Animated Movies, DreamWorks, Reviews, Studios

DreamWorks Animation Countdown 2: ‘The Prince of Egypt’

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Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks Animation, often suggested an animated adaptation of 1956’s The Ten Commandments while still working at Disney; although Disney CEO Michael Eisner dismissed the idea, fellow DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg suggested it as DreamWorks Animation’s inaugural film. Even though it was usurped by Antz, which was rushed into theaters to compete with Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, The Prince of Egypt still made it to theaters in time for the 1998 holiday season.

Directed by Brenda Chapman (Brave), Steve Hickner (Bee Movie), and Simon Wells (Balto, Mars Needs Moms), the animated take on the story of Moses and the Hebrews of Egypt featured a star-studded cast, an extremely dedicated production team, and the musical genius of Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Wicked) together.

“The motion picture you are about to see is an adaptation of the Exodus story.
While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.
The biblical story of Moses can be found in the book of Exodus.”

The black screen and opening text, accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s beautiful opening score, is a soft prelude to a harsh opening scene, featuring hundreds of slaves working under brutal conditions.

Schwartz’s compelling “Deliver Us” rises with the brutality as we witness the Egyptian soldiers forcibly removing Hebrew babies from their homes.

But still a moment of softness: Yocheved sings her last lullaby to the baby Moses as she sets him afloat along the river to save his life.

For an animated film to take on such real and harsh human experiences is unusual within itself; but The Prince of Egypt does so almost unflinchingly, without extra sugarcoating or condescension toward the presumably, and largely, youthful audience.

Production Design & Animation

An immersive film, often praised for its beauty, The Prince of Egypt was created with a determination for detail. A crew of 350 people, from over thirty different nations, some pulled from Disney or Spielberg’s disbanded Amblimation, worked tirelessly to create the over 1,190 scenes in the film. Visual development, headed by art directors Kathy Altieri and Richard Chavez and Production Designer Darek Gogol, meant a visual style reflective of the grand scale and architectural monoliths of Ancient Egypt, with wide spanning views of the buildings, monuments, and locations. Over 930 hand-painted backgrounds were created alone – and the artistry shines through in every scene.

That level of detail carried through in other areas of the film, from the studious depictions of the various ethnicities seen in the films–Egyptians, Hebrews, Nubians, etc.–to the special effects departments extensive animations for everything non-character. The blend of traditional animation and computer-generated imagery comes to the forefront, for example, in scenes of the plagues through Egypt, the incredible parting of the Red Sea, and Moses meeting with the Burning Bush.

The Voice of God

While the music department of most animated films focuses solely on the music, sound editor Lon Bender worked with this music team on a new and inspiring challenge: creating the voice of God.

God’s many and varied depictions previous featured a large booming voice, emanating from the heavens if not directly from a human form. Bender chose a different tone, one that possibly stands as the most spiritually touching:

“We were trying to create something that had never been previously heard not only from a casting standpoint but from a voice manipulation standpoint as well. The solution was to use the voice of actor Val Kilmer to suggest the kind of voice we hear inside our own heads in our everyday lives, as opposed to the larger than life tones with which God has been endowed in prior cinematic incarnations.”

Using that inner voice, something so familiar and real, to create a God that truly does feel like part of his own believers. The scene of Moses and the Burning Bush is one that moves the senses and the spirit in a way of comfort, rather than overwhelming with sheer power or striking fear into the hearts of men.

The Music

Stephen Schwartz, known for songs and music in several animated films, began writing songs for The Prince of Egypt from the beginning of the production stage, evolving the music as the story itself evolved.

“Deliver Us”, the opening song, remains one of the most well-known and stunning musical numbers of the film, its theme included in the score several times. The other numbers, performed by the voice cast in most cases, help to carry the story as well as carry the emotional tone. While Michelle Pfeiffer, Ralph Fiennes, Steve Martin, and Martin Short sang for themselves, other voices were brought in, such as Amick Byram for Val Kilmer, despite his vocal abilities in other films (sorry, ladies and gents, that’s not Batman singing); Linda Dee Shayne for Dame Helen Mirren, singing Queen Tuya’s reprise of “All I Ever Wanted”; and Sally Dworsky (Nala singing, The Lion King) for Sandra Bullock, singing “When You Believe.”

As a fun fact, Brenda Chapman herself sings Miriam’s reprise of mother Yocheved’s “River Lullaby.” Originally intended as a scratch audio track, the recording was so well liked, it remained in the film as a loving personal touch from the director.

