Jeffrey Katzenberg had frequently suggested an animated adaptation of the 1956 film The Ten Commandments while working for The Walt Disney Company, and he decided to put the idea into production after founding DreamWorks Pictures in 1994. To make this inaugural project, DreamWorks employed artists who had worked for Walt Disney Feature Animation and the recently disbanded Amblimation, totaling a crew of 350 people from 34 different nations. The film has a blend of traditional animation and computer-generated imagery, created using software from Toon Boom Animation and Silicon Graphics.
The film was released in theaters on December 18, 1998, and on home video on September 14, 1999. Reviews were generally positive, with critics praising the animation, music, and voice work. The film went on to gross over $218 million worldwide in theaters, which made it the most successful non-Disney animated feature at the time. The film's success led to the direct-to-video prequel Joseph: King of Dreams (2000) and the development of a stage adaptation. The song "When You Believe" became a commercially successful single in a pop version performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and went on to win Best Original Song at the 1999 Academy Awards.
In Ancient Egypt, the enslaved Hebrew people pray to God for deliverance. Pharaoh Seti, fearing that an alarming increase of Hebrew slaves could lead to rebellion, orders his guards to kill all of the newborn Hebrew boys. Fearing for her own newborn son's safety, Yocheved, along with her two young children, Miriam and Aaron, rushes to the Nile River, where she places him in a basket on the water, not before bidding him farewell with a final but powerful lullaby. Miriam follows the basket as it sails to the Pharaoh's palace and witnesses her baby brother safely adopted by Seti's wife Queen Tuya, who names him Moses. Before leaving, Miriam prays that Moses will one day come back to them and set their people free.
Years later, Moses and his adoptive brother Rameses, heir to the throne of Egypt, are scolded by their father for accidentally destroying a temple during a chariot race. At Moses's suggestion, Seti, seeking to give Rameses the opportunity to prove that he is a responsible young man, names him Prince Regent and gives him authority over Egypt's temples. As a tribute, the high priests Hotep and Huy offer Rameses a beautiful young Midianite woman, Tzipporah. Rameses gives Tzipporah to Moses and appoints him Royal Chief Architect. Later that night, Moses follows Tzipporah as she escapes from the palace, and runs into the now-adult Miriam and Aaron, but he does not recognize them. Miriam then sings their mother's lullaby, which Moses remembers; however, he returns to the palace, eager to go back to familiar surroundings. The truth about his past is later confirmed by a nightmare, and finally by Seti himself, who disturbs Moses by claiming the Hebrews were "only slaves".
The next day, Moses accidentally pushes an Egyptian guard to his death while trying to stop him from whipping an elderly Hebrew slave. Horrified and ashamed, Moses flees into the desert in exile, despite Rameses's pleas that he stay. While in the desert, Moses defends three young girls from brigands, only to find out their older sister is Tzipporah herself. Moses is welcomed by Tzipporah's father and the high priest of Midian, Jethro. After assimilating into this new culture, Moses becomes a shepherd and marries Tzipporah. One day, while chasing a stray lamb, Moses discovers a burning bush, through which God tells him to return to Egypt and guide the Hebrews to freedom. God bestows Moses's shepherding staff with his power and promises that he will tell Moses what to say. Moses and Tzipporah return to Egypt, where Moses is happily greeted by Rameses, who is now Pharaoh with a wife and son. Moses requests the Hebrews' release and changes his staff into a snake to demonstrate his alliance with God. Hotep and Huy boastfully recreate this transformation with 'smoke and mirrors', only to have their snakes eaten by Moses's snake. Not wanting to have his actions cause the empire to collapse, Rameses hardens and doubles the Hebrews' workload.
Moses inflicts nine of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, but still Rameses refuses to relent and vows never to release the Hebrew slaves. Disheartened, Moses prepares the Hebrews for the tenth and final plague, instructing them to sacrifice a lamb and mark the doorposts with the lamb's blood. That night, the final plague kills all the firstborn children of Egypt, including Rameses's son, while sparing those of the Hebrews. A grief-stricken Rameses finally gives Moses permission to free the Hebrews. After leaving the palace, Moses collapses and sobs in grief, heartbroken at the pain he has caused his brother and Egypt.
The following morning, the Hebrews, led by Moses, Miriam, Aaron and Tzipporah, leave Egypt. At the Red Sea, they discover that a vengeful Rameses is pursuing them with his army, intent on killing them. However, a pillar of fire blocks the army's way, while Moses uses his staff to part the sea. The Hebrews cross the open sea bottom; the fire vanishes and the army gives chase, but the water closes over and drowns the Egyptian soldiers, sparing Rameses alone. Moses sadly bids farewell to his brother and leads the Hebrews to Mount Sinai, where he receives the Ten Commandments.