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The Ten Commandments

Promenade Pictures (October 19 2007), Genius Entertainment (February 5 2007), 2 discs (one DVD, one CD), 88 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $19.95

Storyboard:

Reluctant prophet Moses becomes a hero of the people when he is thrown out of his adopted Egyptian home by the Pharaoh ruler, learning his true heritage and discovering the destiny a higher power has set out for him…

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The Sweatbox Review:

Apparently, this latest screen version of The Ten Commandments remained a production of highly secret proportions until a publicity campaign was unexpectedly launched just a couple of months prior to its theatrical launch last October. Not much was known about the film, other than that it was an independent production being animated – as so many smaller animated films are nowadays – across the globe, and that it was CGI. In fact, after a few admittedly impressively lit stills emerged, that it was CGI was made rather painfully obvious by the trailer that debuted shortly afterwards.

We’ve all heard the term “videogame animation”, and it usually applies to action-oriented CG movies whose looks don’t come off much better than the kind of inter-level story sequences many high-end game titles enjoy (think the Final Fantasies in particular). I know that game animation has come on leaps and bounds, more or less equalling the kind of styles enjoyed by Appleseed or the recent TMNT movie, but when the animation in a film can’t even be compared to what was being done in games, say, even ten years ago, you know you’re in trouble.

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And that’s a shame, because there are some really decent names attached to the film, all trying to do some good work, not least screenwriter Ed Naha, perhaps still best known for creating the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids craze in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s. And then we have the impressive voice cast – all of them “names” – which doesn’t explain how they all ended up lending their very recognisable voices to something as amateur looking as this. A case in point is something as basic as water – often an effect that had the CGI wizards puzzled as how to make it look convincing. That issue has been overcome for a good few years now, but the water, if it can be called that here, only looks okay – for a 1980s video ident. It simply looks decidedly oily and globby.

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What’s worse is that the directors and technicians seem to be more interested in creating shots that use all the tricks in the CGI handbook – lens flares, lighting effects, camera movement – in an attempt to create some decent wow moments, but its all over egged so as to appear gaudy. The settings have that cookie cutter design approach – model a pillar here, a house there, and cut and paste them over and over again to create the impression of size and spectacle. And yet, for all its epic ambitions, it remarkably lacks scope – the central plot point Plagues that God sends down from the Heavens to target the Pharaoh’s people in revenge for how the Jews are being treated are either seen in close up, affecting only small groups of people, or in long wide shots in which the fancy, preset CGI effects can swirl around the people-less city models.

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Not that the shots would have benefited from the addition of “people”. With their plastic moulded, textured hair, bulky frames and poor lip-synch, the majority of shots here are downright embarrassing. Everything has that shiny rubbery look – even human skin texture. Nothing interacts with their surroundings, even when characters handle anything they don’t seem to be actually capable of touch. When these cumbersome and sometimes awkwardly rendered figures move, the “acting”, such as it is, is of the overly theatrical pantomime type – no subtlety here, and all very much over emphasized. I don’t think it’s been motion-captured, but it certainly has that impression, with facial expressions that run the gamut all the way from A to B, being able to convey the lightest appearances of being happy, sad or angry, usually with a look of mild annoyance, like they’re having difficulty in going to the toilet. I don’t think most of this would have even passed on television ten years ago, and a nicely done, limited animation 2D title sequence only reminds again of how much better traditional animation can bring things to life – even in limited terms, whereas limited CGI looks painfully like what it is.

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The intention seems to have been to create a straighter version of The Prince Of Egypt without the songs, but in the end that’s all this Ten Commandments ends up feeling like. And without the length of the 1956 epic version, it also digests much and runs almost like a highlights package – there’s the slaying of the baby boys, the smuggling of baby Moses down river, the growing up a Prince and eventual persecution in the desert, the burning bush…ahh, God, or as the trailer had it, “Academy Award Nominee Elliott Gould as the Voice of God”. If there was a crazier line ever heard than that, I’ve yet to hear it, and how anyone could take anything like that seriously I just don’t know. In the burning bush sequence we handily have to hand everything that’s good and bad about this Ten Commandments. On the one hand there’s the decent effect of the bush itself – a fairly simple soft flame algorithm that nevertheless looks effective, but on the other hand we have a Moses so stiff he hardly moves…and Gould as God. He’s been great in the past – heaven knows Gould is practically a Hollywood legend and I’ve certainly enjoyed his performances in a wide variety of movies, most notably M*A*S*H, of course, and the botched-mission to Mars thriller Capricorn One.

