Playing with the big boys now

In search of a creation myth, Dreamworks has turned to Moses. Andrew Gumbel reports on high-stakes storytelling

A little over halfway through The Prince of Egypt, the new cartoon epic based on the Exodus story, Moses appears before Pharaoh and, invoking the authority of the one true God, demands the release of the Israelites held in captivity in Egypt. As a sign of his power he flings his shepherd's staff to the ground. It promptly turns into a serpent.

Nothing too surprising there, we might think, especially if we remember our bible stories, or have seen Charlton Heston strutting his stuff in The Ten Commandments. But then something utterly unexpected happens. Not only do Pharaoh's fortune-tellers and magicians imitate the trick with their own wooden rods; they laugh in Moses' face and throw themselves into a song-and-dance routine that fills the screen with flying playing- cards, spinning plates and multi-coloured ribbons. "You're playing with the big boys now," they snarl.

The courtiers have so much fun lording it over the would-be deliverer of the Israelites that they don't see what is going on. Moses' serpent swallows the other serpents whole, just like it says in the Bible, but quietly, in a corner and out of sight. It is a sophisticated irony: instead of making Pharaoh gasp and quake at this demonstration of superior power, as the traditional accounts do, the film-makers let the whole thing pass him by, a sign of the blinding arrogance that will lead to his downfall.

The Prince of Egypt is full of such narrative tricks, a sure sign of its ambition to reach beyond the traditional audience for animated films - young children and their somewhat reluctant parents. The story is so densely and ingeniously told that one wonders how easy it will be for viewers not familiar with the Moses saga to follow. It is not only Rameses who fails to notice the serpents devouring each other; a five-year-old might easily miss it too.

Such are the risks being taken by DreamWorks, the infant studio set up by three of the biggest players in Hollywood - Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. It is making no bones about its ambition to out-Disney Disney with this project.

Katzenberg, in particular, has shown his determination to break new ground. As head of production at Disney for 10 years, he was the man responsible for such hits as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast - and The Lion King. Now, having quit Disney and taken much of the cream of his creative team there with him, he hopes to push animation into new areas. These days he is thought of as a mogul, but he retained overall creative responsibility for The Prince of Egypt as executive producer.

"Prince of Egypt does not have the beautiful simplicity of a classic Disney cartoon," he said. "It is not a fairy-tale with good guys and villains, where good triumphs over evil. The ideas are complex, the issues are ambiguous and grey. We wanted to tell a different kind of story in a different kind of way." In other words, DreamWorks wanted to break animation out of the straitjacket of children's films and turn it into something else - grand spectacle. The Moses story has been imbued with every kind of significance down the ages, from the birth of monotheism to the establishment of Jewish law, to the struggle between tyranny and freedom. In DreamWorks' hands, it is essentially an adventure story, starting with a teenage Moses joyriding in a chariot with the young Prince Rameses and culminating in the ultimate animator's challenge, the parting and crossing of the Red Sea.

The Moses we see is not the stern lawgiver, but an ordinary guy subjected to extraordinary circumstances. He is as dwarfed by events as the audience (Dreamworks hopes) will be by the visual fireworks on screen. The epic scale can be felt not only in the film itself - the scenes of the exodus feature nearly 150,000 fully animated figures - but also in the way that it has been marketed. Next week the film is released simultaneously in 40 countries, with a record 7,500 cinema screens expected to be showing it in the week before Christmas. It will either be a raging success on a global scale, or an ignominious failure. The strategy, a first for an industry that generally likes to test its products country by country, does not leave room for half-measures.

DreamWorks is bucking conventional wisdom in other ways, too. Partly because of the religious theme, there will be no mass merchandising of cuddly toys, games or plastic figures given away with fast-food meals - a time-honoured way for successful animation films to rake in the extra money they need to justify their exorbitant costs. Indeed, Katzenberg appears to have a big investment in making the film appear purer than pure. To make sure it won't offend anyone, he brought in nearly 700 consultants from three world religions - everyone from Billy Graham to Jesse Jackson to the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles. The film insists, in a prefatory statement of intent, that it is true to the "essence, values and integrity" of the Biblical story, despite its departures from the plot and its artistic liberties.

