Ancient Evenings


Very nearly as solemn as a big-studio, megamillion-dollar Broadway musical cum animated cartoon about slavery, mass murder, and the word of God could possibly be, Prince of Egypt is constrained by an 11th commandment: Thou shalt not animate a singing camel. The only miracles found in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Moses story are those described in the Bible. As the producer told Time, “We’ve edited God, but we have not rewritten him.”

Religious injunctions against graven images aside, Prince of Egypt is literal-minded enough for all but the most dogged fundamentalist. As entertainment goes, however, this desert spectacle is no Aladdin— despite the impressively strong graphics of the vast urban spaces. (The forced perspective and theme decor of this ancient Egypt reproaches even the most elaborate Las Vegas hotel.) The animation is more than credible, with the movie structured around a number of highly designed set pieces— the opening dance of the mud turtles, the crazy vicissitudes of the basket en route to the reeds, the sibling-rivalry chariot race swiped from Ben-Hur. The most original passage animates hieroglyphic wall paintings in the service of a historical flashback in which Moses discovers that his adoptive father, Pharaoh Seti, had slaughtered the Hebrew first-born.

A willowy Egyptian queen and an extravagant rope of dromedary drool aside, though, the character animation is more stilted than the statuary, while the characterizations themselves are scarcely more lively. With an uncharacteristically self-effacing Val Kilmer providing a voice for the angular, brooding Moses, Patrick Stewart dubbing Seti, and Ralph Fiennes supplying Rameses’s plummier tones, Prince of Egypt continues the traditional American- reedom- fighter- versus- British- despot arrangement of Hollywood ancient-world epics. The Burning Bush (uncredited) aside, Moses gets his marching orders from the benign and jolly Jethro (Danny Glover), who cuts a Tevya-esque caper and advises the melancholy ex-prince that he “must learn to join the dance.”

This homage to The Lion King notwithstanding, Prince of Egypt‘s weakest aspect is Stephen Schwartz’s stale, sub-Godspell score— filled with simpering ballads and tremulous inspirationals. The movie is bold enough to cap the 10 plagues with a burst of fireworks over the Nile and the two brothers singing a duet. (Moses: “You must let my people . . . ” Rameses: “I will never let your people . . . ” Together: “GO!”) But the timid Semitic motifs and belated gospel reprise only underscore the blandness. There is no bread of affliction in the Katzenberg Haggadah and that little Hebrew song the slave children sing as they exit Egypt is no “Had Gadyo.”

Even the climactic Red Sea parting only serves to confirm Cecil B. DeMille as the master of Biblical hokum. (Unlike Katzenberg, DeMille had a taste for a juicy villain: Edward G. Robinson’s renegade sneering “Where’s your God now, nyaaah,” or Anne Baxter’s temptress sighing “Moses, Moses, Moses, you adorable fool!”) There will be no dancing around the golden calf here. Still, Prince of Egypt has retained a couple of pagan high priests (Steve Martin and Martin Short) to remind us how much religion owes show business. The only truly comic number has the pair frolicking about mid sound-and-light show, taunting Moses for his no-frills staff-to-snake act: “So you think you’ve got friends in high places . . . you’re playing with the big boys now!” The sequence suggests that while Katzenberg was trying to figure out how to make his Egyptians theologically and politically correct, his animators were studying the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number from Dumbo.

Rather than Jerry Falwell, I’d have had the production vetted by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Indeed, it was only when those big stone tablets materialized in Moses’s arms just before the end-credits that I realized I’d been watching the prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Another imperial epic, set a thousand or so years after Prince of Egypt, in the third century B.C., The Emperor’s Shadow also concerns the conflict between a pair of foster brothers— one of whom grows up to be the famous musician Gao Jianli and the other the first emperor of China.

Wills collide, long after the lads are separated, when the baby-faced potentate demands a national anthem and conquers his brother’s native land to get one. Although subject to torture, Gao refuses to comply until he has been seduced by the emperor’s partially paralyzed daughter. Their cosmic sex is crosscut with images of fluttering flags, a royal sword, and a battering ram. The revival-tent atmosphere is clinched afterward, when the princess stands up and walks, and smitten Gao composes a piece to the effect that “10,000 men must stoop so that one can reach heaven.” Somehow this sentiment fails to satisfy the emperor, who orders the mass execution of his slaves, until Gao agrees to a rewrite. One thing leads to another, but suffice to say that all the principals are dead by the time the emperor ritually ascends to the top of the giant pyramid he’s built himself.

Directed by Zhou Xiaowen (best known for the contemporary comedy Ermo), and the most expensive Chinese movie to date, The Emperor’s Shadow traveled the international festival circuit in 1996 and has recently emerged as a cult success in San Francisco. It’s not entirely kitsch. Ascetic as well as sensuous, the movie is predicated on symmetrical compositions, spectacular landscapes, and humans organized into an ornamental mass. The Emperor’s Shadow has the feel of an elaborate ritual and the sense of a civilization refined even in its cruelties. The sequence in which the emperor has Gao blinded with horse piss should strike a responsive chord with movie reviewers everywhere.

Jeffrey Katzenberg retells the Book of Exodus and Gus Van Sant re-creates Psycho, so Nora Ephron updates Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 The Shop Around the Corner. It’s a less sacred text, to be sure, and, in any case, Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (written with her sister Delia Ephron) is more like a rerun of her own Sleepless in Seattle.

The technological gimmick substitutes e-mail for talk radio but the stars are the same. Bounding from her bed in oversized men’s pajamas, Meg Ryan is more a cartoon creature than any to be found in Prince of Egypt. Tom Hanks is less adorable, but Ephron has taken care to surround him with appropriate props— big dog, little kids, bitch-on-wheels girlfriend (Parker Posey, suggesting an evil-twin mockery of Ryan’s pert bunny act). Unbeknownst to their significant others, Hanks and Ryan are carrying on an anonymous cybercorrespondence. In the real world, she operates a quaint children’s bookstore while he’s about to rock her world by opening a giant discount book emporium. That both live on the Upper West Side not only allows them to cross paths in Zabar’s but facilitates a smug and cloying atmosphere— part faux Woody, part New York Times “Metropolitan Diary”— that can reference PEN dinners and poke fun at Victor Navasky.

You’ve Got Mail is not only about PCs; it appears to have been dictated by one. Too sophisticated to subscribe to her own formula but too cynical to do anything else, Ephron strives mightily to keep her unnatural cuteness on life-support. Although You’ve Got Mail is devoid of genuine feeling, a tin-eared selection of strident pop tunes have been strategically dubbed in as emotional cues. The movie is desperate enough to pump up “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for the big scene. Call it the Ephron touch.