The Prince of Egypt has a lot going for it, first and foremost, stunning distinctive art direction and animation. It also has excellent voice performances, solid songs, and of course an iconic story. BUT this slice of biblical iconography is almost insurmountably difficult to pull off, both in avoiding religious offence and making a film that will appeal to kids (and their worried parents) with all the death and wrathful messages contained in its plot points.
Katzenberg and his vast team pulled it off (I rescreened it this Passover with a room with half adults and half kids) and it held everyone's attention throughout. If there is anything disappointing about it, it's the extreme care taken not to offend, resulting in a film that can leave a bland taste at many pivotal moments. To its credit, it's not remotely triumphalist (like most Haggadahs) and portrays all its Egyptian antogonists as sympathetic human beings, caught in an inexorable grand design.
The story does borrow an non-bibilcal embellishment from the DeMille epic, which is making Moses and Ramses 'brothers' who are torn apart by their adversarial roles. This choice provides the thurst of most of the drama in the story, so that we relate to the story on a basic human level. The script also takes a big liberty, revealing Moses' Hebrew roots much later than in the bible (in early adulthood), causing a much more wrenching decision and reaction than if he were a child, as in the orgiinal story.
As for the voice actors, Ralph Fiennes gives the most complex and indelible performance as the unfortunate Pharoah who is caught in a tragic conundrum with his daddy issues and his tragic, fated role. Jeff Goldblum amusingly plays Aaron as a whiny, often spineless brother, and Sandra Bullock gives a sassy sincerity to sister Miriam. Steve Martin and Martin Short get a few chuckles as the comic relief as a pair of pompuous pagan priests, but the film holds back the yucks so they don't overwhelm the serious intent of the bigger enterprise. Makes sense, but it does feel like a wasted opportunity.
When the film was released, I was unimpressed by Val Kilmer's decidedly mortal and apparently colorless take on Moses (and God!). He's low key and very inwardly tortured, but upon further screenings, Kilmer's take is apt. Interestingly, MOSES is the audience's surrogate in the story, we experience the story through his emotions and his revelations. As for his 'voice of god', Kilmer makes no attempt to take on another voice, so God's words appear to be expressed directly on Moses' brain - as his concience. This is an effective strategy and is not as jarring as a big booming basso 'GOD' voice as in Demille's Ten Commandments.
I am a fan of the Stephen Schwartz songs, they are tuneful and advance the plot nicely. Schwartz is a unappreciated talent, and has written a bunch of hit Broadway shows (Godspell, Wicked) and animated movie tunes that will be long remembered both for earworm catchy melodies and deft lyrics. That said, as evidenced by the Whitney/Mariah duet of 'When You Believe' the songs have the dated melisma style of nineties Disney style pop (a la Mencken) and their production style is already starting to sound dated. I should also mention I appreciate the original Hebrew, right out of the bible, retained in the English version, especially during the song of the sea at the film's climax, they are an fitting and reverent way to give honor to this deeply spiritual moment.
As for the plagues and the gore, they're handled with taste and creativity. The execution of the first born scene is brilliant, and doesn't skirt the point. There's no angel of death, but a ghostlike travelling light. An Egytian child goes in the doorway, out of frame, the light passes through him, then we hear his body drop and his lifeless hand flops into the shot. It's an unforgettable moment for what it doesn't show.
The main reason to see P of E is the spectacular animation, with stunning lighting and colour effects inspired by Egypt itself and a distinctive, psuedo-Modigliani style line drawing effect on the human characters that gives the film a pleasing and majestic look and feel. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, it's hard to imagine a more successful take on a pivotal, primal story that means so much to so many. The delicate balance of all the various senistive aspects of this challenge has been met. Highly recommended.