Not long ago I saw the first of the great screen epics about Moses and his people, the 1923 silent version of Cecil B. de Mille's "The Ten Commandments." Everyone must be familiar with de Mille's 1956 sound version, which plays regularly on television. Now here is "The Prince of Egypt," an animated version based on the same legends. What it proves above all is that animation frees the imagination from the shackles of gravity and reality, and allows a story to soar as it will. If de Mille had seen this film, he would have gone back to the drawing board.
The story of Exodus has its parallels in many religions, always with the same result: God chooses one of his peoples over the others. We like these stories because in the one we subscribe to, we are the chosen people. I have always rather thought God could have spared man a lot of trouble by casting his net more widely, emphasizing universality rather than tribalism, but there you have it. Moses gives Rameses his chance (free our people and accept our God) and Rameses blows it, with dire results for the Egyptian side.
"The Prince of Egypt" is one of the best-looking animated films ever made. It employs computer-generated animation as an aid to traditional techniques, rather than as a substitute for them, and we sense the touch of human artists in the vision behind the Egyptian monuments, the lonely desert vistas, the thrill of the chariot race, the personalities of the characters. This is a film that shows animation growing up and embracing more complex themes, instead of chaining itself in the category of children's entertainment.
That's established dramatically in the wonderful prologue scenes, which show the kingdom and Hebrew slaves building pyramids under the whips of the Pharaoh's taskmasters. The "sets" here are inspired by some of the great movie sets of the past, including those in de Mille's original film and D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance." A vast Sphinx gazes out over the desert, and slaves bend to the weight of mighty blocks of stone. In crowd scenes, both here and when the Hebrews pass through the Red Sea, the movie uses new computer techniques to give the illusion that each of the countless tiny figures is moving separately; that makes the "extras" uncannily convincing.