Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Prince of Egypt: DTS - Signature Selection (1998)
Studio Line: DreamWorks - Two brothers united by friendship divided by destiny

An epic adventure and milestone in cinematic achievement, The Prince of Egypt has captivated movie audiences the world over, becoming one of the top animated films of all time. Unparalleled artistry and powerful Academy Award-winning music bring this beloved story to life as never before, with unforgettable characters voiced by a roster of stars as impressive as any ever assembled for a feature film.

This is the extraordinary tale of two brothers, one born of royal blood, one an orphan with a secret past. Growing up the best of friends, they share a strong bond of free-spirited youth and good-natured rivalry. But the truth will ultimately set them at odds, as one becomes the ruler of the most powerful empire on earth, the other the chosen leader of his people. Their final confrontation will forever change their lives - and the world.

Both spectacular entertainment and a celebration of the human spirit, The Prince of Egypt stands as a classic for the ages, for audiences of every generation to enjoy and cherish.

Director: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
Cast: Val Kilmer-Moses/God; Ralph Fiennes-Rameses; Michelle Pfeiffer-Tzipporah; Sandra Bullock-Miriam; Jeff Goldblum-Aaron; Danny Glover-Jethro; Patrick Stewart-Pharaoh Seti I; Helen Miren-Queen; Steve Martin-Hotep; Martin Short-Huy.
Academy Awards: Won for Best Song-"When You Believe". Nominated for Best Original Score-Hans Zimmer, Stephen Schwartz.
Box Office: Budget: $60 million. Opening Weekend: $14.524 million (3118 screens). Gross: $101.217 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DTS 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; rated PG; 99 min.; $29.99; street date 11/7/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary from Directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells; 25-minute "The Making of The Prince of Egypt" Documentary; "When You Believe" Multilanguage Reel; Nine-minute Featurette "Basics of Animation: The Chariot Race"; Six-minute Featurette "Focus On Technical Effects"; "The Prince of Egypt Art Gallery"; Two Trailers; Production Notes; Cast and Crew Biographies; Special Sneak Preview of Chicken Run and The Road to El Dorado.
Purchase: DVD | The Prince of Egypt: A New Vision in Animation - Charles Solomon | Nashville soundtrack - Various Artists | Score soundtrack - Hans Zimmer

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/B

Although it took three viewings - one during its theatrical run and two on DVD - I finally must admit it: I like The Prince of Egypt. Actually, this isn't a radical change of heart. It's not like I used to loathe TPOE and now think it's a classic.

Instead, I'd always found TPOE to be an interesting and well-executed film. However, it simply didn't do much for me. I could never put my finger on the reasons for my lukewarm reception of it, but something about the movie left me cold, as you can see if you read my review of the original Dolby Digital DVD release of it.

Since I just received the new DTS issue of TPOE, I had to give it another viewing, and I must say that something about it struck a chord this time. Sometimes I'll revisit films that never did much for me and find new life in them, but when that occurs, it's usually been many moons since the prior viewing. I just watched the DD DVD last January, so it's barely been nine months since I last screened the film. I don't think that's been enough time for anything to change within me to create new interest in the picture, so I guess I'll have to drop that as a reason

One other possibility stemmed from the audio. Maybe the DTS mix was so much better than the DD track that it brought out the film's drama more fully. Maybe, but not actually. As I'll discuss later, I do think the DTS audio was superior but only to a very minor degree; whatever sound improvements I heard didn't account for my more-positive reaction to the movie.

Chalk this one up to the mystery of life. Whatever the case, I now feel much more strongly enthusiastic about TPOE. Previously, I thought it was a noble and well-meaning film, but not one that conveyed its subject especially well. After all, the story of Moses certainly has an awful lot going for it, and it shouldn't be hard to make the tale dramatic and emotionally-compelling. Unfortunately, TPOE just didn't move me during my first two viewings.

I guess the third time was the charm, because I really got into the project this time. I was able to ignore some of the film's flaws better. For instance, I thought the occasional use of comic relief and some slightly-anthropomorphized animals felt inappropriate. This isn't because I believe the story must be told with the gravest seriousness; instead, I simply felt that the goofiness of these moments jarred the viewer due to the change in tone.

