The Prince of Egypt

Wake me up before you let my people go-go
★★
☆☆
Released: 
1998
Director: 
Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
Starring: 
Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Michelle Pfeiffer
The Setup: 
Animated telling of the story of Exodus
Discussion: 

So I read the full Divine Comedy (I see why people only read The Inferno) and that convinced me that I finally needed to read the Bible, which I have never read. And, since my upbringing was completely non-religious, it is all completely new to me, which makes it fascinating and I'm finding it explains so much! It also means that I can now watch all those biblical movies and know what they're talking about! The story of Moses in Exodus is a high point so far, and led me to finally watch The Ten Commandments (which I decided not to review, I had no comment) and this, which I had seen (for some reason?) when it was out in theaters. I'm also now damn pissed that I didn't know what was going on when I saw the Met's production of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, which was on about the time of this movie's release, leading my friend and I to joke "If you liked Moses und Aron, you'll LOVE the PRINCE of EGYPT!"

So I debated about whether to write about this movie either, but as it seems my fave thing is to detail storytelling problems, this starts to present an interesting case. For one thing, they're trying to make a kids' movie out of what isn't really a kids' story. This was from the then-newish DreamWorks, led by Spielberg and Katzenberg, and it seems an attempt to give back to the Jewish people by making a popular entertainment that would gloriously tell their origin story (word on the IMDb is that Katzenberg repeatedly pushed this to Michael Eisner while he was at Disney and was constantly shot down). The story as presented in the bible is not exactly cinematic ("Let my people go," "No," Plague, repeat 10X) but offers lots of opportunity for massive special effects, so it needs lots of smoothing out, not to mention that God is a bit of a sadistic bastard throughout, the Hebrews are not the most grateful of people, and the whole things lacks a big satisfying ending. So let's see how they've approached these problems!

The movie opens with a disclaimer saying that they have taken some liberties, but remained true to the spirit of the story. We'll have to remember that, particularly in the final shot! We then move to shots of slaves building Egyptian temples, being beaten, and I was pleased to see one shot that explicitly pays homage to the highly-stylized opening shot of The Ten Commandments. We then join Moses' mother as she puts him in a basket and floats him down the Nile (I thought you were supposed to cover the bottom with pitch? That thing is going to SINK, honey). He floats along through several perils meant to make the movie exciting for kids (crocodiles! near-shipwreck!) as he is followed along by his sister Miriam, who will grow up to be the voice and embodiment of Sandra Bullock. We have the first of several DIRE songs by Steven Schwatrz, in which Moses' mother sings "My son, I have nothing I can GIVE, but this chance that you might LIVE! I pray we meet again--deliver us!" By the way, it is not mentioned that the REASON she's doing this is because Pharoah has ordered all of the first-born males of the Hebrews killed, because of a prophecy that one will rise and lead the people in revolt. Anyway, Moses is eventually found and taken in by the wife of the Pharoah, becoming the adopted brother of Rameses, heir to the throne. Title--and next thing we know, Moses and Rameses are teenagers.

Okay, now here's a big narrative problem that both this and The Ten Commandments face: in the bible, we go straight from Moses being taken in to his being an adult, and killing a guard who is abusing "his people." So there's a big blank spot leaving out HOW, if he was taken in and raised as an Egyptian, he came to know he was an Hebrew (or future Hebrew, you know what I mean). So both this and The Ten Commandments make up a LARGE section of Moses' life, and both make it his central conflict, and NONE of it is in the bible (it's in the "other sources?"). We re-join Moses and Rameses having a chariot race, shades of Ben-Hur, also meant to make this thing more appealing to the kids and show that Moses and Rameses are just WACKY, FUN-LUVIN’ TEENS! They also have a close brotherly relationship, though Rameses has higher expectations, since he will ascend to the throne (differing from The Ten Commandments, which had it that they are both rivals for the throne). Rameses is now voiced by Ralph Fiennes and Moses is voiced by... wait for it... waiiiiiit.... Val Kilmer! Who does a quite fine job, with lots of appropriate gravity. Go Val! We'll just forget Batman Forever, then.

