Cinema: The dumbest story ever told?

The Prince of Egypt (U)

Watching the infant Moses drifting down the Nile in the opening scene of The Prince of Egypt, Hollywood's first Old Testament cartoon, I thought, oh no, this is going to be the movie equivalent of one of those token "educational" comic-book strips that were the bane of one's adolescence. You remember, they were always the last you'd grudgingly turn to. Usually of historical or Biblical inspiration - James Watt's invention of the steam engine or the boyhood of Saint Paul - the narrative would be conveyed not by speech balloons but by discrete blocs of text located above or below the images.

Then, abruptly (we're back in the cinema now), Moses was all grown-up. And even if I knew such a hypothesis made no sense with an animated cartoon, it was almost as though he were being played by a real actor, by some sultry hunk whose face and torso were familiar to me, someone I'd seen before - but where? Suddenly it hit me. Keanu Reeves! He was the double of Keanu Reeves! And, a few moments later, when Moses and his bosom pal Rameses larkily raced their chariots through the town and practically gave each other the high-five like two sassy street-smart dudes, it all fell into place. Why, of course, it's Bill and Ted's latest excellent adventure!

In this one, the foundling Ted is adopted by the Pharaoh and raised as Bill's natural brother. All is hunky-dory until a chance encounter in the market-place forces him to confront his true Hebrew origins. After some tortured self-analysis, reminiscent of the mental agonies Keanu had to endure in a previous incarnation, as Bertolucci's Little Buddha, he casts himself into the wilderness and henceforth becomes the Prophet Formerly Known as Prince of Egypt. Years later, returning to court to solicit the release of his enslaved people, he discovers that Bill has meanwhile been made Pharaoh himself and turned into Yul Brynner. At first, Jehovah's rather primitive Celestial Light and Magic (basically, a stick metamorphosing itself as a serpent) fails to do the trick, and it's only when a plague is visited upon the nation's first-born that Bill capitulates to Ted's demands. Even then, however, having permitted him to lead his people into the Promised Land, he reneges at the last minute and sets off in vengeful pursuit through the Red Sea Chunnel.

I won't divulge how it comes out. Suffice to say that the expected coda, in which Bill and Ted are whisked back (or, rather, forward) to modern America, has been audaciously omitted.

Well, okay, I've had my wee bit of fun, and I can't any longer put off properly addressing this monstrosity of a film. It certainly screams to be taken seriously. In a recent interview Jeffrey Katzenberg (who, along with Spielberg, the eternal Spielberg, was one of the founders of Dreamworks, the company that produced The Prince of Egypt) claimed that the animators' brief was to make the movie "look as if it were drawn by Gustave Dore, painted by Monet and photographed by David Lean". Lean, fair enough. He is, after all, the great spectral influence on contemporary Hollywood, and there's a brief visual allusion to Lawrence of Arabia to make certain no one misses the reference. But has Katzenberg ever actually looked at a Dore engraving? Or a Monet painting? It's MC Escher and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema more like, but even then the comparison is crushing.

On a strictly technical level, to be sure, the movie's accomplishments are undeniable. Apparently, it cost upward of $80m and, though this may seem a bizarre comment to make of a cartoon, the money is all up there on the screen. The heavens curdle to vertiginously spectacular effect, pyramids rear up before our discombobulated eyes, the Red Sea parts with a Big Wave more splendiferous than any from that other unforgettable jewel in Keanu's filmography, Kathryn Bigelow's dopey surfing romance Point Break.

But what about (to borrow George Bush's immortal phrase) the vision thing? What about the oleaginously waxy imagery, the bathetically grandiose tableaux, the repulsively treacly songs, the poverty of characterisation? All that effort and expenditure, all those artists and animators, and the end result is a monument of kitsch so aggressively vulgar it makes the dance of the pink-tutu-clad hippos in Fantasia look like a direct crib from Degas.

A wider question, too, is raised by the very existence of the movie. Given the massive success of such computer-generated fantasies as Toy Story and Antz, given above all the fact that so-called live-action features can now represent absolutely anything on the screen, is there room any longer for a conventional cartoon? The Prince of Egypt is stuffed with what Katzenberg himself describes as "special effects", effects by which it seeks to elicit awestruck "Oooooohs!" and "Aaaaaahs!" from a supposedly dazzled public. Which, up to a point, it contrives to do, except that one can't help wondering whether the terms "animation" and "special effects" are finally not compatible. It must surely be as difficult to draw a fire cosily simmering in a fireplace as a conflagration raging through a city. And it's worth recalling that, if the animation of the great Disney cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s remains unsurpassed to this day, it's because of some modestly proportioned yet subtly haunting visuals of guttering candles and eerily gliding shadows.

Beside these masterpieces The Prince of Egypt is, frankly, a bloated horror. And I think of a remark made by Tristan Bernard, the French playwright, in the wake of a calamitous theatrical premiere. "To think," he murmured, "that God, who sees everything, had to see this."

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