Gods' Glory

In The Prince of Egypt, less is less. Supporting characters and scandals and divine retribution take a backseat to the platonic love between Moses and Rameses. The upshot is a self-consciously sensitive and woefully internal rendering of an age of miracles. It's fitting that Val Kilmer, the same actor who gives voice to Moses, also gives voice to God Himself. Proper faith comes off as an outgrowth of self-esteem. When Moses argues with the grown Rameses to let his people go, he's not just an Old Testament prophet; he's also a New Age prophet urging his old friend to change and grow. Until then Moses and Rameses are evenly weighted in emotional depth and virtue. Far from being a stand-up guy, Moses is a scamp, goading Rameses into high jinks like a chariot race that topples a temple (and, of course, recalls Ben-Hur). Rameses is a well-trained aristocrat shaking under the psychological oppression of his royal destiny. It's up to Moses to persuade Rameses' father, Pharaoh Seti, that all the kid needs is a chance to prove himself. That's not good for the Jews. Rameses ends up following the racial guidelines of dear old dad, the same Pharaoh Seti who ordered the tossing of Hebrew infants into crocodile-infested waters.

As a consequence of the tortured buddyhood at the movie's heart, the morals in The Prince of Egypt are more psychological than, well, moral. Rameses turns out to be an arrested adolescent, still trying to please daddy. Moses matures: Not just because he finds out that he's a Hebrew, not just because he comes face to burning bush with God, but because, yes, he looks at himself through heaven's eyes. Moses and Rameses wailing about how sad it is that they once called each other brother -- that's the emotional undercurrent the film provides for the devastation of the plagues and for the parting and terrible reunification of the Red Sea. Rather than humanize the drama, this focus softens and diminishes it. The plagues and bloodletting are perfunctory -- a testament to the film's family-hour sensibility. It's understandable that the moviemakers wanted to avoid turning their picture into a scare show, but this film's quick trot through pestilence and affliction lacks the requisite nightmare intensity and leaves a big dramatic hole. As religious scholar Alan F. Segal observed in an essay on The Ten Commandments, "The biblical story is written as a contest between the true God of Israel and the pharaoh, or false god, of Egypt. That is why the usually terse biblical text goes on at length about the plagues and how the pharaoh is only very slowly convinced to allow the Israelites to leave." Nothing in The Prince of Egypt compares to the Angel of Death in The Ten Commandments descending on Egypt like the splayed fingers of a green skeletal hand. And few will talk about DreamWorks' atmospherics the way they still do about DeMille's billowing clouds. This movie has no personality -- visual or otherwise.

The DreamWorks code of political correctness blands everything out: The movie cuts right from the Exodus to Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, tablets in hand -- without any mention of the golden calf. About the only group not protected under the code are pagan ministers. Steve Martin and Martin Short share the thankless job of injecting a little comedy into the proceedings as Mutt and Jeff priests of Ra. You can gauge how fundamentally humorless the movie is by how few laughs Martin and Short generate. (What a great comedy team they should be -- even the coupling of their names is witty.)

The energy level rises only when Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (the ebullient Danny Glover), leads his tribe in a cheerful hora. The animators elongated the middle third of the characters' faces, theoretically providing a broader canvas for emotional expression. They would have been better off expanding on the talents of their performers. Kilmer as Moses (and God), Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, Patrick Stewart as Pharaoh Seti and most of the others disappear into the vortex of the imagery. The producers of this glorified latter-day frieze have gone nuts for computer-generated extras without clinching the essentials of character and catharsis. The sad result is that The Prince of Egypt is less man than mouse.

Opens Dec. 18.
-- Michael Sragow

Directed by Jonathan Frakes

Because the laws of physics are occasionally suspended in the Star Trek universe, it only makes sense that the Law of Diminishing Returns would not apply there, either. Or call it the Law of Diminishing Sequels: Unless you're Steven Spielberg, the more sequels you make, the less money you make with them (see exhibit one, Batman and Robin). But evidently it doesn't always work that way: Since 1979 a Star Trek film has appeared about every two-and-a-half years at an average cost of $40 million and generated twice that much in domestic grosses. That's not a bad rate of return, especially when you consider that each one of these films had to satisfy a dual audience, both hard-core Trekkers and their dates (or their parents).

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