Hotep and Huy’s number, “Playing with the Big Boys,” is often the song of controversy, on the other hand. Some feel the song is too light, too out of place. But despite the comic value of Steve Martin and Martin Short, that comedy is generally underplayed throughout the film. There are few moments of outright humor, if any, punctuated with little slapstick. “Playing with the Big Boys” feels sinister, not humorous, the song of two questionable priests attempting to frighten off a man who threatens their comfortable positions, their revered status, their very lives. To me, this never felt like a comedic song to lighten the mood.

The score itself, composed by the incomparable Hans Zimmer, is gorgeous and embracing, sweeping over the film with strength. Zimmer’s score expands the film even further, serving as yet another beautiful way to touch the audience’s spirits.

The Film

A film of determined accuracy, of comprehensive detail, The Prince of Egypt stands as a breathtaking film in the DreamWorks Animation canon. Released in December 1998, the film was the second non-Disney animated feature to gross over $100 million in the US box office; it stood as the top-grossing non-Disney animated film, until the stop-motion Chicken Run in 2000, and the highest grossing traditionally animated non-Disney film until Fox’s The Simpsons Movie in 2007. Although critical reception places it at mid-range, the film received high praise from multiple critics, for its beauty and its story.

The Prince of Egypt’s craftsmanship and devotion enables the film to become its own small miracle: a story from a religious mythos drawn back to the human experience, to be embraced by any audience, regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof.

The Prince of Egypt is not merely an adapted animated story from the Bible; the film is a story of a people, led by a humbled man, and lifted by courage against injustice and oppression, a story that resonates just as easily with today’s audiences as it did with the film’s international audience in 1998.

The Prince of Egypt stage musical will debut at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, California on Oct 14, 2017.

Edited by: Morgan Stradling

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About Kajsa Rain Forden

Kajsa is a writer from foggy San Francisco, living in sunny LA. She spends most of her time writing, binge-watching animated movies, and working in web design. With a soft spot for stop-motion, her favorite films are Coraline, Castle In The Sky, and The Thief and the Cobbler (Recobbled). You can find her on Twitter, or Pinterest, and most other social media @TheKajsaRain, or at Disneyland.
  • One of the things that impressed me greatly about this film was the unique methods of storytelling. Moses reliving the drowning of the Hebrew babies on the flat 2D walls is still very impactful.

    • A beautiful way to incorporate Ancient Egyptian art, and a really cool way to flashback to that prologue without simply reshowing it. Always great. Just this whole movie, it was hard to watch it with anything other than awe 😆

  • Fadi Antwan

    The more I grow older, the more I appreciate and love this film. Heck, it might just be my favorite 2D animated film. I am really glad it exists.

  • Dan Siciliano

    At first, as a kid, I was disappointed with “Prince of Egypt” because of its strong, intense, dramatic moments and its lack of comedy (if you recount the water balloon gag, the camel and Steve Martin and Martin Short as Hotep and Huy). I also felt that it was a rip-off of the Rugrats Passover special (You know, let my babies go!).

    But now as an adult, I appreciate and understand what DreamWorks and Jeffrey Katzenberg were trying to do with this film: make this movie overshadow “Lion King”. Even though its no “Lion King” (nice try), I enjoyed some its moments like the like the burning bush sequence and the “death of the firstborn” sequence, filled with silent and creepy sounds, with no music needed, and I also enjoyed Rameses’ reaction to it (“Leave me!!”).

    One nitpick I have with this film…even though “Through Heaven’s Eyes” is my favorite song from the film, is it a sin that I didn’t like “When You Believe”? I know that it won the Oscar and the song has an uplifting message, I don’t understand why this film is a duet between Miriam and Tziporrah.

    • I think Deliver Us should have been the Oscar pick honestly. I like When You Believe but it wasn’t the strength of the film the way Deliver Us was, in its interweaving way. I also love Through Heaven’s Eyes.
      And, yes, Lion King was definitely reflected, particularly with Hans Zimmer also at the musical helm. Though I didn’t feel that was forced necessarily.

    • Manuel Orozco

      I think Prince of Egypt is better than Lion King

      • Dan Siciliano

        Ok. Its your personal opinion.

        • Manuel Orozco

          Yes it is

    • JMB

      It’s kind of funny how quick Katzenberg jumped to a retelling of Moses’ story so soon after coming off of TLK, given how that film was actually inspired by certain elements of the biblical tale (some of which turned into the more discussed Shakespearean elements by the mere alteration of Scar becoming Mufasa’s brother). It’s almost as if TLK was just practice to him, or at least the closest attempt he could ever pull off while being at Disney. Then he leaves and we get the real deal just a few years later, with Hans Zimmer and probably some other familiar staff members for the ride.

