My first exposure to DreamWorks Animation Studios was their 3D stuff, which is what they’re most well known for. Honestly, I remember enjoying most of it, but unfortunately for DreamWorks, they have long been overshadowed by the other 3D animation studio in existence, Pixar. And try as they might, DreamWorks’s movies, while often funny and somewhat clever, could never quite reach Pixar’s level of sophistication and creativity.
All that changed with How To Train Your Dragon and its sequel, but even with those movies in the mix, DreamWorks’s track record hasn’t been nearly as impressive as Pixar’s. And I know they’re separate animation studios under different leadership and it may not sound fair to compare them, but I’m sorry, comparison is inevitable. Especially since the scene seems to be changing for Pixar – but we’ll leave that for another post.
With that said, DreamWorks had another era in which it did make 2D animated movies. One of those movies was The Prince of Egypt, an animated version of the Biblical story of Moses. It has songs from the guy who did the music for Wicked, celebrity voice work from people like Ralph Fiennes and Sandra Bullock, and a truly epic score.
It is also quite possibly DreamWorks’s best film.
By “quite possibly” I really mean “probably,” and by “probably” I mean “without question,” and the only reason I neglect to say it directly is because of my love for How To Train Your Dragon 1 & 2, which are both really, really excellent films and also “quite possibly” could be DreamWorks’s best. DON’T MAKE ME CHOOSE!
Whether or not The Prince of Egypt is DreamWorks’s best film, it is certainly one of their best, and it really isn’t difficult to see why. The film has the absolute best use of CGI in 2D animation I have ever seen. Actually, all of the animation is some of the best that’s ever been put on film. Watching this film on mute would not be an unrewarding experience.
At the same time, watching this film without the animation would not be completely unrewarding either, because the score is one of those Holy Heavenly Guacamole Is This Score Fucking Amazing kind of film scores, blending Middle Eastern/Jewish themes with epic orchestration.
Put the two together, and you have some amazing, breathtaking moments. There are sequences where they have this amazing music playing over some gorgeously drawn desert landscapes, and I could be mistaken about this but I wouldn’t be surprised if they took a leaf from David Lean’s book. There are definitely some Lawrence of Arabia-esque moments in The Prince of Egypt. In fact – why don’t we do a little side-by-side, just to prove I’m not crazy.
There’s something there.
But of course what it all comes down to is the story and characters. The Prince of Egypt had the doubly tough task of taking an already well-known story that wasn’t just well known but also an important part of many people’s religious beliefs and turning it into a film for kids. They did a remarkable job.
If you’re going to adapt a story from the Bible, you might as well give the story an epicness of Biblical proportions. And with a story as famous and important as that of Moses, you have to be extra careful you do so. Otherwise it just comes across as looking like the creators didn’t care about the material at hand, which in this case would have been a problem to say the least.
In The Prince of Egypt, every brush stroke, every line, every color is put in with the utmost care. Not one element of the animation is left untouched. It’s incredible, actually. You can really tell that a lot of time, effort, and care was put into this film, and it more than lives up to its Biblical origins.
Of course, the film’s for kids, so they had to put in a few more things to make it an extra special experience for kids and not just another film they show you during Sunday school. If they’d just left the story exactly as we’re all familiar with it, the film would have been good but not great. Instead they take the Pharaoh, Ramses, and give him a personal connection to Moses.
This was really the best part of the film – the story of the two brothers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, good character studies are practically unbeatable. You can have a film with the most glorious animation or special effects or soundtrack or whatever but if the characters and story fall flat, then it just doesn’t work (Titanic, anyone?). In kids’ movies especially there is a tendency to put more focus into what the film looks and sounds like rather than characters or story because, well, kids are stupid, right? They’re not going to notice.
Kids aren’t stupid. They notice things and shoving mindless entertainment in front of them is going to affect to their developing brains. That’s why we need movies like The Prince of Egypt and How To Train Your Dragon; they can communicate with kids in an understandable and intelligent way. That’s why Pixar has been so successful for so many years. These are kids’ films that treat kids with respect.
I especially liked the part of the film where Ramses finally lets the Jews go, and there’s no huge celebration, no fanfare, no loud crashing music. Moses returns to his family and begins to walk out, and people join them as they go. This is the sequence for the film’s most famous song, “When You Believe,” which starts out quietly and then gradually gets more epic and grand as the Jews begin their journey. It’s a scene that slowly builds up its intensity, and it’s enormously effective.
The film is almost perfect. Alas, not quite. One of the songs, “Playing With the Big Boys,” does not need to be in this film and was only put in so the goofy sidekicks could get a musical number. It’s a real deviation from the tone of the rest of the film and the song itself kind of sucks, which is unfortunate because most of them are pretty good. It’s not a terribly long or important scene, however, and doesn’t affect the rest of the film much, so I can’t complain too much about it.
Whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, whateverist, all or none of the above, The Prince of Egypt is a film you definitely don’t want to miss. It doesn’t try and preach to you, it doesn’t try and convert you, it’s just a great movie with a great story and beautiful visuals. Give it a watch.