This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20. In celebration, Callie Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.
02] The Prince of Egypt (18th December 1998)
Budget: $70 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%
1998 was a damn good year for animation. Pixar finally completed work on and released their follow-up to Toy Story in the form of A Bug’s Life, Disney turned in the best of their direct-to-video sequels in the shape of The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, DreamWorks’ debut animated feature Antz was a successful and unique opening statement, whilst Paramount and Nickelodeon finally brought Rugrats to the big screen to enormous success, and, of course, let us not forget that 1998 was the year that Disney gave us Mulan. 1999 would end up topping it – to a degree and with worrying signs that we will touch on next week – but there is no denying the excellence of 1998’s line-up. For the most part (*shuffles Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer The Movie off-stage*). And then, just as the year was wrapping up, DreamWorks dropped one last entry into the absurdly strong animated canon of 1998: The Prince of Egypt.
You’ll recall from last week that this was supposed to be DreamWorks’ grand entrance into the animation landscape but was ultimately supplanted by Antz thanks to the competitive desires of DreamWorks’ CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. You may also recall that A Bug’s Life ended up opening on November the 25th of 1998, which is what Katzenberg was so terrified of, the possibility that A Bug’s Life may end up crushing The Prince of Egypt at the box office. Except that it didn’t work out like that. Opening three weeks after A Bug’s Life, The Prince of Egypt took a lucrative pre-Christmas release slot and still opened late enough for A Bug’s Life to have sufficiently worn out its box office welcome – it, after all, is very rare for animated film to continue to be very strong performers a month after release and with other options available. The film opened at number 2, behind You’ve Got Mail, but had staying power, actually making more money over the notoriously slow Christmas weekend, dropping rather steadily week-to-week and earning plenty of money during the week, too. (Check the facts for yourself, here.)
The film was also a strong performer overseas, doubling its domestic American gross, and eventually closed as the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of all-time – until Chicken Run two years later, but we’ll get to that – and the highest grossing traditionally-animated non-Disney film of all-time (until The Simpsons Movie in 2007). But it didn’t stop there, as The Prince of Egypt wound up scoring something that A Bug’s Life did not, an Academy Award. Yes, of the studio’s fifteen nominations and three wins, The Prince of Egypt was responsible for two, Best Original Score Musical Or Comedy (which it lost to Shakespeare In Love because the 1999 Academy Awards, everybody) and Best Original Song (which it won in a category conspicuously lacking any Mulan entries, but I digress). So, yeah, I think it is fair to say that The Prince of Egypt more than held its own against the raring up of the Pixar juggernaut – although, fun little fact, both would fail to take the 1999 Annie Award for Best Film; that went to The Iron Giant.
Besides, this continual competition that Katzenberg feared that A Bug’s Life would bring was rather moot from the very beginning because, much like with Antz, both films were both doing different things. Only this time, the similarities only came down to the fact that they were both animated movies coming out around the holidays. That’s the sole thing both films have in common, but that’s apparently all they needed to become fierce rivals battling for the public’s attention. Such fears are especially baffling because The Prince of Egypt is a biblical epic told via the medium of an animated musical. And it’s not like the public could be in any way confused by the targeted audience of either film; compare the trailer for A Bug’s Life with the trailer for The Prince of Egypt.
Of course, the true test facing The Prince of Egypt was the fact that it was a traditionally animated film by a company that was not Disney. Once upon a time, such a market thrived (hello, Don Bluth) but a whole bunch of middling, at best, animated films (Cats Don’t Dance, The Swan Princess, Once Upon a Forest, Quest for Camelot among many, many others) spoilt such a thing, making Disney pretty much the only consistently strong performer of animated goods, and therefore the only one worth putting down money for. The fact that most films were trying to emulate the Disney style of storytelling, and ended up doing so really rather poorly, didn’t help things. Misconceptions nearly always have some basis in truth, after all, it’s rarely just people being ignorant for the hell of it.
For The Prince of Egypt to stride in, as the new feature film from an animation company that had only just released their debut feature – which was so wildly different in tone, style and animation technique that one could be forgiven for thinking that they weren’t even by the same studio – looking remarkably similar to many sub-par Disney knock-offs on paper and with a budget three times that of most non-Disney failures, was practically inviting premature commercial suicide.
But, as we all know, the film ended up a rousing success. So, how come? Well, one could throw some of the credit to the Christmas release window. A biblical epic released one week away from that most religious of holidays? That’s practically ordering devoutly religious families to clear a spot on their calendar for a seasonal visit or seven to the cinema! Plus, it’s based on an Old Testament tale, Moses and his freeing of the slaves of Egypt to be exact, and one that has basis in plenty of other faiths (the film even has a short little bit post-credits where it quotes passages in the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that praise Moses and the influence his story has on their faith) to make it very approachable for foreign audiences of different religious persuasion.