That said, such segments didn't bother me this time. They seemed less abrupt and seemed to fit the project more aptly. Granted, I'd still like to lose the wacky camel who periodically nibbles at Moses' hair, or the goat who stares in disbelief at Moses (Val Kilmer) when he dunks his head in a water trough, but I no longer really disliked these events.

I also had some prior problems with a few vocal performances. Kilmer worked quite well as Moses; he effectively conveyed the character's wide range of emotions and made Moses a believable part. Ralph Fiennes also provided a strong effort as brother Rameses, the eventual villain of the piece. Although Fiennes irritates me at times - I just can't forgive him for acting in The English Patient - I must acknowledge he's a talented performer, and he brings surprising depth to Rameses. Though he could become a stock baddie, Fiennes makes sure we understand the complexity of the character's emotions. When misfortune befalls Rameses, we don't cheer his defeat, though we're strongly on the side of the opposition; Rameses is a very flawed person, but he's not just a cartoon villain in whose pain we rejoice.

Some of the supporting vocal performances were less effective, however. Michelle Pfeiffer simply is unable to manage much of a presence as Moses' wife Tzipporah. There's nothing terribly wrong with her work, but I never felt that she commands any attention; she occasionally fills space on the screen but leaves little emotional residue. As Moses's siblings, both Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum provide decent performances, but there's something about them that just seemed vaguely wrong in the parts; I like both actors - especially Goldblum, who's always been a favorite - but the two offer a quirkiness that felt vaguely inappropriate here.

Nonetheless, I can't strongly quibble with any of the actors, and even though I wasn't wild about Goldblum and Bullock, I will acknowledge both have some strong moments. Only Pfeiffer's performance truly left me cold. In any case, I felt more positively about the acting than had previously been the case. Even with the faults I discerned, they seemed less glaring than during prior viewings.

Really, the only continuing concern I maintain about TPOE stems from the animation. For the most part, the artwork in the film is quite strong. Characters move fluidly and believably, and much of it looks simply gorgeous. One moment - when Moses touches the mural that depicts the slaughter of the Hebrews - displayed some of the most startlingly-realistic animation I've ever seen.

My problems revolved around the integration of computer animation in TPOE. Much of the film uses this kind of work. For example, when ba by Moses is set adrift, he rests in a CGI cradle. Many of the special effects were clearly created on a computer; from the burning bush to the parting of the Red Sea, it's obvious that lots of the material was never touched by human hands.

As has been the case in other films - Disney's Tarzan comes to mind - sometimes CGI just doesn't blend well with traditional cel animation. These segments retain a strangely artificial look that makes their origins obvious. It's not that they look too "perfect"; rather, they just seem a little too slick and smooth. When I saw these parts of TPOE, they really stood out to me, and that loss of suspension of disbelief occasionally took me out of the story.

But only occasionally, because I found myself much more involved in this tale than I expected. (Hey, it's not like I don't know how it'll end!) For reasons unknown, TPOE possessed a lot more power during this screening. Something about it got through to me and made the story more evocative than I expected.

Some segments worked better than others, but TPOE delivers Moses' "greatest hits" in powerful and moving ways. Granted, the burning bush scene left me a little cold, but I felt genuinely dazzled by the various plague scenes - especially the final one - and during the parting of the Red Sea.

Ultimately, despite my change of heart, I still can't call The Prince of Egypt a great film. Nonetheless, it's a much better one than I used to think. Despite the fact it still seems a little odd to see a cartoon representation of the tale of Moses, the movie portrays the events vividly and with strength. It's a solid movie that deserves your attention.

The DVD:

The Prince Of Egypt appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, the film offered a pretty terrific picture.

Sharpness seemed consistently very crisp and well-defined. At no time could I discern any evidence of soft or fuzzy images; the movie looked quite accurate and precise. I detected no examples of moiré effects or jagged edges, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV appeared minimal. The image also appeared very clean; I saw virtually no evidence of grain, spots, speckles, scratches, marks, hairs or digital artifacts.

