It is a story revered by several global religions, featuring some of the most dynamic spectacle in religious literature. Twice before, the Exodus of Moses and the Israelites had come to the big screen-in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent The Ten Commandments and in the director’s more well-known 1956 sound version-but DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt took the tale to a new realm: big-budget animation.
The Prince of Egypt was DreamWorks’ challenge to Disney’s traditional dominance of the feature animation market, and the fledgling studio spared no expense. Special effects shots abounded, and an all-star cast signed on to provide voices-Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover and Patrick Stewart among them. The film embellished the scriptural version a bit (a fact admitted in the opening titles, which reminded viewers this was entertainment, not Sunday School), but the basic story remained the same:
When Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I declares that the male infant children of every Israelite slave are to be killed, a broken-hearted mother puts her baby boy, Moses, in a reed basket and sends him floating down the Nile. The child is discovered by Seti’s Queen, who adopts him as her own. Moses grows to young manhood in the royal court, forming a friendly rivalry with his adoptive brother, Rameses. It’s a happy life of chariot races and teenage pranks, but thanks to a chance meeting with his real brother and sister, Moses learns of his true heritage. The adopted Prince of Egypt rebels against his family’s cruel treatment of the Israelites, accidentally killing one of the whipping taskmasters.
Moses flees the Egyptian court and eventually settles with the high priest Jethro, whose daughter, Tzipporah, Moses had earlier saved back in Egypt. Moses marries Tzipporah and takes on a humble shepherd’s life, but God has other plans for him. Appearing in a burning bush, God calls Moses to lead his people out of slavery and into a promised land. Moses obeys the call, but Rameses isn’t willing to let his slaves go so easily. God sends down plagues on Egypt through Moses, eventually with tragic results, but the matter isn’t truly settled until a spectacular miracle at the Red Sea.
Cecil B. DeMille’s special effects won his film an Oscar and even spawned a small attraction on the Universal Studios Tour, but The Prince of Egypt wasn’t bound by the limits of special effects. The animated miracles of the DreamWorks film were breathtaking, enhanced by a Hans Zimmer score. Zimmer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz won the film an Oscar of its own, for the song “When You Believe,” part of the Disney-standard soundtrack (both men, in fact, had composed for earlier Disney films).
Arriving in theaters in December of 1998, Prince of Egypt went on to become the highest-grossing non-Disney animated feature in history, narrowly edging out that same year’s Rugrats: The Movie. No small miracle for an animated film with no funny animal sidekicks, little comic relief and a PG rating.