A film that has one standout scene of real artistic significance — one sequence that is truly unique in the annals of filmmaking — is something special. The Prince of Egypt has two.
The first is Moses’ stunning hieroglyph-vision of his own escape as an infant from Pharaoh’s slaughter of innocents, a scene that appears to him as living wall-paintings that he somehow knows really exist somewhere in the palace.
This visionary sequence stands with a handful of the greatest scenes in animation film history (others would include Snow White’s flight in the enchanted forest; the mushrooms dancing to Tchaikovsky in Fantasia; Dumbo’s spectacular "Pink Elephants on Parade" number; the "Bella Notte" spaghetti kiss in Lady and the Tramp; and the ballroom sequence in Beauty and the Beast).
And second, the climactic parting of the Red Sea — and its subsequent thundering collapse, and that awful moment of stillness with spray hissing on the surface — is surely one of the all-time greatest sequences in the history of film, period. As Roger Ebert wrote, if Cecil B. DeMille could have seen this, he would have gone back to the drawing board.
American animation is starting to come of age, to the point where it is becoming a viable medium for sophisticated, mature storytelling as well as children’s entertainment. (In some countries, such as Japan, there is no special association between animation and children.) The Prince of Egypt, with its complex characters and mature themes — notably the painful relationship between Moses (Val Kilmer) and Pharaoh Ramses (Ralph Fiennes) — was a major milestone in this development. (The trend continued with DreamWorks’ irreverent follow-up The Road to El Dorado, as well as the South Park film, Fox’s Titan: A.E., and the American release of Princess Mononoke. The upshot of all this is that, for better or for worse — and it will be some of both — American parents must learn that "animated" is no longer synonymous with "G-rated.") The Prince of Egypt was still done with kids in mind, of course, and it has its childish slapstick moments, but it’s a big step beyond the Disney films or even something like The Iron Giant.
And it is a great work of art. Witness the astonishing animation of scale at work in capturing the towering monuments of Egypt, or the host of departing Hebrews: few if any traditional animated films have ever captured the sheer sense of size in this film. Watch the subtle storytelling in an early scene as the infant Moses, caught up in the Queen’s arms, eclipses the toddler Ramses in her line of vision, leaving him standing there with outstretched arms; foreshadowing the rivalry and ultimately the enmity between the heir to the throne and his Hebrew foster brother. Notice the small details in those quiet numinous moments: the pebbles rolling back at Moses’ feet at the burning bush; the halo of clear water around his ankles as the Nile turns to blood; the horror of an Egyptian servant as the surface of the water bubbles and the first frogs begin to flop out of the river onto the palace stairs; an extinguished candle flame or an offscreen sound of a jar crashing as the destroying angel swirls in and out among the Egyptians.
Then there are the songs by Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer. "When You Believe" got all the awards; but "Deliver Us" is more urgent and heartfelt, and Moses’ "All I Ever Wanted" is hauntingly revisited in the "Plagues" sequence as a duet between Moses and Ramses, with chorus chanting ominously "I send the swarm, I send the horde — thus saith the Lord" as Moses’ and Ramses’ lines overlap. Note, too, the way these songs are deployed in this film: Instead of following the typical Disney musical model in which characters openly break into song, The Prince of Egypt more often than not plays these songs over a character’s contemplation, giving musical voice to his inner thoughts or state of mind without turning it into a show-stopper ("Playing with the Big Boys" is the cartoony exception).
Artistically, the considerable influence of Steven Spielberg has made itself felt here. Moses’ basket, in the opening scene, is threatened by several dangers, including a crocodile that swims up from the depths and opens its jaws — only to be stopped at the last minute by huge hippopotami, the way that the velociraptor attack at the end of Jurassic Park was halted by the arrival of the T-rex (Spielberg’s friend George Lucas also adopted this conceit in The Phantom Menace). In the next scene, a chariot race between Moses and Ramses ends with the Sphinx’s broken nose crashing inexorably through layer after layer of scaffolding, chasing Moses and Ramses every step of the way, just like the car-in-the-tree scene in Jurassic Park. Most notable of all, of course, is the ethereal, wispy depiction of the heavenly destroyer in the Passover-night scene — a vision straight out of the famous climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But The Prince of Egypt is not just a work of art, it is also a great testament to faith. DreamWorks was acutely aware that they were taking on a story sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims; and great pains (such as consulting with literally hundreds of clerical figures) were taken to ensure that the result was appropriate and reverent.
