged against other 2.0 mixes.

Audio Transfer Grade: A

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Chicken Run and El Dorado
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Storyboard
1 Feature/Episode commentary by directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. The Prince of Egypt Art Gallery
  2. When You Believe Multi-language Presentation
Extras Review: This single-sided, dual layered disc is chock full with features, for which even the menus count. Each menu is animated with scenes from the film along with musical score segments, including a very nice animated full-motion scene access menu (28 cues). No detail is sparred, down to original menu elements such as the snakes that act as the Next and Back access.

Other standard features include English subtitles and captions for the hearing impaired, two trailers for The Prince of Egypt (in Dolby Digital 5.1, no less, so the full surround effects are utilized!), cast and crew bios and filmographies, and production notes (alas, they are the same as the liner notes). Also included here are sneak preview trailers of Dreamwork's next two animated releases: Eldorado, with Kevin Kline and Kevin Branagh, with music by Elton John and lyrics of Tim Rice; and Chicken Run, from the creators of Wallace and Gromit, with Mel Gibson.

The true special features on this disc begin with the fine featurette The Making of Prince of Egypt, which takes the project from the concept, born before the formation of the studio was even announced, through the behind-the-scenes discussion and interviews snippets with the some of the 425 animators, technicians and special effects personnel, musical talent, voice talent (including Ralph Fiennes, Val Kilmer, Jeff Goldblum, and Sandra Bullock), which gives a sense of the amount of effort put forth to develop this incredible film.

I love getting into the nitty gritty of how scenes are developed, so one of my favorite features is the The Basics of Animation: The Chariot Race featurette, which allows directors Wells and Hickner (Chapman was giving birth!) explain the animation process. The short shows through multiple on-screen frames, the incredible process (approximately 9 months) utilizing artists from all over the world, from the black-and-white Leica Reel (pre-production), to the initial line test, to the secondary line test with background, to the finished color animation with motion blur (a process invented during the project). Even the directors seem amazed at the feats accomplished, generally referring to some of the incredible, crazy concepts as "writing checks without any idea how to cash them!"

The second related featurette, "Focus on Technical Effects," speaks not only to the "hows" of creating moving images, but to the integration of traditional animation with digital and visual effects to create the final composite images. The featurette explains the different types of animation used with examples, including 2D (hand drawn characters), 2D/CGI (dust storms, back lighting, shadows, flickering from a torch), 3D/CGI (extras in the exodus sequence, stone texture and lighting effects during the hieroglyph nightmare sequence, enhancement of the parting of the Red Sea).

There is also an automated still frame Prince of Egypt Art Gallery, which includes mostly pre-production black and white drawings of characters, scenery, and events, but also some productions stills in both full-frame and 1.85:1. Some of the former are lavish, while others are understated, simple figure drawings (simple, ha!) that show the immense range and talent of the drawing crew.

The included feature-length commentary with director Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells, while interesting, may be the weakest feature on the disc, solely because they spend much of the time giving props to the animators and technicians involved with each scene (and rightfully so, don't get me wrong), but say little to enhance the scenes otherwise.

Much as New Line does however, Dreamworks seems to approach each special edition release as a separate piece of art, not relying on the edition generated before. One example is my favorite special feature, the presentation of the multi-language When You Believe scene. This is a presentation of the scene splicing together the multiple singing talents, as an example of Dreamwork's effort to prepare the film for release in 50 countries in 28 different languages. The seamlessness of the song vocals is truly amazing. I think that the true testament to the beauty and power of Stephen Schwartz's original songs, in particular When You Believe, is that I cannot get it out of my head. I don't go much for the kitchy Disney-like songs, but I guess I'm not the only one who liked it since Mr. Schwartz was honored by the Academy with the Oscar® for best original song.

Extras Grade: A+

 

Final Comments

The Prince of Egypt is a special piece of work, and proof what a studio can do when it ignores convention. Some of the themes may scare smaller children, but are bound to keep adults interested throughout. The craftsmanship and love poured into the making of this film—and disc—is evident from the special features down to the menus. If you haven't purchased this one yet, do yourself a favor: Let your wallet go!

 


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