Friday, April 19, 2019

The Prince of Egypt Is An Outlier In DreamWorks Animations Filmography Very Much For The Better

Today, DreamWorks Animation is known for one thing and one thing only: computer-animated movies with pop culture references and pop songs a-plenty. That's a touch unfair to their entire catalog of the studio that also includes deviations from that norm like How to Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda, but there's also no denying that it's an apt summarization of most of their output. The trailer for their newest film, Abominable, feels like a microcosm of all the stereotypes associated with DreamWorks Animation, from an extended belching joke to the closing gag of a yeti dancing around to the tune of Shake It Off by Taylor Swift. That's a DreamWorks Animation movie right there, through and through.

But it wasn't always like that. The first production commissioned by the studio (and their second to be released after Antz) was a massive departure from what DreamWorks Animation would come to be known for. That production was The Prince of Egypt and revisiting the movie for the first time in years proved to be a fascinating exercise in many respects, that included seeing how much of a departure it would end up being from the majority of DreamWorks' output. More importantly, though, it was utterly spellbinding to just get reminded of how good this movie is on its own merits, this is a motion picture that's clearly ignoring the widespread concept that family-oriented animation can't be grand, that such an avenue of storytelling can't create sweeping cinema that transports the soul. The Prince of Egypt is such a phenomenal refutation of that concept that it might as well end with its trio of directors coming out and dropping a mic in front of all of those who look down on animation as a medium of artistic expression.

The Prince of Egypt is a retelling of the Old Testament story of Moses (here voiced by Val Kilmer), a Hebrew slave who is raised as a member of Egyptian royalty alongside adopted brother Rameses (Raph Fiennes) unaware of his true heritage. However, one night he learns of where he actually came from as well as the horrors his adopted father has exacted upon his people. In a distraught state, Moses leaves his kingdom and begins a new life with his eventual wife Zipporah (Michelle Pfieffer). He finds peace in solitude, but eventually, God comes to him in the form of a burning bush with a mission: he must return home, where Rameses has now gained the title of Pharoah, and bring his people to freedom.

Though the saga of Moses has been told countless times in cinematic form, The Prince of Egypt still emerges as a one-of-a-kind retelling of this story in so many ways. For one thing, the characters are actually compelling creations as the broad archetypes that populated American animation in the 1990s are eschewed here in favor of more realistically nuanced individuals. This is most notably seen in Rameses, who ends up being the villain of the piece but even in the third act, when his anger towards Moses has grown immensely, he's still capable of having a moment where he wistfully remembers their carefree days as inseparable childhood friends. Such a flash of nuance from Rameses in this point in the story makes the subsequent tragic sequences between himself and Moses all the more poignant to watch.

Like the characters, the musical numbers in The Prince of Egypt, penned by Stephen Schwartz,  deviate from the norm of 1990's animated musicals for the better. Standard song staples of these films like the "I Want" song or a villain theme song are nowhere to be found, instead, the tunes play a role more specific to the actual story. We get one song, The Plagues, that has Moses and Rameses singing against one another as plagues ravage the land that doesn't really fit the mold for a conventional type of song you'd find in a normal animated musical, it's blazing its own trail instead. Because so many of The Prince of Egypt's songs are like this, the exquisite soundtrack has its own distinct identity that feels fitting for a movie that frequently eschews conventions.

Also impressing in terms of this film's music is the way certain musical numbers are incorporated into the soundtrack as orchestral leitmotif's, most notably the River Lullaby song that Moses' mother sings as she sets her baby off to the stream. Hans Zimmer's score makes subtle but creative uses of this tune throughout the production, including in the final scene which sees The Prince of Egypt ending on a sweeping piece of orchestral music meant to signify all that Moses has accomplished in a grandiose way. However, this music also incorporates the more intimate River Lullaby piece as a way to musically communicate to the viewer that this is still the same man we met at the start of the movie, a lovely tiny way to bring the whole story full circle in music form.

Those kinds of little details are some of the best parts of The Prince of Egypt, a movie that knows how important subtle elements can be. Though modern DreamWorks Animation fare can sometimes be just wall-to-wall noise, The Prince of Egypt has several key moments that are devoid of dialogue altogether. This brilliant choice is what aids some of the best character details in the production, including a character arc for supporting character Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) that gets resolved beautifully without a word being spoken between him or Moses. These instances of going with dialogue are a boon to the characters of The Prince of Egypt as well as the animation since it allows the hand-drawn animators a chance to capture internal thought processes of people like Rameses just through body language, resulting in some astonishing pieces of animation that say so much with so little.

Among the countless virtues in The Prince of Egypt's ability to know when to let images speak for themselves is that it allows the numerous pieces of grand imagery in this motion picture to truly leave an impact. A shot of a whale swimming in the parted Red Sea or the scene depicting God's final plague are such gloriously conceived moments on a visual level that would be totally undercut in their impact if they were accompanied by dialogue. The Prince of Egypt has more than enough confidence in its images to let them speak for themselves and that level of confidence is responsible for so much of what makes this movie work, including an ability to actually let this play out as a darker story that doesn't hold back on depicting what kind of misery transpires in the kingdom of Rameses. As one of this film's best song states, "There can be miracles when you believe" and a miracle of a film like The Prince of Egypt happens when the countless amount of artists working on it believe so thoroughly in doing something exceptional and bold.

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