Before Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney a few years ago and co-founded Dreamworks SKG with his friends David Geffen and Steven Spielberg he was heading Disney’s animation department and led them back to glory after a hefty plunge in the eighties. Movies like "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame", "The Lion King" and others re-established Disney as the leader in the family animation field, no doubt in part thanks to his foresight and taste. Of course everyone’s eyes were eagerly directed towards Dreamworks’ plans in regards to animated features with him at the helm, and expectations were high when finally "The Prince Of Egypt" emerged. The film had a successful theatrical run making more than $240 million at the box office and is now poised to take home video by storm. Dreamworks Home Video have prepared an exhaustive special edition DVD for this film and you can learn more about the practical details in our exclusive Production Diary.
"The Prince Of Egypt" is telling the story of the Exodus from the Bible. Moses, a Hebrew baby is adopted by the Queen of Egypt and the boy is raised as the Pharaoh’s second son beside Rameses. One night Moses learns the truth, learns that he is a descendant from slaves, and does not really belong in the royal palace. Devastated he decides to leave and goes into the desert where he eventually finds love and God. God makes Moses his messenger to spread the word and to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery, out of Egypt. Moses returns to Egypt, only to find Rameses on the throne after Pharaoh Seti had died.
He tries to convince his brother to release the slaves but Rameses denies. Outraged at the sheer idea of subjugating to a God he knows nothing about he doubles the slaves’ workloads. As a result God decides to show Egypt his powers. He turns the sea red with blood, sends hordes of locusts, fire from the skies and the plague. He forces Rameses to release the Hebrew people and allow Moses to deliver them into freedom.
Before I go any further in this review I would like to tell you that from a technical standpoint to me "The Prince Of Egypt" is simply the best traditional animated feature film ever! While the story is not as whimsical as those of many Disney films, especially in the earlier years, "The Prince Of Egypt" takes a highly dramatic and more realistic approach to the genre. That however makes it an even bigger achievement because instead of unlimited exaggeration you now see subtle performances in a way you have not seen them in the genre before. The scene when Moses looks over the Red Sea to bid farewell to his brother is exemplary in its study of human emotions and mannerisms. Moses catches a breath, holds it, lets it out and says "Goodbye Rameses", then turns around, stops, looks back one more time in despair, catches another deep breath and holds it for seconds until eventually he lets go with an expression of bleak hopelessness on his face and walks away. Another great example is when Moses breaks down after Rameses told him that he and his people are free after all. The subtle shudder of his shoulders and the way the frail body slowly slides down the wall are just outright amazing. There are many more examples like these throughout the film and they make the characters unbelievably real and dimensional. Look out for people’s mimicry, mannerisms, the way they talk and the way they move, and you will see what I mean. The character animation found throughout this film is unprecedented and sets a new standard for all cel-animated features to come.
But also the powerful visual presentation of "The Prince Of Egypt" is nothing short of spectacular. While most animated movies are colorful and beautiful to behold, I have never seen the visually intrinsic sense of drama that I have noticed in this particular film. The way the artists use light to accentuate certain parts of the screen and direct your eyes, the way they use color to create atmosphere and how the animation interacts with the lighting syncopates every scene, giving it a maximum of impact. The art of painting is the art to manage lights and shadows and not like many people believe necessarily the art to use colors. It is what made impressionists like Monet so great. They captured the light and colors on their canvases and from the first to the last frame, "The Prince Of Egypt" feels like a piece of art with its many pastel tones and the stalwart contrasts.
To top it all off, the film excels in the way it tells its story. I have been a medial dramatic storyteller myself for many years and as a result I have learned certain axioms and pragmas about the art of bringing a story to life. And yet, I was simply speechless at the flawless execution in "The Prince Of Egypt". It culminates everything that is known about storytelling in a linear medium. The most dazzling example here is the sequence when the God sends the plague at night. Notice how the film builds to that point and the voice-over explains what is going to happen. In anticipation we are glued to the images as the music fades and everything falls silent. Seconds that seem to run for minutes keep building the tension until it is finally released when the gates of Heaven open to release the deathbringer upon Egypt with a roar.
