By Steve Daly
Updated September 17, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

As far back as 1977, Steven Spielberg had Moses on the brain. There’s a great gag about the holy man early in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Evening, interior, Neary household. Told by his mother (Teri Garr) to go to bed, one of the young Neary boys swivels the TV set and wheedles, ”No, wait! Dad said we could finish watching The Ten Commandments!”

The joke’s a corker because the true subject of Close Encounters is really the human cost of divine revelation, with the extraterrestrials at Devil’s Tower standing in for God on Mount Sinai. But the homage also marks a nifty portent. For lo, it came to pass that, two decades later, Spielberg suggested his nascent studio, DreamWorks, should deliver a full-blown cartoon-musical version of the Hebrews’ hegira, with more than a passing nod to the blueprint laid out in The Ten Commandments. Co-chief David Geffen saw that it was good, and cochief Jeffrey Katzenberg was the executive producer who made it so. And verily, when The Prince of Egypt arrived in theaters last December, hard on the heels of several other high-grossing animated features, a miracle of sorts occurred: After predictions that the field was over-plowed, Moses’ staff harvested $101 million at the box office.

Is the picture really that religious an experience? Not exactly, particularly when brought from theaters to the smaller video sphere. Codirectors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells toiled to give The Prince of Egypt an unusually dim, restrained, ostensibly realistic color scheme. That means most of their version of Moses’ story — he’s a petulant, gimme-the-keys-to-the-chariot teenager (voiced well by Val Kilmer) who breaks with his stepbrother Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) over Egypt’s abuse of Hebrew slaves — takes place in dim corridors, shadowy tents and nighttime streets. Watch it on a TV in a bright, daylit room and you’ve got to take much of the superbly drafted imagery on faith; you can hardly see it.

With the visuals diminished, the rickety planks in Stephen Schwartz’s fine-to-middling score creak a lot louder. Even on repeat listenings, Moses’ requisite I-want song — called, lamely, ”All I Ever Wanted” — simply isn’t memorable, no matter that the star-crossed royal helpfully whistles snatches of it in another scene. And since the Oscar-winning ”When You Believe” grows more irksomely calculated the more you hear it (the ”Hava Nagila”-style campfire rave, ”Through Heaven’s Eyes,” wears much better), you may leave Egypt thirsty for a looser take on the Book of Exodus.

You can find that in the slipshod Dudley Moore flick Wholly Moses! (1980, Columbia TriStar, 109 mins., PG), a cheapie directed by Gary Weis. He got the gig on the strength of his Saturday Night Live parody shorts, and what Mel Brooks did for Westerns and horror flicks, Weis tries to do for biblical epics. The hero, Herschel (Moore), overhears God commissioning Moses and mistakenly thinks it’s not Moses but he who’s been charged with bringing revolution to Egypt. There are occasional solid-gold giggles to be prospected here, like Herschel’s wife (Laraine Newman) announcing, ”Hey, everybody, my husband just talked to God!” But you’ve got to trek through an awful lot of barren terrain and fruitless cameos by the likes of Richard Pryor (Pharaoh), John Ritter (the Devil), James Coco (a simpering slave), and Madeline Kahn (a peddler) to find the few nuggets.

If you want a Hollywood homage to piety that delivers laughs, thrills, and a cheap, secular sort of wonderment, seek out the flick that proved so inspirational to Spielberg twice over: The Ten Commandments (1956, Paramount, 220 mins., G), Cecil B. DeMille’s go-for-broke spectacle, a remake of his own 1923 silent production. On the snicker-inducing side, there’s Charlton Heston as Moses in various states of undress and, finally, a silly-ass white wig, along with Anne Baxter as oversexed Egyptian princess Nefertiti, slinkily sighing, ”Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” But DeMille also wrought genuinely dramatic work from Cedric Hardwicke, who’s touching as a pharaoh betrayed by Moses’ rebel politics, and Yul Brynner as Rameses, a magnificently boorish monarch whose careerism destroys his life. Watch these grandstanders after the ‘toon thespians of The Prince of Egypt and you’ll see that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than to outdo a vulgar, flesh-peddling showman like DeMille with pencils and ink.

The Prince of Egypt: C+ Wholly Moses!: D+ The Ten Commandments: B+

The Prince of Egypt

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 99 minutes
  • Brenda Chapman
  • Steve Hickner
  • Simon Wells