Monday, January 26, 2015

The Silly Nate Film Club - The Prince of Egypt

     One of the things I love as much as drawing is watching movies. Not only do I love watching movies, but I really love TALKING about them! For this reason, I’m starting a new (and hopefully regular occurring) feature here on the blog. Introducing The Silly Nate Film Club! 

     Rather than give a typical review of recent releases, I thought it’d be more fun to do my best Robert Osborne impression and present films that have been out for quite some time, but are just as prevalent today as whatever blockbuster motion-picture that is currently selling out at the box-office. Of course, the word ‘club’ implies a group. If there’s anyone reading this who has seen the movie I’m talking about, make use of the Comments button and let’s get a discussion going! If you haven’t seen the film, then hopefully this will make you want to watch  it. 

     As you can tell from the rest of the content on this blog, I’m a huge fan of cartoons. Therefore, I thought I’d start things off with an animated film. Released in 1998 from Dreamworks Animation, and probably my favorite one of the company’s movies, it’s The Prince of Egypt!

     If you ask me, in the mid to late 90’s, Walt Disney Pictures pretty much ruled the roost in terms of theatrical animation. 1989’s The Little Mermaid sparked a comeback of sorts for them that continued with hit after hit! One of the many people behind those hits was film executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. In 1994, Katzenberg left Disney and cofounded Dreamworks with his fellow media mogul buddies, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg. 

     One of the new company’s first ventures into animation was The Prince of Egypt, an adaptation of the epic story of Moses. Like I said, when it came to… well, filmmaking in general, but specifically animation, this was hardly the execs’ first rodeo. Katzenberg played a big part at Disney and Spielberg was behind such classics as An American Tale and The Land Before Time. At the helm of the film was director Brenda Chapman, who also came from Disney. The Prince of Egypt was a milestone for Chapman, as the first film she would direct, as well as a milestone for Hollywood as the first major animated feature to have a female director. 

     I’m not sure what the exact strategy was, if any, for competing with Disney, but if it were me, I would attempt to make a film that tonally took things in an almost polar opposite direction from what the House of Mouse was known for. When I was a kid, there were several animated films that tried to copy the success of Disney with some fairy tale-esque story that ended up lacking in substance. I remember when I first saw a lobby standee teasing the release of The Prince of Egypt, I instantly dismissed the film as being another flop in this group. Boy, was I wrong! Dreamwork’s Animation really started things off with a bang! 

     The film itself starts things off with a bang… or rather a really powerful, let’s say… thud! As the giant stone head of Pharaoh Seti slams into view and begins an opening sequence filled with Egyptian soldiers killing the babies of their Hebrew slaves, we know that this will not be like any animated film we have ever seen before. Now, I realize how grotesquely gruesome that sounds, especially for a cartoon, but that being said, the film is still a lot of fun! For one thing, it’s a musical! What’s more fun than that? 
And look! ...shenanigans!

     One of the things that impresses me most with musicals is their ability to cram so much set-up and exposition into a single song! The Prince of Egypt does this with its opening number “Deliver Us.” Here’s a sequence that establishes the setting of the story (which, I suppose the film’s title also gives away), the cruel treatment of the Hebrews, the sacrifice that Moses’ mother makes to save her son’s life, and the events that lead Moses to becoming the titular prince! If The Prince of Egypt wasn’t a musical, I would guess that it would have taken a lot more screen time to accurately explain all of this… and it probably wouldn’t be nearly as good. But set to an epic song by Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer, the whole thing is able to fit into a concise and very entertaining seven minutes! 

     Likewise, with the song, “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” we get to see Moses and Tzipporah’s romance gradually develop over a long period of time, but expertly portrayed in a dialogue-free montage that only lasts for about three minutes. With the ability to compress these types of plot points, the filmmakers create more time in the film to better develop the characters. 

     And it’s the how well developed the film’s central characters are that makes me love this film as much as I do. On the surface, The Prince of Egypt is the story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt, but at its heart, its this compelling tale of two brothers whose different beliefs force them against one another. This little bit of humanity that the characters have makes them much more relatable and is something that, I think, most biblical epics are lacking.

     The film’s predecessor, The Ten Commandments boasted an all-star cast and The Prince of Egypt is no exception in this regard. In fact, it’s almost TOO star-studded, if that’s possible. I had myself a little chuckle at just how much Jeff Goldblum’s character Aaron sounds so… Jeff Goldblum-ey. And during the end credits, while we read the names of these A-list actors, we’re treated to the pop version of the film’s song, “When You Believe” this time sung by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey in one of the most spectacular diva showdowns ever recorded!

"the... the very ESSENCE of chaos!"

     But that’s just me being silly. I really don’t mind the casting at all. Val Kilmer is perfect as Moses, as is Ralph Fiennes as Rameses. One of my favorite aspects of the film, dealing with casting, is how Val Kilmer also plays the voice of God. At first, I remember thinking, why couldn’t they get someone else? Did all the star-power exhaust the film’s budget? Moses is the only character that shares a scene with God, and the two sound exactly the same! What’s that all about?!? But then I thought about it for a second, and it began to make sense. When God speaks to us, it’s not a booming voice from the sky, but one that comes from within. Therefore, Moses hearing God’s voice from within himself would sound, to Moses, like… himself!

"uh... well, there it is."

     It ends up being a very subtle detail that I enjoy very much. Whether or not it was the intention of the filmmakers, I don’t know.

     Overall, I would call The Prince of Egypt a movie filled with chills. I get horrified chills over the Egyptians’ actions in the opening sequence. I get joyous chills during the montage of Moses finding a new purpose in life, and I get awe-struck chills at the climactic moment where Moses parts the Red Sea. It’s hard for me to say whether or not this Dreamworks’ film can hold a candle to the Disney classics. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, because in the end, we as an audience are left with a variety of high-caliber films to enjoy time and time again, regardless of who produced what. And with stellar animation, and superb story-telling, The Prince of Egypt will go down, in my book at least, as a timeless classic.

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