Could the whole exercise be a colossal delusion doomed to failure? Jim Katz, a feature animation producer, isn't sure. "Everybody in this industry says 'we don't want to do what Disney does'. But that's why they're in the game. They all want a piece of Disney's pie, except that Disney still does it better than anyone," he said. "Anything animated is bound to be geared for kids. I mean, I'll go and see Prince of Egypt because I'm in the business and I want to see what they've done. But I don't see too many single men in Oklahoma buying the same argument. It's the kids who will make or break this film." In DreamWorks' favour is the fact there has probably never been a better time to challenge Disney. Animation, which not so long ago was seen as a pleasant but not unduly significant sideline in the film business, has turned into one of the biggest money- spinners of all. Partly this is because of changing demographics in the United States: there are a lot of children out there demanding to be entertained at the cinema. Partly it is down to the success of individual films such as The Lion King, which have encouraged studios to invest in producing more animated features like it.

And partly it is the rapid advance in technology, which has burst open the possibilities of what can be depicted on screen. Computer graphics have become so advanced that it is possible to make an entire film with them (Toy Story, made by the Disney subsidiary Pixar, was the first, followed now by two insect movies, DreamWorks' Antz and Disney's A Bug's Life).

Digital compositing has made it possible to pile layer upon layer of action onto the same image. One innovation heralded by The Prince of Egypt is a so-called exposure tool, enabling three-dimensional computer images and conventional hand drawings to be blended seamlessly.

In many ways, animation is the quintessential cinematic form of the 1990s. Live-action films, particularly the action-adventure blockbusters currently favoured by the big studios, are coming to depend more and more on cartoon- style story-boarding and computerised special effects. The animation industry has been influenced just as much by Titanic, Twister and Terminator II as it has by its own output. Where the technology is shown to work and be profitable in one medium, it is willingly adopted in another.

DreamWorks may lack Disney's name and 70-year tradition, not to speak of its extraordinary corporate marketing clout, but it has two powerful weapons up its sleeve. The first is Katzenberg, who represents the heart of the Disney revival of the early 1990s and has dozens of former Disney animators now working for him. And the second is Steven Spielberg, a director who helped pioneer the live-action cinema-as-cartoon style, particularly in the Indiana Jones series. There are moments in Prince of Egypt - the furious-paced chariot race near the beginning being a case in point - when you feel transported straight into Spielberg territory, with his trademark thrills and plot twists.

"Steven acted as the ultimate sounding-board for this film. We brought him in as much as we could," explained Katzenberg. According to one of DreamWorks' own creation myths, it was Spielberg who first came up with the idea of an animated version of the Moses story. Katzenberg outlined the kind of story he was looking for, Spielberg casually mentioned the Ten Commandments, and David Geffen said: "What a great idea." Beyond the mythologising, it is undoubtedly true that DreamWorks, as a young company, has more opportunities to inject fresh ideas and introduce novel approaches to animated film-making. The Disney formula, what Katzenberg calls "a beautifully designed conceit", has the kind of proven track record that makes management at Disney itself very reluctant to tamper with it.

"What we hear is that DreamWorks is more receptive to new technologies and more flexible about using them. They can also achieve the same things as us more cheaply," said a computer software specialist at Disney who asked not to be named. "Here at Disney there's a lot of tradition to fight." Katzenberg insists he has nothing but fond memories of his time at Disney (though he is currently embroiled in a bitter multi-million dollar severance dispute with his former employers). One can't help wondering, though, if there isn't a Hollywood in-joke buried in his first choice of post- Disney animation movie. Could it be that Katzenberg begged Disney chief Michael Eisner to "let his people go" before leading the exodus into Steven Spielberg's promised land? This time, though, it won't be God on Mount Sinai laying down the new law, but the holiday crowds as they deliver their verdict at the cinema ticket-office.

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