Dreamworks Home Video is presenting "The Prince Of Egypt" in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio on this DVD. The transfer is enhanced for 16x9 TV sets and looks simply spectacular. The image is razor sharp and even on a downconverted 4:3 TV screen there is no aliasing distortion visible anywhere. The colors are absolutely stable and solid and the level of detail in the transfer is mesmerizing. Once again Dreamworks has outdone itself with this release and is delivering the best DVD transfer to date. Considering that animated films usually require a much higher data rate throughput than traditional films, this is an even more notable achievement. There can be no doubt that this DVD sets the standards against which all future animated feature releases will have to measure up to.
Hardly surprising the same is true for the disc’s audio presentation. "The Prince Of Egypt" comes with an English 5.1 channel Dolby Digital mix that is rich and engulfing. At the same time it has a remarkable clarity and transparency that carefully layers sound effects and dialogues over the ambient sounds. The wide sound field helps to separate all these elements so that at any one given time in the movie you will be able to clearly distinguish all elements and correctly locate them in the surround field. While surrounds are not used very aggressively, they are used very efficiently to create an engrossing experience with subtle nuances in the splits surrounds. A powerful bass extension and more aggressive use of surrounds in selective scenes, such as the furious chariot race at the beginning of the movie, make it clear that this mix is a deliberate attempt to use the surround capabilities on a per-emphasis basis.
"The Prince Of Egypt" features a very good music score by Hans Zimmer. I have to admit I have never been overly impressed with Zimmer’s very traditional way of scoring and orchestrating, without a real personal note, but with his work on this movie he finally won me over. It is a dramatic score that immensely helps the picture, and it is also a rather elaborate score at times making good use of traditional Egyptian sounding motifs and instruments. Although it still sounds overly synthetic on a selected number of occasions it is always working for the given moment and resembles Maurice Jarre’s work on David Lean’s desert-epos "Laurence Of Arabia".
I was also very pleasantly surprised to learn that Ofra Haza, a superstar in her native Israel, has been brought onto this project as the singing voice of Yocheved, Moses’ real mother. With her articulate voice and her skills in Oriental tonality she establishes credibility for the film very early in the movie.
"The Prince Of Egypt" is loaded with bonus materials, starting with an eloquent commentary track by the film’s three directors, Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells. This commentary track is fun to listen to and at the same time it is very informative, giving viewers a lot of information about the process of the creation of this remarkable film and some personal notes that lead to these results.
There are also a number of featurettes about varying aspects of "The Prince Of Egypt" on the disc. A behind-the-scenes documentary gives viewers the chance to see and hear the people involved in the project from taped brainstorming sessions all the way to voice talent recording sessions and interviews with the cast and crew. It gives audiences a good idea how much passion went into this project from all these people involved.
The second featurette explores the creation of the chariot race sequence in the film, allowing people to get a glimpse at the wonders of modern computer supported imaging, while another featurette teaches audiences about the animation technologies utilized in this film on a per-case basis. Although both are quite comprehensive, it requires a certain understanding of animation techniques and computer graphics for them to be fully appreciated. But even without that knowledge I am sure they are at least exciting comparative features that showcase the stages of development the material went through.
The undisputed highlight of the DVD for me is the multi-language presentation of the song "When You Believe" over the film’s grandiose Exodus sequence. As we had described in our Production Diary for "The Prince Of Egypt" already, this 6-minute segment presents the song in all 28 different languages, one line at a time. Even after watching this piece for the 6th time or so now, I am still in utter awe every time I see it.
A gallery of design art and production stills and two of the movie’s trailers round out the package, combined with cast & crew biographies and extensive production notes. There’s also a special treat on the disc in the form of a sneak preview on two upcoming theatrical features from Dreamworks, but I don’t want to spoil you fun here. I believe you should check these out for yourself and enjoy!
As you can certainly tell, I am very excited about this impressive release from Dreamworks Home Video. The film raises the bar for traditional animation, while the DVD raises the bar for all such releases on any home video format. The effort and love that go into each of Dreamworks’ DVDs is truly remarkable and sets signs for the entire industry with every new release. The well balanced materials and the beautiful presentation make this DVD one of the most shining highlights in the market. You have to see this disc to understand what DVD is capable of.