The triumphant result is a story that Christians can wholeheartedly applaud: a magnificent retelling of the Exodus story that gives full credit to the saving works of God, from the dramatic call of Moses at the burning bush, to the powerful plague montage, to the terrible Passover night, to the grand finale at the Red Sea — the last of which includes a sequence in which the pillar of fire, like the finger of God, draws a blazing line in the sand between the Hebrews and the Egyptians, zig-zagging to intercept all the charioteers, all to allow the Hebrews to get under way crossing the Red Sea. (Only the climax of the scene in which Moses’ staff becomes a serpent is strangely undermined: Moses’ serpent is seen in shadow devouring the magicians’ serpents, but this moment is lost amid the big finish to "Playing with the Big Boys." The fact that the magicians are called "Hotep" and "Hoy," rather than Jannes and Jambres as attested by rabbinic tradition as well as New Testament authority, is another small point that could have been improved.)
Naturally, creative liberties have been taken, sometimes inventing where scripture is silent, other times changing or nuancing the biblical account. For example, the scene in which Moses kills an Egyptian and buries him in secret, only to learn the next day that his crime is known, has quite reasonably been both softened and condensed to a depiction of an accidental death that was widely witnessed.
Some changes have been influenced by a desire to emphasize positive female role models: the roles of Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) have been heightened, even exaggerated, so that for example Moses is accompanied into Pharaoh’s presence by Tzipporah rather than Aaron (Jeff Goldblum), who is here depicted as a rather histrionic fellow who serves largely as a foil to make faithful, feisty Miriam look better. It is Miriam who tells Moses who he really is and goads and encourages him every step of the way. On the far shores of the Red Sea, Moses embraces Miriam and says simply, "Thank you" — as if to say, "I couldn’t have done it if you hadn’t believed in me." This feminist slant can be slightly annoying, but it isn’t generally too bad.
Theologically speaking, the film’s best and most exciting device is the clear emotional connection between Pharaoh’s slaughter of innocents and the Passover-night slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn. Nine plagues into the story, standing underneath the hieroglyphic images from Moses’ dream of the slaughter of the Hebrew babies, Ramses utters fateful words to Moses: "My father had the right idea about how to deal with your people, and it’s time I finished the job. And there shall be a great cry in Egypt such as has never been before and will never be again." That last sentence, unbeknowst to Ramses (and perhaps most viewers), is precisely the same phrase with which God himself described the tenth plague in the book of Exodus. Nothing the filmmakers could possibly have done could have made the moral logic of God taking the lives of the Egyptian firstborn more accessible to modern American audiences.
Another theological point: for Christians, the story of the Exodus foreshadows our own redemption from slavery to sin by Christ our Passover; and, in this connection, it’s interesting that Moses himself is not depicted as a grey-haired old man (he was 80 at the time of of the Exodus), but as a rather Christ-like young man with a dark beard who, like Jesus weeping over the sins of Jerusalem, is saddened rather than angered by Ramses’ hardness of heart.
This ties in, of course, with what is dramatically the film’s most important conceit: the speculative suggestion that Moses never knew his origins while growing up, and only learned about the slaughter of the innocents and his own deliverance as an adult. In part because of this, Moses is shown having a close brotherly relationship with Ramses that becomes the source of great dramatic tension; and Ramses himself, far from being a cartoon villain, is a genuinely tragic and moving figure: haunted by his father’s legacy, unwilling to be "the weak link" that compromises the dynasty, driven by his own fears to the very scenario he most dreaded.
This film is destined to change the way that generations of children learn one of the most important stories of salvation history. Young people who might otherwise have little or no idea who Moses was will now have a working knowledge of the Exodus story (although they won’t here learn much about Moses the lawgiver, since the true climax of this film is the Red Sea and there’s only a brief glimpse of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments); and parents who take an active interest in passing on their faith have an important tool in this film — one that they themselves will enjoy watching again and again. The Prince of Egypt is a film Christian movie watchers should treasure: a genuinely great work of art that is also an inspiring and theologically significant narrative.
Note: DreamWorks followed The Prince of Egypt with Joseph: King of Dreams, a direct-to-DVD/VHS animated retelling of the story of the patriarch Joseph and his brothers. While not in the same class as its predecessor, Joseph: King of Dreams is a worthwhile children’s movie that will find a warm reception in many Christian and Jewish households.
Although less speculative and less freely adapted than the earlier film, The Ten Commandments shamelessly rips off interpretive conceits and even specific dramatic beats from The Prince of Egypt, from the menacing of Moses’ basket by a passing croc to the foundering of Ramses’ chariot on the shores of the Red Sea, allowing him to live to see the destruction of his army and the escape of the Israelites.
For good and for ill, it’s as much a testament and a fixture of traditional American ideals and affections as a courthouse display of the stone tablets, and as weighty and solid.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.