Jeffrey Katzenberg had frequently suggested an animated adaptation of The Ten Commandments while working for The Walt Disney Company, and he decided to put the idea into production after founding DreamWorks in 1995. To make this inaugural project, DreamWorks Animation employed artists who had worked for Walt Disney Feature Animation and the recently disbanded Amblimation, totalling a crew of 350 people from 34 different nations. The film has a blend of traditional animation and computer-generated imagery, created using software from Toon Boom Animation and Silicon Graphics.
The Prince of Egypt was released in theaters on December 18, 1998, and on home video on September 14, 1999. Reviews were positive, with critics praising the animation, music, and voice work. The film went on to gross $218,613,188 worldwide in theaters, making it the most successful non-Disney animated feature at the time. The film's success led to a direct-to-video prequel and the development of a stage adaptation. The song "When You Believe" because a commercially successful single in a pop version performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and went on to win Best Original Song at the 1999 Academy Awards.
In Ancient Egypt, Yocheved, a Hebrew slave, and her children, Miriam and Aaron, watch as Hebrew babies are taken and ruthlessly killed by Egyptian soldiers, as ordered by Seti I, who fears an increase in the Hebrew population could lead to rebellion. To save her own newborn son, Yocheved places him in a basket and sets it afloat on the Nile. Miriam follows the basket to the Pharaoh's palace and witnesses her baby brother adopted by Pharaoh's queen.
Twenty years later, Moses and his foster brother, Rameses, are scolded by their father for accidentally destroying a temple during one of their youthful misadventures, though Moses tries to take the blame and says that Rameses wants their father's approval. That evening at a palace banquet, Seti, deciding to give Rameses this opportunity, names him Prince regent and gives him authority over Egypt's temples. As a tribute, the high priests, Hotep and Huy offer him the captive Tzipporah, and Rameses gives her to Moses. Moses debunks Tzipporah, and Rameses appoints him Royal Chief Architect.
Later that night, Moses helps Tzipporah escape from the palace and is reunited with Miriam and Aaron. Despite Aaron's attempts to protect her, Miriam tries to tell Moses about his past, but he refuses to listen to her and returns to the palace. The truth about his past is later confirmed in a nightmare, and finally by Seti himself. The next day, Moses accidentally pushes an Egyptian guard off the scaffolding of the temple, while trying to stop him from whipping a Hebrew slave, and the guard falls to his death.
Ashamed and confused, Moses flees into the desert in exile, despite Rameses' pleas to stay. After Moses defends Tzipporah's younger sisters from bandits, he is welcomed into the tribe by their father Jethro. After assimilating this new culture, Moses becomes a shepherd and marries Tzipporah. While chasing a stray lamb, Moses discovers a burning bush through which God instructs him to guide the Hebrew slaves to their promised land, and bestows Moses' shepherding staff with his power. Moses and Tzipporah return to Egypt, where Moses is happily greeted by Rameses, who is now Pharaoh.
When Moses requests the Hebrews' release and changes his staff into an Egyptian cobra, to demonstrate his alliance with God. Hotep and Huy boastfully re-create this transformation, only to have their snakes eaten by Moses' snake. Rather than being persuaded, Rameses is hardened and increases the Hebrews' workload. Moses and Tzipporah thereafter live with Miriam, who convinces Aaron and the other Hebrews to trust him. Later, Moses inflicts nine of the Plagues of Egypt; but Rameses refuses to relent, and Moses prepares the Hebrews for the tenth and final plague. That night, the final plague kills all the firstborn children of Egypt, including Rameses' own son, while sparing those of the Hebrews. The next day Rameses, gives Moses permission to free the Hebrews.
The following morning, the Hebrews leave Egypt, led by Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and Tzipporah. At the Red Sea, they discover that Rameses is closely pursuing them with his army. Upon their arrival, Moses uses his staff to part the sea, while a pillar of fire blocks the army's way. The Hebrews cross on the open sea bottom; when the pillar of fire disappears and the army gives chase, the water closes over the Egyptian soldiers, sparing Rameses alone. Therefore, Moses leads the Hebrew to Mount Sinai, where he receives the Ten Commandments.