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More recently, however, “Academy Award Nominee” (as the publicity never fails to remind us) Gould has been a figure of fun in Friends and Clooney/Soderbergh’s Ocean’s pictures – hardly the sterling stuff needed to pull this off; his lines come over as having a false intensity, and where he may be trying too hard to reach the required level of gravitas, it sounds more like he’s simply reading the lines of the page with real concentration. Christian Slater does some good work as Moses, though, noticeably ageing vocally as his character does, while Alfred “Doc Ock” Molina provides the real acting chops, but why he’s been asked to play American is perplexing…! Not sounding as authoritative as he should, “Academy Award Winner” Ben Kingsley’s narration does its job, tying together the greatest hits where real dialogue and plot development apparently couldn’t be bothered. But he phones it in, the majority of lines coming off trite and sometimes unintentionally hilarious – “The waters turned to blood and the fish died,” he laments, “And the rivers stank!” he adds, sounding particularly like an LA valley girl annoyed that her bottled water is a day out of date.

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Comparisons with The Prince Of Egypt are unfortunately inevitable – apart from the story (it’s based on a best selling book you might have heard of) – some of the shots are alarmingly close to those in DreamWorks’ 1999 debut feature. But The Ten Commandments does best that film on one way: by continuing the story and countering the biggest criticism with the earlier film, that once Moses’ people had made good their escape from Egypt, the movie hit fast forward and only just about scraped in a quick reference to the fifteen…sorry, ten…Ten Commandments. This version essentially uses the parting of the seas as a half way action mark, leaving a good half hour to run through Moses’ further adventures, during which his people get such a picky, annoying and obnoxiously selfish bunch that one must wonder if even he didn’t think about packing it all in and wandering back to Egypt to face his no doubt less draining enemy Pharaoh!!

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Eventually, the Commandments come, and of course this being a “worthy” picture we get the whole ten yards read out to us by Godly Gould (an “Academy Award Nominee”, don’tcha know). The Prince Of Egypt copycat nature slows down, and the film loses its sense of momentum after the titular commandments have been presented (and then oddly swiftly disposed of, in an Ark that looks ready to be discovered by a certain Dr Henry Jones Jr in years to come). The Jews wander and wander in the desert, and my mind wandered off too. Perhaps DreamWorks did get it right.

It’s always very hard to find good things to say about misguided projects, or rather more fairly those that could never live up to their own ambitions, but there really is very little to praise in The Ten Commandments. I’m tempted to end this review with the new law that “Thou shalt not make terribly bad animated motion pictures such as these”, but I fear the advice would not be heard: directors Bill Boyce and John Stronach, with “Academy Award Winner” narrator Ben Kingsley and “Academy Award Nominee” Elliott “God” Gould, are already hard at work on Noah: The New Beginning. Golly, these things must be subsidised to a great extent, or at least be making someone an awful lot of prophets.

Is This Thing Loaded?

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The disc kicks in with a slightly perplexing logo: that for The Ten Commandments’ production company Promenade Pictures, and I’m still trying to make the connection between their name and the image of an old galleon ship. As the main menu flashes up, the disc’s contents suddenly become all too clear from the generically ‘biblical’ font, the music and choice of shots from the movie: there’s not going to be much originality found here.

As I understand it, The Ten Commandments was widely marketed online instead of on television or in theaters, and so a fair amount of behind the scenes interviews with voice cast and filmmakers were created, all of which seems to be presented here. A two-minute Original Theatrical Trailer unfortunately doesn’t include the classic “Elliott Gould as God” line, but does include enough of the inept animation as to make it clear why the preview elicited cries of derision in theaters and online, amongst the glossier long shots and wide angles that have been carefully selected for damage control. The choice of borrowed temporary music, which I can’t put my finger on but know comes from another, no doubt better movie, and just shows the power of music and how it can affect our emotions – surely the exciting film (with albeit slightly sub-par animation) advertised can’t have been the same directionless (with really bad CG animation) one I just sat through?

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Running for three and a half minutes, the Jeremy Camp I Am Willing music video doesn’t have the cachet of a Whitney and Mariah team-up for When You Believe, but otherwise pushes all the right vocal rollercoaster buttons. It’s a fairly basic, run of the mill power ballad, as much perhaps calling out to a distant girlfriend as it is a plea to Mr Lord On High, and the video flits between Camp by the microphone and appropriate images from the movie, though some unfortunate volume fluctuations mean the lyrics aren’t always easy to pick out.

The Ten Commandments Challenge might sound like a fun game, and even begins like one (“60% of Americans can’t name five of the ten…how about you?”), but it turns out to be a two minute video-based clip in which various random people are asked to list other, randomly bizarre combinations. The Beatles? A Big Mac? But no Snow White’s Dwarfs? Hey, just what kind of questions are these!? Oh, it’s a Christian promo, but seeing that even the church going public can’t remember the commandments either, I’d say that John Lennon’s witticism that his band was at one point “bigger than Jesus” holds a pretty convincing argument.

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A collection of three behind-the-scenes featurettes provide a glimpse into the production. Origins speaks primarily to Promenade exec Cindy Bond, who expresses a wish to “make a Ten Commandments that had never been made before”. Well, she’s certainly accomplished that, so job done. A surprise was to see the presence of Frank Yablans on the team – back in the day he produced the excellent comedy thriller Silver Streak and ran Paramount Pictures, so how does someone like that end up putting his name to something like this? There’s a lot of expressing solemn intent with the project, though a clear reference to The Prince Of Egypt is made when Christian Slater remarks that “this version does go on to see the Ten Commandments and the Promised Land”. The Best Caption Award again has to go to “Academy Award Nominee” Gould, however, who is simply listed as “God” in the credits. Brilliant.

