"The Prince of Egypt" follows a time-honored Hollywood tradition: even in animated biblical epics, the Jews are portrayed by Gentiles. The idea of Val Kilmer as Moses is no more ridiculous than the sight of Charlton Heston in the same role, and Kilmer falls right into the trap of most actors who take on biblical personages: As God starts talking to him, he starts assuming the same lofty height in his dealings with the other characters, talking to them the way you'd talk to a 5-year-old. And if you'd never heard the story of Moses, you could still tell that Moses' half-brother Ramses, who will grow up to be the Pharaoh, is the villain because he's voiced by Ralph Fiennes, and in animated features, an English accent means "bad guy." (Think of Jeremy Irons in "The Lion King.") Why is it that every British actor in a cartoon turns into George Sanders?
It's people who don't know the story of Moses, though, who concern me here, specifically the young children who are going to wind up being taken to a massively hyped PG-rated cartoon released during Christmas vacation. Perhaps because the filmmakers assume everyone is familiar with this tale, they don't bother to set the story up at all. The picture simply opens on the sight of Jewish slaves being whipped by their Egyptian overseers and then, with no explanation of Pharaoh's decree, shows us scythe-bearing Egyptian soldiers advancing menacingly on cribs. Very young kids aren't going to realize that the soldiers are slaughtering Hebrew children, nor are they going to understand why Moses' mother shoves him into a basket and drops it in the river.
The effect is likely to be more confusing (and perhaps more unpleasant) than traumatizing: The movie doesn't beat up on its young audience the way "The Lion King" did. But later on, when Moses has returned to Egypt and is imploring the Pharaoh to let his people go, the plagues that God visits upon the Egyptians will not only mystify kids, but will divide any emotional involvement they might have built up. How are they supposed to react when they see the suffering of people they've been told are the enemies of the characters they've been made to identify with? Are they supposed to feel good when they see the plague stealing into houses where Egyptian mothers sleep with their children? The God of this story is the terrible God of the Old Testament, and his undiscriminating vengeance is a complication in a cartoon that so closely follows the genre's formula of good overcoming evil.
With so much riding on its attempt to steal Disney's thunder, it's no surprise that Dreamworks would further up the ante that's been rising over the past few years as animated features have taken on more and more unsuitable subjects. (Can an animated Holocaust musical be far behind?) Animated features aren't really for kids anymore. I think we've gotten to the point where the toys and books and games that these movies spawn are doing the job that the movies themselves used to do: They're the part kids find entertaining. Movies like "The Lion King," "Pocahontas," "Mulan" and now "The Prince of Egypt" are sold as prestige pictures, family-oriented events, Oscar magnets. Perhaps the studio execs like being able to point to these movies when they're accused of purveying junk.
That's really the only purpose I can see for these movies -- they're PR vehicles. They lack the simple charm of good animated features, and that limits their appeal to kids. (I'm betting young moviegoers will be bored out of their skulls at "The Prince of Egypt.") And what sane adult goes to see them expecting a serious treatment of their subjects? Let's be honest, if you want to adapt a famous novel or explore a momentous historical event, you're not going to make a cartoon, Art Spiegelman notwithstanding.
You can see this schizophrenia at work even in the style of drawing. Computers have allowed animators to turn out films that are more and more fluid. At times in "The Prince of Egypt" -- a chariot race seen from the point of view of the drivers; long shots of the Jews beginning their Exodus out of Egypt; the camera doing a 360-degree pan around Moses -- the goal seems to be to make the physical movement as lifelike as possible. In other words, as little like a cartoon as possible. Sure, there are some impressive physical effects in "The Prince of Egypt," but they're out to wow you, like the special effects in action movies. The visual pleasures feature cartoons have given us in the past, like the beautiful pastel shots of London in "101 Dalmatians," would be considered pretty tepid stuff nowadays.
And the determination to broaden the way the characters are drawn beyond the traditionally WASPy look of cartoon characters just results in Jews or Native Americans who are as bland as WASPs. What are the bombastic Broadway arrangements of songs like "Hakuna Matata" in "The Lion King" or the numbers that Stephen Schwartz has come up with for "The Prince of Egypt" but multi-culti kitsch? Is anybody foolish enough to think that kids (or anyone else) are learning something about other cultures when they see the Jews at the edge of the Red Sea and hear heavenly choirs singing, "There can be miracles when you believe"?
"The Prince of Egypt" is a botch in almost every way. The storytelling is sloppy, the tone is numbingly po-faced, and the comic interludes with two bumbling high priests (Martin Short and Steve Martin) feature production numbers about as cheesy as the ones in "Showgirls" (though nowhere near as much fun). And Moses isn't exactly Simba; the story lacks the basic gut punch that has allowed Disney to work over generations of young audiences. But that won't stop it, for a week or two, from taking in a ton of money. (For God's sake, though, if you need to take your kids to see something over the holidays, take them to "Babe: Pig in the City," which is the most inventive feast of filmmaking this year.)
Time magazine's "Prince of Egypt" cover story last week was exactly the sort of "serious" consideration the moviemakers are angling for, confirmation that they've made more than just a cartoon. The same goes for the end credit thanking the "educators, clergy, Bible scholars, Egyptologists, biblical archeologists, and religious leaders who lent their knowledge and expertise to our production." What they've made is simply an animated version of the turgid old costume epics Hollywood occasionally turned out as prestige releases. "The Prince of Egypt" is middlebrow kitsch, but kitsch straining for respectability and therefore without the energy that can make kitsch entertaining. It's also a summation of the sorry state of cartoon features: not really for kids, not really for adults. To think that American animation has forsaken the pleasures of "I yam what I yam" for the solemnities of "I am that I am." Oy.