Katzenberg ventures into risky territory with new film

Jeffery Katzenberg, the man who reinvented Disney animation with The Little Mermaid, left the company in 1994 to start an ambitious studio, DreamWorks SKG.

Katzenberg paired up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to create a company that would focus on creativity, not just dollars and cents. They thought it would be a great place for filmmakers to make real films, but other than the summer hit Saving Private Ryan, DreamWorks has had slow going so far.

But things may be changing. Under the masterful stroke of Katzenberg, the company’s animation division has created an ambitious project, The Prince of Egypt. DreamWorks hopes the film will be not only a money maker but also a ground-breaking deviation in the world of animation.

“We wanted to take the technique of animation and use it to tell a very different kind of story,” Katzenberg said in an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. “If you think how rich and diverse movies are, with There’s Something About Mary and The Truman Show . and then you took all the animated films in history and added them up, they wouldn’t represent 20 percent of the live-action movies made just this year in Hollywood.”

So Katzenberg went out and made a film different from the typical fairy tale animation movie.

“I don’t think that anybody will ever do that as well as (Disney does),” Katzenberg said. “We didn’t want to, that wasn’t our goal.”

With The Prince of Egypt , Katzenberg explores another part of film animation – painted realism, a technique in which digital technology creates a more realistic world. In Katzenberg’s vision, his animated movie would mirror a live action film.

“I made the film for (young adults),” Katzenberg said. “I know that’s an insane idea and tremendously risky, but I just think that the story of the man in this is so interesting.”

The creation of The Prince of Egypt is a chancy venture at best. To be considered a financial success, the film must gross $200 million with revenue coming solely from movie attendance and its two soundtracks. The last animated film to pass that mark was The Lion King, which sold merchandise to help its total proceeds.

The focus of the film greatly differs from the story line of The Lion King. Katzenberg sees this film as paying homage to the wondrous epic Lawrence of Arabia.

“What I loved about Lawrence of Arabia is that inside this huge epic setting, this incredible sense of cinema, was this intimate story of a man,” Katzenberg said. “And when you say Lawrence of Arabia to me, I remember `Lawrence, Lawrence,’ ” he said referring to a chant scene in the movie.

The Prince of Egypt, however, could not have the same heroic ending as the timeless epic. Exodus is a story that cannot be rewritten. Realizing this, Katzenberg took advice from his friend and partner Geffen.

“It is the best advice that I have ever gotten professionally,” Katzenberg said. “He said, `You have to be faithful to the story. You have to tell it accurately, and you don’t know anything. So you need to get out and learn.’ “

So Katzenberg learned. He went to Egypt. He worked with theologians, historians and others knowledgeable in the subject. There would be no avoidable mistakes in this movie.

“We needed to say to young and old, informed and uninformed, (the movie) is faithful and we have tried to capture the essence of the story but it is not literal,” Katzenberg said.

“You can’t tell 80 years of a man’s life in 90 minutes. It would be inappropriate and wrong given how much this story means – as a foundation of faith for so many people – not to lay claim to what we are as opposed to what we are not.”

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