- Val Kilmer as Moses
- Ralph Fiennes as Rameses II
- Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah
- Sandra Bullock as Miriam
- Jeff Goldblum as Aaron
- Patrick Stewart as Pharaoh Seti I
- Danny Glover as Jethro
- Brian Stokes Mitchell provides Jethro's singing voice.
- Helen Mirren as Queen Tuya
- Linda Dee Shayne provides Queen Tuya's singing voice.
- Steve Martin as Hotep
- Martin Short as Huy
- Ofra Haza as Yocheved
Director Brenda Chapman briefly voices Miriam when she sings the lullaby to Moses. The vocal had been recorded for a scratch audio track, which was intended to be replaced later by Sally Dworsky. The track turned out so well that it remained in the film.
Former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had always wanted to do an animated adaptation of The Ten Commandments. While working for The Walt Disney Company, Katzenberg suggested this idea to Michael Eisner, but he refused. The idea for the film was brought back at the formation of DreamWorks SKG in 1994, when Katzenberg's partners, Amblin Entertainment founder Steven Spielberg, and music producer David Geffen, were meeting in Spielberg's living room. Katzenberg recalls that Spielberg looked at him during the meeting and said, "You ought to do The Ten Commandments."
The Prince of Egypt was "written" throughout the story process. Beginning with a starting outline, Story Supervisors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook led a team a fourteen storyboard artists and writers as they sketched out the entire film - sequence by sequence. Once the storyboards were approved, they were put into the Avid Media Composer digital editing system by editor Nick Fletcher to create a "story reel" or animatic. The story reel allowed the filmmakers to view and edit the entire film in continuity before production began, and also helped the layout and animation departments understand what is happening in each sequence of the film. After casting of the voice talent concluded, dialogue recording sessions began. For the film, the actors recorded individually in a studio under guidance by the one of the three directors. The voice tracks were to become the primary aspect as to which the animators built their performances. Because DreamWorks was concerned about the theological accuracy, Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to call in Biblical scholars, Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologies, and Arab American leaders to help his film be more accurate and faithful to the original story. After previewing the developing film, all these leaders noted that the studio executives listened and responded to their ideas, and praised the studio for reaching out for comment from outside sources.
Design and animation
Art directors Kathy Altieri and Richard Chavez and Production Designer Derek Gogol led a team of nine visual development artists in setting a visual style for the film that was representative of the time, the scale and the architectural style of Ancient Egypt. Part of the process also included the research and collection of artwork from various artists, as well in taking part in trips such as a two-week travel across Egypt by the filmmakers before the film's production began.
Character Designers Carter Goodrich, Carlos Grangel, and Nicolas Marlet worked on setting the design and overall look of the characters. Drawing on various inspirations for the widely known characters, the team of character designers worked on designs that had a more realistic feel than the usual animated characters up to that time. Both character design and art direction worked to set a definite distinction between the symmetrical, more angular look of the Egyptians versus the more organic, natural look at the Hebrews and their related environments. The Backgrounds department, headed by supervisors Paul Lasaine and Ron Lukas, oversaw a team of artists who were responsible for painting the sets/backdrops from the layouts. Within the film, approximately 934 hand-painted backgrounds were created.
The animation team for The Prince of Egypt, including 350 artists from 34 different nations, was primarily recruited both from Walt Disney Feature Animation, which had fallen into Katzenberg's auspices while at The Walt Disney Company, and from Amblimation, a defunct division of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. As at Disney's, character animators were grouped into teams by character: for example, Kristoff Serrand, as the supervising animator of Older Moses, set the acting style of the characters and the assigned scenes to his team. Consideration was given to properly depicting the ethnicities of the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews and Nubians seen in the film.
