When DreamWorks announced The Prince of Egypt, a re-telling of the Biblical story of Moses, many were caught off guard by this choice for an animated feature.
As Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, Jeffrey Katzenberg had been one of the forces to shepherd Disney into an animation renaissance that included films like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992).
When he left Disney in 1994, joining forces with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form a new studio, DreamWorks, SKG, it was announced that part of its productions would be animated features.
As a major competitor to Disney, many thought that traditional fairy tales and fables would be a large part of DreamWorks’ projects, but Katzenberg had something else in mind: the story of Moses.
The studio’s first feature out of the gate was the computer-animated Antz, a co-production with Pacific Data Images, but The Prince of Egypt would be DreamWorks’ first traditionally animated feature film.
Simon Wells, who co-directed The Prince of Egypt with Steve Hickner and Brenda Chapman, recalled his initial hesitation about the project during a 1998 interview. “I was thinking, ‘Do I really want to make this story?'” he remembered. “I thought, ‘Are we going to wind up doing a gentle, animated version of this?'”
Wells then thought about a brutal passage from the tale, in which the Egyptian prince Moses, seeing the persecution of the Hebrew slaves, grows so angered he kills an Egyptian guard. “My question to Stephen and Jeffrey was, ‘Is the guard going to die?'” said Wells. “I thought, ‘If Moses does kill the guard. If Moses is going to be a murderer and be responsible for that, then it’s going to be a more interesting movie.'”
The Prince of Egypt, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, does not shy away from any aspect of the story, precisely how the filmmakers wanted it.
The late Kelly Asbury, who, along with Lorna Cook, served as head of story for The Prince of Egypt, recalled, in a 1998 interview, a conversation he had with Jeffrey Katzenberg: “He said to me, ‘We’re going to push the envelope here. We can’t make this movie and be true to it without dealing with the issues that are in it.’ There’s no way that you can tell this story truthfully without dealing with those issues. We have slavery, we have genocide, we have murder, we have plagues – all of those things are in the movie, and all of those things are part of the story of Moses.”
The film, an adaptation of the first fourteen chapters of the Book of Exodus, follows Moses, from his days as a newborn, whose mother sets him adrift in a basket on the Nile after the Pharaoh has ordered that each newborn male of a Hebrew slave must die. The babe is rescued by the Queen, who adopts Moses.
Moses grows up with his brother, Rameses, next in line to inherit the throne from his father, the Pharaoh, Seti. Soon, however, Moses discovers the truth about his heritage as a Hebrew and the brutal power wielded by his father, the Pharaoh.
In re-telling this story, which, as the film’s opening credit states, “…is the backbone of hope and faith for people around the world,” The Prince of Egypt brings iconic moments to life with stunning artistry.
Moses learns the truth about his past through a dream, an incredible creative sequence where hieroglyphics come to life; the burning bush, where God first speaks to Moses, is a compelling moment, with minimal animation, making it even more effective, and the parting of the Red Sea (one of film’s most famous scenes, thanks to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments) is a tour-de-force of effects animation.
“That [scene] was the icon of our parents’ generation when the film came out in ’56,” said co-director Hickner in 1998. “We knew we had to come up with the icon for our generation.”
In addition to such memorable moments, The Prince of Egypt also boasted a voice cast that seemed to employ almost every actor working in Hollywood, including Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, Michelle Pfeiffer as Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Moses sister, Jeff Goldblum, as his brother Aaron, Patrick Stewart as Pharoah Seti, Helen Mirren as the Queen, Danny Glover as Jethro, Tzipporah’s father, and Steve Martin and Martin Short as the high priests, Hotep and Huy.
The two priests have a musical number which is “Playing with the Big Boys,” one of six songs in the film from Stephen Schwartz, who would go on to write the music and lyrics for the Broadway blockbuster, Wicked, and had also helped create the songs for Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) (the underscore for Prince of Egypt is from Hans Zimmer).
The other songs in the film include the gripping opening number “Deliver Us,” “All I Ever Wanted,” sung early in the film, first by Moses and then the Queen, “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” sung by Jethro, after Moses has come to the Midean tribe, “The Plagues,” and “When You Believe,” which serves as the anthem for the Hebrews exodus. It was also a Billboard Top 40 hit, sung by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and also went on to win the Best Original Song Oscar).
The Prince of Egypt looked to break the more conventional animated musical formula. “The subject matter just needed something more classical than Broadway,” added co-director Chapman (the first female director of a major studio animated feature) in a 1998 interview. “It needed to feel epic. We all felt that stopping for a number would be a little strange. It had to have the same feel as the rest of the movie.”
Schwartz, who crafted both lyrics and music for the film’s songs, said, just before the film’s release, that the songs were “more about trying to find a sound that would be accessible to American audiences, but would still immediately suggest the film’s geographical location, clearly that it would sound Egyptian, that it would sound Hebraic, but not Fiddler on the Roof-type Jewish music.”
Schwartz also stated, “One of the really enjoyable things about the animation process is the collaborations with the visual artists. That’s something that’s particular to this medium.”
The Prince of Egypt opened on December 18, 1998, with tremendous publicity and marketing. Critics responded to how daring the film is; Roger Ebert noted, “This is a film that shows animation growing up and embracing more complex themes, instead of chaining itself in the category of children’s entertainment.”
Twenty-five years later, Mr. Ebert’s words still stand as a perfect description of The Prince of Egypt, a powerful film from animation’s renaissance period, with stunning work from artists who pushed the boundaries of the medium.