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"Rameses! Let my people go! You cannot keep ignoring us."
DVD ReviewThe Prince of Egypt debuted in 1998 as DreamWorks' debut animated feature, based on the biblical story of Moses from the Book of Exodus. The film tells the story of Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer), a Hebrew slave family's baby set afloat in a basket to escape Pharaoh's ruthless extermination of the firstborn. He is adopted by Pharaoh's wife (Helen Mirren) and grows up to lead his people out of slavery under the rule of his adoptive brother Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), aided directly and dramatically by the power of God.
The film surprised many who were expecting a light, Disney-esque treatment of the subject; this PG-rated movie does not shy away from the darker aspects of the story, treating such elements as the slaughter of the Hebrew firstborn, the abuse of the slaves, the Plagues and the Passover with tasteful but unmistakable visuals. The Prince of Egypt also benefits from strong character animation and vocal characterizations from such name actors as Kilmer, Sandra Bullock and Michelle Pfeiffer, many of whom deliver better-than-usual performances here. Kilmer is particularly impressive as Moses, displaying range and energy almost never seen in his live-action work and nearly overpowering Ralph Fiennes' solid portrayal of Rameses. The only exceptions are a pair of oddly humorless performances by Martin Short and Steve Martin as Pharaoh's high priests Hotep and Huy. These are the only misconceived characters in the film, intended as foils but given no substantial business, and the film's serious, emotionally complex tone really has no need for comic relief.
Stephen Schwartz (Godspell) contributes several fine songs to the film's score, most of which add greatly to the film's atmosphere and energy. The exception is Playing With the Big Boys Now, a misbegotten "showstopper" that actually reduces the film's momentum courtesy of Hotep and Huy, but Schwartz's songs and Hans Zimmer's score generally support the film's epic scope and intimate emotions equally well.
Visually, The Prince of Egypt succeeds in doing what Don Bluth has never quite managed, establishing a gorgeous but decidely non-Disney style with rich colors, detailed textures and innovative technology. Lighting is dramatic and well-designed, with rim-lighting adding depth to 2-D characters and subtle animation of light and shadow. Human characters are simplified and stylized but naturalistically animated, avoiding the floating eyes and noses of Disney's stiff Pocahontas with just enough exaggeration to communicate without becoming "cartoony". Special effects are impressively executed, depicting plagues of locusts, realistic water, blowing sand, the Burning Bush and the Passover Angel of Death with beauty and credibility. Hand drawn animation is flawlessly combined with computer-generated visuals, allowing for sweeping camera moves, deep multiplane effects and dramatic shots, some of which were suggested by DreamWorks principal Steven Spielberg.
The Prince of Egypt was researched with a number of consulting theologians to avoid inaccuracy and offense as much as possible; it's an Old Testament story of faith and God's direct action in the world, rarely treated with such reverence in any recent Hollywood film. This is not to say that it's pious or pretentious; it's a very human story that takes dramatic license as necessary to create an exciting, emotional cinematic experience, but it does not shy away from the Judeo-Christian beliefs at its core. The Prince of Egypt is a fine story well told, suitable for family viewing despite some intense moments. A modern animated classic.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: DreamWorks presents The Prince of Egypt in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical format with a fine anamorphic transfer. The source print has a few dirt flecks here and there, but colors are rich, black level is solid, subtle shading and edges are free of distracting artifacts (aside from some aliasing on the opening and closing credits), and detail is impeccable on this dual-layer disc. This is the same transfer used for the film's earlier Dolby Digital release, and although more recent animated DVDs have benefited greatly from direct-to-digital output, this film-based image still holds up very nicely.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The main audio attraction of this release of The Prince of Egypt is, of course, the DTS track. It's one of those phenomenally engineered tracks only animated films can get away with, featuring crisp, clear dialogue, vocals and orchestration. A rich array of sound effects supply atmosphere and accent—LFE bass is deep and sustained, and the soundtrack possesses incredible dynamic range, capturing everything from subtle cricket chirps and wind to the dramatic parting of the Red Sea. I compared it to the impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix from the previous DVD release, and the DTS track is a noticeable improvement, with better three-dimensional imaging, crisper highs and better fidelity overall, especially on subtle spot and Foley effects. Drum roll please—this is the first A+ I have awarded in any category in over 100 reviews here at the dOc!
A Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track is also provided for backward compatibility, and it actually sounds quite good, though noticeably flatter, thinner and muddier, missing most of the subtlety and sophisticated surround effects of the DTS track. The disc lacks the ability to switch between soundtracks "on the fly", but this may be "protection" for receivers which don't detect DTS/Dolby changeover well.
Audio Transfer Grade: A+
Disc ExtrasAnimated 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 The Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Directors Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells, and Steve Hickner
Layers Switch: 01h:03m:50s
The Making of The Prince of Egypt:
A 26-minute documentary released as a promotional special, in 1.33:1 full-frame with a soft, video-originated look. It's kind of a puff piece, but does provide quite a bit of information on the production overall, including video interviews with many of the actors and filmmakers, clips of story sessions and a research trip to Egypt, and some discussion of the film's music, character design and CGI effects. It doesn't cover anything in great depth, but it's more informative than these types of programs often are.
The Basics of Animation: The Chariot Race:
An in-depth look at the film's dramatic Chariot Race sequence, narrated by directors Simons Wells and Steve Hickner. This featurette shows this segment of the film several times, progressing from story reel to pencil test to final form, using split-screens to good effect for comparison (more effective than a Multi-Angle approach, in my opinion) with informative commentary by two of the film's three directors.
Focus on Technical Effects:
Examples of the film's blending of CGI effects with 2-D animation, using brief clips from the film under generic narration of the "here's an example of - " variety with some repeated footage from the Making of - documentary. I would have liked to see more technical detail on the particle systems and fluid mechanics simulations involved, but that's just me.
Co-directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells contribute a good-natured, constantly active commentary track, discussing the film's origins, technology and story structure, giving credit to many of their collaborators along the way. Fascinating material for anyone interested in contemporary animation production, and genuinely entertaining as three talented people share anecdotes about this massive undertaking.
The Prince of Egypt Art Gallery:
A fixed-speed slideshow set to music, featuring beautiful concept sketches and paintings, model sheets, and stills from the finished film. There are some powerful, inspirational pieces of animation art here, and it's great to see them preserved on the DVD as a sort of multimedia version of those "The Art of - " coffee-table books.
Two theatrical trailers released prior to the film's debut, one in 1.85:1 letterboxed non-anamorphic, the other in 1.66:1. Both feature Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround audio and are slightly soft as compared to the main attraction. The two trailers are fairly similar in tone, using much of the same footage, and it's nice to have them included here for historical purposes.
Sneak Preview Trailers:
A dated set of trailers held over from the earlier Dolby Digital release of The Prince of Egypt, promoting DreamWorks' animated features The Road to El Dorado and Chicken Run as "Coming Soon" to theatres despite the fact that both are scheduled for DVD within a few months of this DTS release. It would have been nice to see this feature updated.
Cast and Crew:
A nicely written set of bios and filmographies for ten cast members and five filmmakers, always convenient for those "that voice sounds familiar" moments.
Fairly extensive on-screen Production Notes about the film's genesis in a conversation between Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen.
When You Believe Multi-Language Presentation:
A brief featurette about the complex localization of the film, featuring the Academy Award®-winning song When You Believe shifting from one language to another as the clip progresses.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsThe Prince of Egypt is beautifully designed and animated, an exciting yet reverent treatment of the story of Moses. DreamWorks' new DTS DVD features excellent video and absolutely top-drawer audio, with substantial value-added supplements. Skilled filmmaking and a powerful story of faith combine to make this a must-see for animation fans. Highly recommended.
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