There are 1,192 scenes in the film, and 1,180 of them have special effects in them. These special effects were elements such as wind blowing or environmental features such as dust or rainwater. These were also effects design in terms of lightning, as it casts its shadows and images into a given scene. In the end, these effects helped the animators graphically illustrate scenes such as the ten plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. The animated characters were digitally inked and painted using Cambridge Systems' Animo software system, and the compositing of the 2D and 3D elements was done using the "Exposure Tool", a digital solution developed for DreamWorks by Silicon Graphics.
Creating the voice of God
The task of creating God's voice was given to Lon Bender and the team working with the film's music composer, Hans Zimmer. "The challenge with that voice was to try to evolve it into something that had not been heard before," says Bender. "We did a lot of research into the voices that had been used for past Hollywood movies as well as for radio shows, and we were trying to create something that had never been previously heard not only from a casting standpoint but from a voice manipulation standpoint as well. The solution was to use the voice of Val Kilmer to suggest the kind of voice we hear inside our heads in our everyday lives, as opposed to the larger than life tones with God has been endowed in prior cinematic incarnations." As a result, in the final film, Kilmer gave the voice to Moses and God, as well, yet the suggestion is that someone is that someone else would have heard God speak to him again in his own voice.
- See also: The Prince of Egypt Soundtrack
Composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz began working on writing songs for the film from the beginning of the film's production. As the story evolved, he continued to write songs that would serve to both entertain and help move the story along. Composer Hans Zimmer arranged and produced the songs and eventually wrote the film's score. The film's score was recorded entirely in London, England.
Three soundtrack albums were released simultaneously for The Prince of Egypt, each of them aimed towards a different target audience. While the other two accompanying records, the country-themed "Nashville" soundtrack and the gospel-based "Inspirational" soundtrack, functioned as film tributes, the official The Prince of Egypt soundtrack contained the actual songs from the film. The album combines elements from the score composed by Hans Zimmer and film songs by Stephen Schwartz. The songs were either voiced over by professional singers (such as Salisbury Cathedral Choir), or sung by the film's voice actors, such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Ofra Haza. Various tracks by contemporary artists such as K-Ci & JoJo and Boyz II Men were added, including the Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet "When You Believe", a Babyface rewrite of the original Stephen Schwartz composition, sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and Sally Dworsky in the film. Amy Grant also sings a version of "River Lullaby".
- "Deliver Us" - Jochebed and Chorus
- "All I Ever Wanted" - Moses
- "River Lullaby" - Miriam
- "All I Ever Wanted (Queen's Reprise)" - Queen Tuya
- "Through Heavens Eyes" - Jethro
- "Playing with the Big Boys" - Hotep and Huy
- "The Plagues" - Moses, Rameses, and Chorus
- "When You Believe" - Miriam, Tzipporah, and Chorus
Release and reception
The Prince of Egypt had its premiere at the UCLA's Royal Hall on December 16, 1998, with its wide release occuring two days later. Despite being the inaugural production by DreamWorks Animation, it wound up the second to get a theatrical release, as Antz was rushed to theaters in September. The international release occurred simultaneously to the United States, as according to DreamWorks' distribution chief Jim Tharp, opening one week prior to the "global holiday" of Christmas, audiences all over the world will be available at the same time.
The accompanying market campaign aimed to bring more adults, usually averse to animated films. Merchandising was limited to a line of collectible figures and books. Wal-Mart served as a promotional partner, and offered in stores a package featuring two tickets to The Prince of Egypt, a storybook and the film's soundtrack.