Colors looked absolutely marvelous. Much of the film uses an earthy tone that obviously seems appropriate for the desert setting. Nonetheless, we see a nice variety of brighter and more evocative hues within clothing. Reds appear especially deep and rich, and I genuinely adored the sumptuous turquoise blues. Check out some of the musical production numbers like "Through Heaven's Light" and inspect the costumes; you'll see some of the most lovely and vivid colors on display anywhere.

Black levels looked good but seemed overly dark. Some of this appears to have resulted from design decisions; the filmmakers liked to cast most of the movie in shadows. As such, so much darkness pervades the image that I often had a very tough time discerning visual nuances; for example, even facial expressions can be difficult to see. Despite that quibble, TPOE usually looks quite marvelous.

As I mentioned previously, I found few differences between the DTS 5.1 audio and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of last year's DVD, though I give the DTS mix a slight edge. The track featured a consistent bias toward the front spectrum. During much of the film, the forward channels dominate the action, and they do so quite well. Audio seemed precisely placed with the environment and all sounds blended together neatly; everything meshed together nicely.

The surrounds provided a lot of positive ambiance throughout the film, and on many occasions they became much more active partners. Actually, even during quiet moments, the rear speakers contributed some solid effects. For example, at the very start of the film, we hear the gentle sound of a tambourine deftly travel from speaker to speaker. This added to the way in which I was drawn into the story. Yeah, it doesn't sound like much, but I thought it was a nice touch, and the track is filled with similar moments. When wind whips around the screen, we hear convincing effects from all five channels.

For the most part, the soundtrack doesn't overwhelm the viewer, though a few moments come close. The parting of the Red Sea provided audio of genuine power and depth; that moment stands as the most stunning of the film. Other big moments worked well, too, such as the scene that covers most of the plagues.

Audio quality seemed quite solid. At times I felt the dialogue didn't blend particularly well with the action; some of the speech didn't match up well with the rest of the track and these lines could appear somewhat excessively artificial. However, dialogue always came across as warm and distinct; I detected no problems related to intelligibility or edginess.

Music displayed good range and seemed nicely bright and clear. Actually, I thought the songs could have appeared a little more crisp and vivid, but they generally were smooth and dynamic. Effects fared best in the mix. From the quiet moments I already mentioned to killer show-stoppers like sandstorms or the fire-tornado that stops Rameses from chasing the Hebrews, the track boasted excellent reproduction of these effects. Ultimately, the mix lacked the consistent power to qualify as a full "A" title, but it stands as a strong "A-".

That grade exactly marks the rating I applied to the Dolby Digital edition of TPOE. Since I mentioned that I preferred the DTS track, you may wonder how I can award them the same grade. Well, I kinda wonder about that myself, but here's the scoop: the DD mix represented a low "A-" but the DTS version comes at the high end of that grade. The DD track worked well enough to keep from falling to "B+" territory, but it was a close call, whereas I thought about a full "A" for the DTS edition but deemed it a little too forward-oriented in general to warrant that mark.

How did I feel that tracks differed? The DTS mix seemed more transparent. This means that the audio often appeared less "speaker-specific". Sounds more frequently came from the wonderful neverland between channels that adds life to soundtracks; after all, in the real world, audio doesn't emanate specifically from five different locations, so for a mix to appear realistic, it needs to present a seamless environment. The DTS soundtrack of TPOE succeeds in this regard better than does the DD mix, and that's honestly the only difference I noticed. Quality seemed identical, with no edge for either track in regard to depth or dynamics. Really, the DD version is very good, but I'd choose the DTS edition if I were a new buyer of the DVD.

Unlike some previous DTS DVDs from DreamWorks and others, DTS fans won't sacrifice any of the DD version's supplemental features. TPOE retains each and every extra that appeared on last year's original DVD release of the film. First up is a pretty good audio commentary from directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells. I won't claim that this is a great track - none of the participants possess much charisma - but it offers a reasonable amount of interesting information in an efficient manner. All areas of the production - from technical to creative - receive mention. Though they come across as a little dull, at least the directors manage to seem enthusiastic about the project, which helps make their remarks more compelling. I don't know if I'll ever want to revisit this track, but it made for reasonable listen.