It’s also really accurate; though the film takes some liberties with the Exodus text (and admits so before you even see a single frame of film), the production crew called in Bible scholars, theologians of various faiths and Arab American leaders to keep the film as authentic as possible. It sounds unnecessary, but let’s not forget the recent furores that sparked up over Noah’s deviations from the original tale. You could also give credit to the title, which is vague enough to draw in the more secular for whom the descriptor “bible story” would send them running for the hills – you may laugh, but Disney named Tangled and Frozen the way they did because they believe that one of the main reasons for the failure of The Princess & The Frog was the fact that “Princess” was in the title – and the trailer promised an action-packed romp that could bring in excited young boys.
You could say all of those things. I instead choose to believe a simpler, much more naive reason: The Prince of Egypt succeeded at the box office because The Prince of Egypt is f*cking brilliant.
As the opening statement for DreamWorks Animation it was clearly intended to be before the whole Antz business happened, The Prince of Egypt is as bombastic as they come. Everything carries a grandness to it, the kind that only a large risk-taking budget can provide. It’s there in the look of the film; environments are large and wide open let crawling in detail, character animations look and feel extremely natural and fluid, conspicuous CG is used to enhance certain scenes and achieve its more audacious effects (like the parting of The Red Sea). It’s there in the storytelling; which is melodramatic in the best kind of way, where everything is epic in scope and every action is a giant event of great significance, yet it is all rooted in a strong central relationship.
It’s there in the songs (hell, the score in general); the definition of grandiose and bombast, with booming choirs harmonising foreboding chants, an orchestra that sounds populated enough to fill an aircraft hangar and whose every note sounds like it’s heralding the incoming apocalypse. You could not get closer to the kind of overblown historical epics that classic Hollywood used to pump out if you spliced in scenes from The Ten Commandments at random intervals – fitting, considering that the project allegedly came about when Steven Spielberg directly told Katzenberg that he should make The Ten Commandments.
In fact, why am I even describing what the film is like when all I need to do, literally all I need to do, to get you to understand the feel of this film is to just show you the plagues montage?
That is the whole movie. It remains at that kind of grand sweeping level for the majority of its run time, and that makes the film unique. Not just for animated films but for films in general, let us not forget that that kind of overblown historical/biblical epic was nearly killed off nearly half a century ago after the production disaster known as Cleopatra (when your film is the highest grossing of the year yet still lost money overall due to the exorbitant budget, history is going to write you off as a failure). To put it simply, they didn’t make films like this in 1998. They still don’t, in fact.
There’s genuine spectacle, here, especially helped by the fact that this is one utterly gorgeous film. This film is 15 years old, I saw it in rather crappy standard definition, possibly poorly up-scaled to HD, and it is still one of the best looking animated films I have ever seen. There’s the detail that accompanies every scene, no matter how small, the smoothness and fluidity of the character animations, the opulence that drips from the Egyptian palace and the meagreness of the residencies of the peasants and the slaves. And then there are the individual shots, many of which you could divorce from the context of the film and hang up in art galleries and nobody in their right mind would go, “Hang on, why on earth is that here?”
But opulence and spectacle unchecked just leads to the realisation that all you’re watching is empty flash, all the pretty visuals in the world can’t save a film without some kind of emotional grounding. Fortunately, The Prince of Egypt realises this also and so the dramatic centre of the film comes from the relationship between Moses and Rameses. In this telling, Moses’ basket is found by the wife of Pharaoh Seti’s consort wife and he is brought up as Rameses’ adopted brother leading to the central dramatic conceit being whether Moses can convince his brother to do the right thing before he has to take everything from him. The opening third of the film actually does a good job at establishing their relationship, they’re dearly loving brothers with Moses as the troublesome younger sibling and Ramses as the one who is being groomed for leadership and is eager for some kind of acceptance from his father.
The whole film runs on this relationship that they both have and its eventual disintegration, and it’s why we take somewhere in the region of at least 50 to 60 minutes before the plagues actually come about. The film wants to establish its characters before it rains down God’s fury and it works brilliantly; there’s a scene just before the final plague where Moses confronts Rameses one last time and the two recall a memory of a prank that Moses played that’s genuinely saddening. It never forgets this central dynamic, even during what should be a thoroughly uplifting climax when it takes the time to show Rameses stuck on a rock in the middle of the sea, futilely shouting Moses’ name to the heavens whilst Moses stands miles away, clearly still full of regret for the loss of that relationship.
Also helping that emotional grounding is some excellent low-key voice work. The only one who ever lets loose with theatricality is Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, which is rather fitting, actually. Everyone else plays things very reserved which leads to performances that feel genuine. Patrick Stewart shows up as Pharaoh Seti and his calm, soothing voice is what really sells the scene where he informs Moses about the slaughtering of the peasants’ first born, as if he thinks it will actually cheer up the horrified Moses. Val Kilmer plays Moses and his voice work is excellent here, most specifically in showcasing his character’s evolution. He starts off like Fiennes, very theatrical and jovial and pompous and all that, but he actually changes up his voice as Moses goes through the film, toning down any and all theatricality in favour of a subdued and clearly weary voice, as if he can barely shoulder the weight of his task and the emotional toil and guilt it’s saddling him with. He also, uncredited, voices God and his performance is so soft and paternal that, quite honestly, it amazes me that this isn’t one of the standards for God portrayals; it fits so damn perfectly.
