NEW YORK — Even in a year when feature-length animations have flourished, "The Prince of Egypt" stands out as a particularly ambitious project. Its subject is the early life of Moses, from his childhood in the Egyptian court to his leadership of the Hebrews out of bondage. Its theme is the rivalry between forward-looking faith and hidebound tradition, represented by the clash between Moses-inspired authority and Rameses' self-willed insistence on an unjust and outmoded order.
The movie takes itself seriously as both entertainment and education, fleshing out its well-known story with pungent visual motifs and larger-than-life character studies. These were developed in consultation with theologians and biblical scholars as well as historians and Egyptologists, according to the DreamWorks studio.
The cast is solid, adding lively voices to the figures on the screen. Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes star as Moses and Rameses, respectively, supported by acting voices from Danny Glover as Jethro and Sandra Bullock as Miriam to Michelle Pfeiffer as Moses' wife and Steve Martin as a court magician.
Add this together and "The Price of Egypt" could be a box-office hit as well as a useful tool for parents who want to make biblical events vivid for today's youngsters.
This said, however, it's too bad the movie doesn't delve more profoundly into its themes.
Take a statement by DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg in the movie's publicity notes. "I'm sure there are those who think we're nuts for choosing a Bible story as our first animated feature," the executive says. "But the fact is, this is a great emotional story about a remarkable man who must come to terms with his past, his heritage, and his faith" as well as "the extraordinary relationship between two brothers" drawn into conflict.
There's a lot there about feelings and psychology and heroism, but not much about spirituality. The same syndrome rings through the picture's ad campaign: "Two men, brothers and princes of the greatest empire on earth. A lie made them brothers, but the truth will destroy a dynasty and forever separate them."
This sounds like the sort of hype used to promote Cecil B. DeMille's version of "The Ten Commandments" more than 40 years ago, not to mention dozens of other biblical epics before and since.
It reminds us of Hollywood's willingness to appropriate any and all material for show-business purposes. But it doesn't indicate much depth in the studio's idea of what it wanted to accomplish.
Katzenberg and his partners, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, might reply that a studio's main goal must always be entertainment, and if a movie can point out worthwhile ideas along the way, that's just a bonus. But this begs the question of why biblical stories are important in the first place.
The history of Moses hasn't gripped hearts and minds for thousands of years simply because, to quote Katzenberg again, it has "strong emotional journeys; something wonderful about the human spirit; good triumphing over evil," and the like.
All of that can be found in "a bug's life" and DreamWorks's own "Antz," among countless other pictures.
It's because of its spiritual dimension that generations have studied, contemplated, and been guided by the Bible in ways that Hollywood's mass-market approach can hardly comprehend.
None of which means "The Prince of Egypt" is not a lively, colorful cartoon that will please many moviegoers, especially in its most ingenious scenes when an Egyptian frieze springs to chilling life with the story of the escape of Moses from early death, for instance. Or when arrogant wizards sing a sardonic number called "Playing With the Big Boys" in the Pharaoh's palace.
Still, "The Prince of Egypt" too rarely rises to the lofty challenge of its subject matter. Children may enjoy it and learn from it, but older folks would spend their time more profitably with the book it is based on.
* Rated PG; contains violence. David Sterritt's e-mail address is email@example.com