Next we find a 25 minute documentary about the film, which has been creatively titled "The Making of The Prince of Egypt". Although this isn't a terribly in-depth piece, it does cover a lot of ground in a fairly proficient manner. All aspects of creating the movie receive coverage, with an interesting focus on the actors. That's unusual in these kinds of programs; normally they'll show a little of the performers in the studio but that's about it. Here, we see a lot of them doing their work, plus hear them in separate interviews. I really liked this emphasis, if just because it added a different tone to the piece.

We get to see the song "When You Believe" in a multilanguage reel. This six minute feature attempts to demonstrate how seamlessly they were able to translate the film into other languages, and they did a good job; it's quite difficult to tell one singer from another for the most part. I didn't count the number of languages featured (I admit it - I'm lazy and good for nothing!) but I'd guess it's about 20.

The DVD includes two additional featurettes. "The Basics of Animation: The Chariot Race" runs for nine and a half minutes and it follows the development of that scene. We see the piece's progress from story reel to line test drawings to its final form. The segment is narrated by directors Hickner and Wells. As implied by its title, this program is pretty basic in its discussion of the artform, but it's good for folks who don't know much about the stages of animation.

A second featurette called "Focus On Technical Effects" offers a six minute piece that does just that: it discusses the ways that the film's special effects were created. It's also pretty superficial but it seemed mildly interesting. I remain disenchanted with the movie's use of CGI, but I still enjoyed this short look at that side of the equation.

Another section of the DVD includes about 60 stills. These are divided into two sections: "Inspiration and Design" - which covers production and planning drawings - and "Production Stills" - which are essentially just single frames from the film. The first section is pretty interesting, but the second seems unnecessary. I didn't care for the presentation of this supplement, by the way; instead of advancing the pictures frame by frame, the program runs in "play" mode. This makes it awkward to move ahead to subsequent frames; if you fast forward, it goes too quickly and the images flash by you, whereas if you let it play, it moves too slowly. Other DVDs - particularly the "Classic Monster" films from Universal - have utilized this presentation effectively, but it doesn't work well during TPOE.

Rounding out TPOE are some DVD basics. Brief and mildly useful biographies appear for ten actors, the three directors, and two producers. Two trailers for TPOE pop up, and we also get ads for DreamWorks animated films The Road to El Dorado and Chicken Run. If you need any evidence that literally nothing has changed from the original DVD, check out these clips. The narration still says "coming in 2000" although both films exited theaters months ago! One nice touch: the trailers for TPOE itself appear in DTS 5.1 sound (El Dorado and Chicken Run are Dolby Surround 2.0, however).

Finally, some nice production notes finish off the collection. The text discusses the origin of the project and the challenges associated with it are discussed briefly but in an interesting manner. These are duplicated verbatim within the booklet. It's not an exhaustive complement of supplements, but it seems solid and compelling.

One tremendously minor difference between the Dolby DVD and this DTS edition: the former came inside a cool gold-colored case, whereas the latter appears only in basic black. Too bad - I liked the unusual appearance of the original box!

One quibble: DreamWorks have started to become the "bait and switch" studio. My reviews of both the Dolby Digital and DTS editions of The Haunting document my aggravation at a series of supplements that were announced for those discs but never appeared. TPOE doesn't approach the level of problems that occurred during those mispromotions, but I want to point out that the new DTS DVD has a sticker on the front cover that boasts new material. There isn't any; the supplements on this DVD are absolutely identical to those on the old one.

When I initially reviewed The Prince of Egypt nine months ago, I gave it an terribly lukewarm endorsement. However, I now feel more strongly positive about it. The movie tells a classic tale in an evocative and moving manner and generally achieves its goals. The DVD provides very strong picture and sound plus a nice complement of supplements.

If you already own the Dolby Digital release, I can't recommend that you replace it with this one; the audio improvements are too small to warrant another purchase. However, if you're new to the title and have DTS capabilities, The Prince of Egypt would make a terrific addition to your collection.

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