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Alfred Molina as ‘Ramses’ centers for a few minutes on the thespian’s reasons for doing the film, how he approached the character and that working in animation was a new medium for him – I’d say I hope this doesn’t put him off, but he’s such a good natured fellow that I’m sure he’ll take it all in his stride and pop up as another voice in something soon. Christian Slater as ‘Moses’ starts off with the supposedly impressive shot of Egypt from across the Nile that graces the beginning of almost every bit of video on this disc. There’s more gushing about how great everyone was to work with, but at least there seems to be a serious approach to the project, though these talented actors are obviously playing on higher levels than what the visuals were able to achieve, which again is genuinely regrettable. Presented in 4×3 letterbox, all the featurettes run three minutes apiece.

Finally, a second disc comprises a motion picture CD soundtrack. I don’t know if Reg Powell’s score got a commercial stand-alone release, but it’s fairly clear that a movie like this wasn’t even going to shift a ton of these things, and I would think that rather have a lot of returned stock gathering dust on shelves, the inclusion here made more sense. Or it could be that they’re really, really generous. But whatever the reasons, it does come unexpectedly welcome and proves to be a worthy addition to the package. And it’s no teasing sampler either, featuring the movie’s complete music cues, no less, and running close to a full hour. Powell predictably follows the modern epic/Hans Zimmer approach to the biblical story, and at times you’d be hard pushed to separate this from Zimmer’s Prince Of Egypt or Gladiator, but it’s good for a listen. Tracks are named on the disc art itself, but there’s no orchestra listed even though the credits suggest one was recorded. It could have been composed using sampled instrument libraries, of course, and if so, it sounds pretty good even if the score itself isn’t the most original of examples.

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Case Study:

The cover melds elements of all previous editions of this story, combining the lush purple color scheme of The Prince Of Egypt with the kind of edging that’s graced past versions such as Paramount’s classic 1956 feature film in its special edition releases. An unexpected touch is the added slipcase, which has the effect of elevating this up past the cash-in crowd, as well as that enclosed CD soundtrack, which has gone un-announced in press materials and may be limited to stickered copies only, so hunt accordingly. My biggest gripe with the cover art is that it seems to shy away from presenting the ropey CGI characters on the front, settling for what looks like a shaded traditional drawing of Moses only, holding the titular Commandment tablets. It’s a direct approach, but not altogether successful in breaking through as feeling fresh or being anything new. All Ten Commandments are scrolled around the edge of the sleeve, while the back mostly goes for text, reducing its pair of images down so as to look fairly impressive. Not that I’m suggesting they’re trying to mask the look of the thing in any way, but it does take until getting to the disc art itself before a newcomer would have any idea of the quality of CGI rendering on show…

Ink And Paint:

Such a shame that the actual quality of the animation is so painfully amateur at times, trying its best to hide under some computer generated wow shots that do little to wow, because the transfer – undoubtedly from a digital source – looks glistening, with every hard edge and texture perfectly sharp, for good or bad. The 1.78:1 anamorphic image has to be given high points for the lack of any interference on show, though if this was presented in high-definition I couldn’t help but wonder if things would actually come over as being too defined…certainly the overabundance of bright colors and the amount of information in each shot was in danger of tiring my eyes. But, whatever the directorial choices, this is a solid transfer, no denying that.

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Scratch Tracks:

It’s with its soundtrack that The Ten Commandments scores, from the scripted words and generally decent performances, to the music and final mix. In many ways, the film works best as a high-budget radio drama – cut out all those CGI distractions, close your eyes and imagine your own Moses. However, it’s all well and good bringing on board all the elements you need to create an animated film, but if even half-decent animation isn’t one of them, one has to ask if the whole endeavour is worth forging ahead with? Powell’s music score probably comes out of the mix best, as evidenced by tracks three and thirteen on the bundled soundtrack, which display his main theme and a sense of playfulness amongst its otherwise rather po-faced and repetitive nature (incidentally, the Jeremy Camp track isn’t included on the CD).

Final Cut:

Although coming to DVD through Genius Entertainment, we can’t blame the Weinstein boys for this one. They’ve been Hoovering up independent animated features left, right and centre for distribution theatrically and on DVD, but their name goes unchecked here – I’d like to think that even they couldn’t see the redemption in this! As a low budget TV special from a few years ago, The Ten Commandments might have just skimped past the novelty barrier, but as a fully blown theatrical and DVD release in 2007/08 it’s unfortunately drawing undue attention to itself and just cannot hold up. A bonus in this pack is the movie’s epic-sounding score on CD, which isn’t bad for under $20, but otherwise there’s nothing commanding about this latest, ultimately redundant version.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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