Film: The big picture - And God said, let there be light relief

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The Independent Culture
PERHAPS THE old stories are still the best. Evidently the DreamWorks studio hopes so: they have looked to one of the oldest of them all, Exodus, as inspiration for their much-trumpeted The Prince of Egypt, an animated musical epic on which Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the DreamWorks triumvirate, has staked his reputation. If it should fail, it will not be through lack of preparation or ambition. Short of God himself, no film could have a more formidable figure at its centre than Moses, not just the hero of Judaeo-Christian tradition but a man once portrayed on screen by Charlton Heston himself. It doesn't come grander than that.

The Moses story is also perfect for Hollywood, in that it's one of those coming-of-age struggles that wires directly into the American dream of self-realisation and the national appetite for saving the world. Beginning with the infant Moses's famous basket ride down the Nile and subsequent rescue by Pharaoh's wife, the film concentrates on the relationship between Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) and his step-brother Rameses (Ralph Fiennes). It's a small but significant change from the Bible, which had Pharaoh's daughter adopting Moses - by making them brothers the film-makers forge a closer and more complex relationship between the adoptive son and the royal heir. In its early stages we see them as rumbustious young scamps, haring around construction sites in a breakneck chariot race (very Ben- Hur) and dropping water bombs on to the heads of temple priests.

Two very different aspects of the film begin to emerge. The first is the architectural grandeur of Pharaoh's empire, a symphony in cool beige stone with Kane-like, deep perspectives and vertiginous drops. Humans are dwarfed to ant-like insignificance by the towering verticals, pyramids and sphinxes. Elsewhere, the production design nods proudly to a variety of influences - the etchings of Gustave Dore, Monet's paintings, Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments and the wide-screen immensity of David Lean (this is the sandiest film since Lawrence of Arabia). Most compelling of all, and the best demonstration of the animators' art, is the nightmarish epiphany of a palace fresco coming to life and explaining to Moses his own narrow escape from the Pharaoh's massacre. It's a cartoon version of a flashback, yet it achieves a hallucinatory horror that is unmatched even by the film's other great set-piece, a spectral plague whipping around streets and through doors to claim the first-born of every household.

The second and more problematic dimension of the film is the failure of the music to complement the drama. There are sequences of coruscating emotional force in The Prince of Egypt - Moses acknowledging his ancestry; God announcing himself to Moses from the burning bush; the Nile turning blood red; Rameses laying out his dead son as Moses looks on in sorrowing compassion. If ever a film composer had the opportunity to make a name for himself, it's here. Yet Stephen Schwartz's weedy, unadventurous songshaven't a clue about rendering these scenes with the requisite intensity, and that includes the overwrought warbling of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston on "When You Believe". Only once does a tune rise to the occasion, when Steve Martin and Martin Short perform the duet "Playing With the Big Boys" - a sinister invocation of the Egyptian deities - though it's as much their cabaret turn as the temple priests which quickens the interest.

Comic relief is otherwise thin on the ground; the idea of Disney-style anthropomorphism was clearly judged inappropriate (allegedly, the role of a talking camel gave somebody the hump - it ended up on the cutting- room floor). An air of cautiousness hangs over the film; little wonder given the number of consultants the DreamWorks team recruited - ministers, clerics, rabbinical scholars and experts were invited to give their two- penn'orth, and the feeling of storytelling-by-committee is hard to ignore. While the fear of offending is understandable, the earnest tone seems to squeeze much of the life from the film, and this despite the vocal stylings of Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock and Patrick Stewart. Give credit nonetheless: the film-makers cover 70 years of Moses's life in an hour and a half, and manage to invest it with a numinous authority. Indeed, The Prince of Egypt has all the gravitas it can handle; what's missing, ironically enough, is not weight but vitality - animation, in a word.

On release from tomorrow