New Films: The Prince Of Egypt

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The Independent Culture

Director: Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells, Steve Hickner

Voiced by: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer

In planning his cartoon Life of Moses, DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg envisaged it "painted by Claude Monet and photographed by David Lean". The end result winds up as The Ten Commandments by way of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Val Kilmer voices the aquiline Moses, plucked from the bulrushes and raised as an Egyptian aristocrat before getting hip to his Jewish roots, bedding a dusky nomad (Michelle Pfeiffer) and having a pow-wow with God (in the guise of a burning bush).

After that, just sit back and tick off the scenes. The plagues whip by in a whirl of swarming locusts, cartoon boils, sickly cattle and dead infants. The Red Sea parts in shimmering, silvery curtains. Moses trots down from the Mount Sinai brandishing a pair of stone tablets (one assumes they're the Ten Commandments).

Just as the Tories rant about how New Labour has pinched all their policies, Disney must be seething at the way DreamWorks has co-opted (some would say copied) its formula. A Disney film in all but name, The Prince of Egypt boasts the same sweetened, shoe-horned approach to lofty subject matter, the same penchant for MOR show-tunes, the same state-of-the-art animation (though a shade more swirly and subtle than Uncle Walt's latest efforts).

No, what finally bumps down this otherwise expert and enjoyable blockbuster is its subject matter. In rendering the Exodus as animated fancy, DreamWorks seems stymied by an Old Testament text which rigorously forbids the drama of unpredictability. So while Katzenberg and co set their hero up as the ultimate upstart outsider, one man against an evil empire, he's actually quite impregnable. Moses, you see, has his vengeful, all-powerful God to back him up at every turn; rather like a playground pipsqueak with a brother in the fifth year. In this way The Prince of Egypt gives us story as ritual, and entertainment as holy edict.

I kind of hoped the Red Sea might stay un-parted, or that God would switch sides at the last minute. Anything to break the sheer reverential monotony of it all. HHH