Where's the promised land?

Before there were special effects, miracles must have been really impressive. Nowadays, people have a critical eye—they want some serious eye candy, they want explosions they can feel in their inner organs, they want thrills that will surpass their expectations. When you're trying to marry all this to a story that's thousands of years old and forms part of the bedrock of our culture, well . . . it's a challenge. And Prince of Egypt isn't quite up to it.

Of course, Prince of Egypt really shouldn't be about visual effects at all. It's the story of Moses freeing the enslaved Hebrews from the brutal lash of the Egyptians. Things start traditionally enough: To save her son from being killed, Moses' mother sets her baby adrift in a basket; an Egyptian queen discovers the child and raises Moses as her own.

From there the movie launches into an elaborate chariot race between the jostling siblings, Moses and Ramses. Moses has grown into a mischievous young man who drops the ancient equivalent of water balloons on the heads of priests and gets Ramses into trouble all the time. Ramses has a big stick up his butt because he's the eldest and therefore centuries of tradition weigh upon him. His father, Seti, holds Ramses to a strict measure that carefree Moses can flout with impunity. But Moses is such a likable scamp that Ramses never holds it against him for long.

Then one night Moses finds himself among the Hebrews, where he coincidentally runs into his real sibling, Miriam, who tells him the truth of his birth. Moses refuses to accept this for about two minutes, then goes stumbling into the wilderness to discover himself. That's about the last time Moses experiences anything like character development; from here on out, he's earnest and noble. Every new development—be it falling in love with the feisty Tzipporah or receiving the voice of God—only serves to strengthen his deep inner resolve.

The rest of the story (God speaks to Moses from a burning bush, Moses forces Ramses to release the Hebrew slaves by inflicting nine plagues upon Egypt, Moses leads the Hebrews to safety by parting the Red Sea) is all followed dutifully, or in some cases just barely happens at all. Most of the plagues, for example, are breezed through in one compressed montage. The relationship between Moses and Ramses is meant to enrich their struggle over the fate of the Hebrews, but mostly it just makes Ramses a more interesting character. His refusal to release the slaves isn't just a matter of pride, it springs from his desire to please his father and his feelings of betrayal by Moses.

Moses, on the other hand, has no internal conflicts at all; he's just doing what God told him to do. He quavers momentarily, but only so the audience can watch that firm resolve steal over his face once again. At the end, Prince of Egypt fast-forwards from the parting of the Red Sea to Moses descending from the mountaintop, carrying the Ten Commandments. All that messy golden calf business is brushed aside, lest it taint the eternal triumph of our hero.

It's no wonder that despite the high-profile cast of voice talent (Val Kilmer as Moses, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Sandra Bullock as Moses' sister, Miriam), only Ralph Fiennes as Ramses has any distinction at all. Ramses sounds like a person speaking; everyone else sounds generically impassioned. Faith in God washes away not only doubt, but also what passes for personality.

Cecil B. DeMille turned the same story into the torrid, kitschy adventure The Ten Commandments. Prince of Egypt avoids kitsch, but only because it's so antiseptic. The experience of kitsch requires that you have a grasp of what's at stake. The supposedly awe-inspiring events of Prince of Egypt seem completely removed from anything religious.

Doubt and failure make the Bible compelling; without this, the narrative becomes a standard action movie, dressed up in robes and cool headgear. That's why it's impossible not to think of the miracles in Prince of Egypt as special effects (despite the fact that the whole movie, being animated, is like a special effect). The hand of God slaying the first-born of Egypt looks an awful lot like the stuff that melted the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark—perhaps this isn't surprising, since Prince of Egypt was created by DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg's studio. DreamWorks set out to make an animated movie that would challenge the Disney cartoon empire, but they've made a movie that's scrubbed as clean and bland as anything Disney itself would create.

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