Speaking of God, I’m pretty sure the thing that pushed The Prince of Egypt over the top for me, the scene where it clicked that I was watching an incredible movie, was the way it treated The Angel Of Death. Now, let’s face facts, this scene in concept is utterly horrifying. I realise that God slaughtering all of the first-born sons of Egypt really is the only way to move Pharaoh and that it’s all for the greater good and how God only did it because he was forced to this extreme, but it is a truly horrifying thing to have happen. Wisely, The Prince of Egypt does not attempt to sugar-coat it and depicts the scene exactly as it sounds on paper.
And yet the scene is actually rather beautiful with the way that it’s constructed, the muted and slightly washed-out colour scheme and the impeccable sound design coming together to create a scene that I genuinely feel comfortable calling art. It doesn’t pull its punches, not one of them, and the result is a wondrous scene of horrifying beauty. And the film actually lets the scene breathe, it lets the distressing nature of the action linger and settle instead of immediately cutting to happy smiley fun times (the song that follows on actually starts downbeat and despondent and waits a while until it becomes triumphant). In fact, just watch it, words can’t do it justice.
If there is one thing about The Prince of Egypt that I don’t like, and it is just the one thing, it’s the songs. They’re not bad; not by any means, they’re all very grand and bombastic and overwrought and that kind of earnest go-for-broke-ness is extremely rare, so they have a charm of their own if nothing else. It’s just that they’re all kind of… forgettable. Interchangeable. Eh. Other than their overblown nature, they haven’t really got anything going for them. They lack a tune, they lack something that makes them stand-out.
To compare it to something else that came out in 1998, remember how Mulan had “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”? Course you do, pretty much everybody who has seen Mulan can at least hum the basic tune of that at the drop of a hat. Well, The Prince of Egypt doesn’t have anything close to that, they all just wander in and out of the film when necessary and lack long term impact or memory. I also really don’t like “Playing With The Big Boys Now” which is lyrically lazy instead of catchy, does little to advance proceedings and goes on for what feels like twice its actual length. Oh, and the end credits feature a song by Boyz II Men, in case you wanted a reminder that this was a film made in 1998.
I’m going to admit that I was rather apprehensive going into The Prince of Egypt. Growing up, I attended a Junior School that basically forced you to be a Christian and to be knowledgeable about religion, with mandatory daily prayers and mandatory weekly hymn assemblies with some scripture thrown in for good measure. So my distancing from religion comes just as much from it being a forced part of my daily life growing up as it did my general lack of faith. And I do not like being preached to about the wonders of religion; unlike most notable atheists, I’m not opposed to religion as a whole – I actually have a great deal of admiration for people whose faith is strong enough to believe in a divine power that looks down on us all – but I am opposed to people trying to force their way of life upon others. Therefore, I tend to be apprehensive whenever biblical tales are presented for my filmic enjoyment. This is a dumb subconscious feeling to have, I am well aware, especially since the Bible is comprised of some of the most classic and compelling narrative conflicts available, but it’s a feeling that continues to sit with me to this day.
Fortunately, The Prince of Egypt blows away past that cynical barrier by being like pretty much no other animated film out there. Its strong emotional centre, its gorgeous animation, its great voice work, and its infusion of classic Hollywood excess combine together to create a film that had my full attention from practically frame one and my emotional investment well and truly secured by the 15 minute mark at the latest. It’s also a film that commits fully to its material; if this were a Disney film, they would have diluted the impact by adding a wacky talking animal sidekick to provide the kids with some mood-lightening laughs – I love Mulan with all of my heart, I would love it ten times more if Mushu were nowhere in sight. Instead, The Prince of Egypt is 100% committed to telling its story in the manner and tone that it deserves, and it’s all to its total benefit. This is one of those films that has slipped into cult classic status almost accidentally, the result of a film that was a smash upon release but just kinda got overshadowed by, and for being so unlike, a studio’s later output, but absolutely deserves its status. This is a f*cking fantastic film!
With two financial and critical successes under its belt, plus an Academy Award in only its second feature release, it would seem like a safe bet to say that DreamWorks Animation had arrived. It would, however, be 15 months before they released their next film, one that would underwhelm critically and fall victim to a distressing trend at the box office. The Road to El Dorado is the film in question and, next week, we’ll see if it truly deserved its fate or not.
A brand new entry in The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective will be posted every Monday at 1PM BST.
Callie Petch went to descend to amend for a friend.