Animated April, Retrospective Review: The Prince of Egypt

Year: 1998
Runtime: 99 Minutes
Director: Brenda Chapman & Steve Hickner 
Writers: Philip LaZebnik & Nicholas Meyer
Stars: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer

By Kate Boyle

Animated films have been entertaining audiences since the early 1900s. Walt Disney was quick to jump on this new trend and worked to make animated films a staple in the world’s movie diet. Today many studios are making their own animated movies, but they remain one of the few categories of film that rarely feature a female director. 

The first large studio to put a woman behind the helm of a big-budget animated film was Paramount in 1998 (only 22 years ago…). Executive Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg asked Disney writer and artist, Brenda Chapman, to co-direct his new animated take on the classic film “The Ten Commandments” (1956). Chapman said “yes” to what would eventually be “The Prince of Egypt”, and became the first woman to co-direct a major studio animated film. Pixar and Disney wouldn’t name a female director for another 14 and 15 years (respectively). “The Prince of Egypt”  also featured three female Producers and a female Art Director.

Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells, and Steve Hickner in The Prince of Egypt (1998)

“The Prince of Egypt,” tells the story of Moses and the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt. It’s a story found in the holy books of three major religions, and as of 2020, has been made into four feature films and multiple TV adaptations. My favourite of these adaptations is this animated film. Even 22 years after its release, it remains one of the best looking animated films ever. The writers take a few liberties with the story, but only to make it more suitable for a wider audience and to enhance the tension between Ramses and Moses. 

“The Prince of Egypt” has an amazing cast including (as of 2020) 2 Oscar winners, 3 Oscar nominees, 3 Golden Globe winners, 3 Golden Globes nominees, 3 BAFTA winners, 1 Tony Winner, and 2 Tony nominees. Val Kilmer provides the speaking voice of Moses. He was a pretty big name at the time, having recently done “Tombstone” (1993), “Batman Forever” (1995), and “Heat” (1995). The main antagonist in the film, Pharaoh Ramses, is voiced by Ralph Fiennes. He was known for award-winning dramas like  “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “The English Patient” (1995). Fiennes would also go on to voice one of the most infamous of movie bad guys, Lord Voldermort in the “Harry Potter” series a few years later.

“The Prince of Egypt” is a spectacular looking film, even 22 years after its release. It is a mix of hand-drawing and CGI –  one of the first animated films to embrace computer animation.”

Other notable cast members include Patrick Stewart (Pharaoh Seti), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), Sandra Bullock (Miriam), Jeff Goldblum (Aaron), Steve Martin (Hotep), Martin Short (Huy), and Danny Glover (Jethro). Like many animated films, big names were cast as speaking roles but not all of them could sing. Multi-talented cast members like Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer and comedic relief duo Martin Short and Steve Martin did their own singing, but Val Kilmer and Danny Glover had Broadway stars cover their songs for the film.

The music of “The Prince of Egypt” is one of its most memorable aspects. Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer’s score and songs were nominated for “Best Original Score” at the Oscars and Golden Globes. Their song, When You Believe, won “Best Original Song” at the Oscars and a pop version was recorded by superstars Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. The music stays with the listener because it evokes all the pain and history being depicted throughout the film. It stands apart from other animated film scores due to the infusion of culturally relevant instruments and musical themes.

You hear the Hebrews singing in Hebrew as well as instruments common to that part of the world. Israeli pop star, Ofra Haza lent her voice to Yocheved (Moses’s mom) in 17 different languages. She adds several heartbreaking verses to the film’s opening number, Deliver Us. That sequence alone is usually all it takes to draw a viewer in and convince them to finish the movie.

In addition to its award-winning music, “The Prince of Egypt” is a spectacular looking film, even 22 years after its release. It is a mix of hand-drawing and CGI –  one of the first animated films to embrace computer animation (after “Toy Story” (1995) and “A Bugs Life” (1998)). The artists blend these techniques flawlessly so that the two air forms are almost  indistinguishable from each other. The artists used different approaches to designing the characters to help establish the separation between the Egyptians and the Hebrews.

“The Prince of Egypt” is one of the greatest animated movies of all time. It has a captivating story, unforgettable music, and beautiful animation which appeals to all viewers, even if they don’t practice one of the religions that feature the story of Moses.”

The Egyptians are drawn very angular to resemble hieroglyphics, while everyone else is drawn more realistic. Moses is a hybrid at first; his clothing, jewellery and wig make him appear Egyptian, but later in the film, he grows a beard and comes to look more natural. The animators also did a relatively decent job (for the time) of making the characters reflect the appropriate ethnicities and nationalities –  the same cannot be said for the casting department, but that discussion is for another article… 

“The Prince of Egypt” is one of the greatest animated movies of all time. It has a captivating story, unforgettable music, and beautiful animation which appeals to all viewers, even if they don’t practice one of the religions that feature the story of Moses. This was writer and artist Brenda Chapman’s first film as a director as well as the first animated film featuring a woman director at a major studio. Chapman would later go on to be the first woman to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars for “Brave” (2012). “The Prince of Egypt” is streaming in the US on Hulu and available to rent on many other platforms. If you have not seen it, please give it a try, it is a spectacular animated film.

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