Box office performance
On its opening weekend, the film grossed $14,524,321 for a $4,658 average from 3,118 theaters, earning second place at the box office behind You've Got Mail. Due to the holiday season, the film gained 4% in its second weekend, earning $15,119,107 and finishing in fourth place. It had a $4,698 average from 3,218 theaters. It would hold well in its third weekend, with only a 25% drop to $11,244,612 for $3,11 average from 3,202 theaters and once again finishing in fourth place. The film closed on May 27, 1999 after earning $101,413,188 in the United States and Canada with an additional $117,200,000 overseas for a worldwide total of $218.6 million. The Prince of Egypt was the second non-Disney animated feature to gross over $100 million in the U.S. after Paramount/Nickelodeon's The Rugrats Movie. It remained the top grossing non-Disney animated film until being surpassed by the 2000 stop motion film Chicken Run, also distributed by DreamWorks, and remained the highest grossing traditionally non-Disney film until 2007, when it was out-grossed by 20th Century Fox's The Simpson's Movie.
The Prince of Egypt received generally positive reviews from critics and at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 80 reviews collected, the film has an overall approval rating of 79%, with a weighted average of 7/10. Metacritic, which assigns a normalized 0-100 rating to reviews from mainstream critics, calculated an average score of 64 from the 26 reviews it collected.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised the film in his review saying, "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 in a category of children's entertainment." Richard Corliss of Time magazine gave a negative review of the film saying, "The film lacks creative exuberance, any side pockets of joy." Stephen Hunter from The Washington Post praised the film saying, "The movie's proudest accomplishment is that it revises our version of Moses towards something more immediate and believable, more humanly knowable."
Lisa Alspector from the Chicago Reader praised the film and wrote, "The blend of animation techniques somehow demonstrates mastery modestly, while the special effects are nothing short of magnificent." Houston Chronicles's Jeff Millar reviewed by saying, "The handsomely animated The Prince of Egypt is an amalgam of Hollywood's biblical epic, Broadway supermusical and nice Sunday school lesson." James Berardinelli from Reelviews highly praised the film saying, "The animation in The Prince of Egypt is truly top-notch, and is easily a match for anything Disney has turned out in the last decade", and also wrote "this impressive achievement uncovers yet another chink in Disney's once-impregnable animation armor." Liam Lacey of The Global and Mail gave a somewhat a negative review and wrote, "Prince of Egypt is spectacular but takes itself too seriously." MovieGuide also reviewed the film favorably, giving it a rate of 4 out of 4 stars, saying that, "The Prince of Egypt takes animated movies to a new level of entertainment. Magnificent art, music, story, and realization combine to make The Prince of Egypt one of the most entertaining masterpieces of all time."
The Prince of Egypt was banned in two countries where the population is predominantly Muslim: the Maldives and Malaysia, on the grounds that the depiction in the media of Islamic prophets (among which Moses is counted) is forbidden in Islam. The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in the Maldives stated: "All prophets and messengers of God are revered in Islam, and therefore cannot be portrayed". Following the ruling, the censor board banned the film in January 1999. In the same month, the Film Censorship Board in Malaysia banned the film, but did not provide a specific explanation. The board's secretary said that the censor body ruled the film was "intensive for religious and moral reasons".
The film was also banned in Egypt on the grounds of the depiction in the media of Islamic prophets, but also arguably because it defamed Egyptians, depicted in the film as the oppressors of the Hebrews, and that Moses played more of a role as a liberator than a messenger.
The Prince of Egypt was released on DVD and VHS on September 14, 1999. The ownership of the film was assumed by DreamWorks Animation when the company split from DreamWorks Pictures in 2004; as with the rest of the DreamWorks Animation catalog, it is available for streaming on Netflix in HD. However, Both the DVD release and the streaming versions used a 35mm print of the film, rather than using the original files to encode the movie directly to digital.
- Main article: Joseph: King of Dreams
In November 2000, DreamWorks Animation released Joseph: King of Dreams, a direct-to-video prequel based on the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis. The project begun during the production of The Prince of Egypt, employing the same animation crew and featuring director Steve Hickner as an executive producer.
- In July 2014, the film's distribution rights were purchased by DreamWorks Animation and transferred to 20th Century Fox.