      • Manuel Orozco

        Talk about surrealism of nostalgic proportions

    • travelswithbooks

      Just a note regarding why “When You Believe” is a duet between Miriam and Tzipporah: The filmmakers wanted to show Moses’ past and present coming together – “a resolution of the conflicts and obstacles that he and his people have faced” (from the official animation book).

      Also, in the source material, Miriam and Tzipporah have a pretty good bond, so it’s nice that they carried that over to the film 🙂 (even if they did expand Tzipporah’s role quite a bit, in general — in the original story, it’s actually Aaron who’s with Moses when he turns his staff to a snake, and Aaron who does a lot of the speaking for Moses. *That* I would have loved to see, but I love Aaron in PoE, so the change doesn’t much matter to me in the end.)

      PoE does wonders with its soundtrack, letting things go pretty silent when they need to (final plague scene, like you mentioned) or ramping it up to great effect (that beautiful pantomime scene where Moses is telling Tzipporah about meeting God).

      Love this movie 🙂

  • Manuel Orozco

    I didn’t always enjoy Prince of Egypt but I respect it as a beautifully retelling of Moses journey from adopted royalty to leader of God’s people. The music by Stephen Schwartz is as spectacular as the animation. The use of different visual techniques was so astonishing for it’s time. Animated films with worthy celebrity voice talent is tough to find in today’s cinematic climate.

  • Rachel Wagner

    This is one of my favorite animated films. I love the reverent tone that it keeps throughout and I love the music

  • Jeremiah

    The choir I’m in performed When You Believe and it’s one of the standout experiences of my life. What a sound to be surrounded by.
    Lovely article, Kasja. I didn’t know that about the music collaboration. Of course, my mind immediately went, “No wonder the music is literally perfect.” This movie is one of the greatest masterpieces ever.

  • Everytime I watch this movie, the more I love it….its just so beautiful, touching and all from the dynamics of the two main leads pasts and the phenominal songs, and that breathetaking animation! One of my favorite Dreamworks films for sure!! Ahhh this article just makes me wanna see this movie for the 100th time again!! :))))

  • Alex Beezley

    This is one of my favorite DreamWorks Animation films. It feels so different from everything else the studio has released, and it has good songs, a compelling story, and breathtaking animation. I did not watch this film in full until I was a teenager, but I enjoy it as much as the DreamWorks Animation films that I watched as a child. This is, in my opinion, their best 2D animated film.

    • Manuel Orozco

      I didn’t watch the movie in full until I was a teenager either.

  • Having attended Hebrew school, I know that myself and other kids went to see this film and nearly yelled at the screen, “That’s not how we learned it!” because we were taught to analyze the biblical text with various commentaries interpreting the story making it *very* different from this movie. I had to mentally separate the story of Moses from the one I grew up with from the one being represented in this film but once I did, I realized that this film was not meant to replace or alter my education. The film acknowledges in the opening scene that it is one interpretation of the Bible and that in itself struck me as being thoughtful and respectful to the audience.

    “PoE” isn’t anything like I was taught in school nor does it have to be. In itself it is a masterpiece: the storytelling, the pace of the story, the animation, and the music all blend together to make an epic tale that emotionally hits you in all the right places. Like other people have said it doesn’t sugarcoat the difficult themes and accepts them with a degree of balance so children can watch and understand the timeless themes of heroism, redemption, hope, and legacy.

    • That’s interesting that it was so different from what you originally learned. I didn’t grow up with religion so watching this film was from an agnostic point of view, even as a child. But even then I did appreciate that opening acknowledgement because as a biblical tale there is going to be so much personal interpretation ingrained in most of the audience.
      I know the DreamWorks team did work to be as mindful of that as they could; I know Katzenberg brought in religious and biblical experts as they developed the story, and those brought in had a special screening and approved, because a lot of their notes were considered and included.
      Even though I’ve never been religious, I always appreciated the care that went into all angles of this film, because it really shines through.
      It would definitely be interesting to read an opinion from someone who, as in your case, grew up with a certain interpretation or telling of the story.

  • Roy K.

    The video of the burning bush is deepened in sound for copyright reasons. So ironically the voice of God is booming and deep, unlike they were intending.

  • Marielle

    This movie is beautiful and very emotional, but it’s too religious for me. I don’t like the part where they strongly imply that the Judeo-Christian magic is somehow more real than the Egyptian one.

  • Easily the best standalone movie DWA ever made. It’s epic and beautiful in every way.

  • Amber Dvorak

    Amazing article/review, Kajsa! I haven’t seen The Prince of Egypt (lack of interest, mainly) but this certainly raises my respect for it. My, how DreamWorks has changed over the years…