God doesn't crack a lot of jokes in the Bible, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that The Prince of Egypt keeps a more-or-less straight face throughout its retelling of the Moses story. Steve Martin and Martin Short are on hand as a pair of Egyptian priests/vaudeville performers, but their high jinks are muffled by the movie's monumental grandeur. River, mountains, desert, pyramids, pylons, obelisk--ancient Egypt is an animator's paradise in gold and blue and brown. The press material cites David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, but the biggest debts are to Cecil B. De Mille's Ten Commandments and William Wyler's Ben Hur. What we have here is a 97-minute-long Bible epic. And it might have been an animated classic if the folks at DreamWorks hadn't felt Christianity, Judaism and Islam breathing down their necks. Reverence has a way of squelching irreverence, and an hour-and-a-half cartoon without irreverence is like a pile of spinach in a cookie jar. The Prince of Egypt contains some breathtaking sequences--e.g., hieroglyphs that spring to life without escaping their two-dimensional walls. But the story's been watered down into an interdenominational New Age-y thing about discovering oneself. "When You Believe," divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston sing when it's all over. "When you believe what?" I jotted down in my notebook.
The filmmakers don't seem to realize that Moses doesn't really fit the definition of a hero; most of the time, he's doing God's will, not his own. And so The Prince of Egypt doesn't have the be-all-you-can-be ethic (which, let's face it, is the commandment we live by today) of Pocahontas or Mulan. Like those movies, it's a gorgeous canvas that reads like a poster. I salute DreamWorks' desire to make an animated feature for adults that kids can enjoy, instead of vice versa; we shouldn't have to get by on Ralph Bakshi's soft-core porn. But this one's caught betwixt and between. Respectful and mildly instructive, it's the most enjoyable Sunday School class I've ever been to.