In here we have lots of brotherly relationship, and at one point Moses is given a slave girl who is feisty and escapes, and we know must soon end up as his wife. As he's pursuing this spirited lass, who should he come across but Sandra Bullock (sorry, once you know she's Sandra Bullock you cannot see anything but Sandra Bullock) and Aaron, his long-lost brother and sister. She helpfully informs him that he's their brother, he is one with the slaves, and he should go look into it. He's all like "No! No!" and goes back to have an identity crisis, in which he sings--and you'll just have to believe me that ALL of the lyrics throughout are EXACTLY this bad: "Here among my trappings and belongings I belong, and if anybody doubts it--they couldn't be more wrong!" He then goes into an animated dream sequence that explains how Pharoah had all the first-born boys of the slaves killed--but STILL without explaining the prophecy!!! Then Pharoah himself finds Moses in the temple (HOW? In the middle of the night?) and explains that "they're just slaves," and... I guess it's good he doesn't explain the prophecy, because if he did he'd be CONCERNED that Moses is a first-born prophecized to lead the people to revolt, right?

So then Moses just can’t take it anymore and runs out to the desert where he removes all his Egyptian garb (not bad, I like symbolism) and then sits in place through a CGI sandstorm (Umm, I think those things are actually pretty damaging, and… he doesn’t need to breathe?) before being we get back to kid-friendly camels and wacky comedy with maidens and shit. And guess who should be among those maidens but the VERY feisty slave girl who spurned his advances, Tzipporah! She’s been given a zesty added T for her name in this version. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, they’re married.

Then, burning bush time. I personally never envisioned the burning bush as being in a natural cave way, wayyyy down in a wind-carved grotto, but whatever. God speaks to Moses—God’s voice is Val Kilmer too, by the way—and tells him he has to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. Soon enough, Moses takes Tzipporah [she’s voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer, though she barely gets to do or say anything] and goes back. The movie has a good moment as Rameses, now the Pharoah, welcomes Moses back with open arms and is all excited to have his old buddy back—until Moses tells him the reason he’s there. Now, the movie has made a fairly decent decision to center this entire thing around this relationship between brothers. Whether it really appeals to kids is another question, but what follows here is another desperate ploy to bring in the kids as Rameses’ two wacky sidekick magicians—voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short—sing a big, desperate song called “You’re Playing With the Big Boys Now.” Moses soon turns the Nile to blood, also replicated by Rameses’ magicians, and soon: it’s plague time!

Make that Plague MONTAGE time. Now here’s where the movie starts running into more narrative issues. In the bible, Moses goes to Rameses, says “Let my people go,” Rameses refuses, and Egypt gets a plague. This happens ten times in a row. Not exactly cinematic. Not entirely kid-friendly. However, the very repetition of it is what gives it it’s accumulating, moving power. The other thing is—and I had NEVER heard this crucial detail until I read the bible itself—God purposely “hardens Rameses’ heart” (yes, it has been impossible for me to keep Quarterflash out of my mind while reading Exodus) against Moses’ pleas so that Rameses can experience the full and total suffering and punishment of all the plagues. This is what I was saying about God being a sadistic bastard. It also makes the story REALLY INTERESTING, explains WHY Rameses won’t let the Hebrews go despite plague after plague, and actually makes Rameses quite sympathetic and complex, as he is forced to continue suffering without being able to refuse. But complications we cannot have, ambiguities we cannot endure, and thus that part is excised from nearly every retelling. So as the plague montage goes on, making it seem as though all the plagues were happening concurrently, you start to think… Gee, umm, I seem to remember GOD being a much greater presence here? Weren’t he and Moses in constant contact? And weren’t all these plagues FROM GOD? It’s not at all made clear, and I don’t know, isn’t God kind of the whole point here? Maybe it got in the way of the personal hero journey story. Regardless, you might find God quite second fiddle for the rest of the story.

Next up: Passover! First Moses goes to visit Rameses again, and suddenly, we meet Rameses’ son! That’s nice, introduce the little tyke seconds before we kill him off! Passover gets a lot of play here (making me realize a big point of this movie is to explain to young Jewish kids why they have these certain holidays), and you might be forgiven for thinking that the Passover effect looks, to paraphrase someone on IMDb, like “the annihilating death-beam from the hovering mothership.” Little white spirit lights swoop through the town, turning away from doorways marked with blood [Hebrews, that is] and then discreetly killing the first-born kids of the Egyptians—as nicely as you can KILL CHILDREN in a kids’ animated film, that is! I did a survey of comments on the IMDb and was surprised to find that the vast majority ADORE this film, but that the dissenters tend to focus on how it’s okay for one side to mass-slaughter infants, and not okay for another side to mass-slaughter infants. Anyway, after Rameses son is dead, he allows Moses and his peeps to go.

Now things have been grim for a few moments, so it's time for some forced levity as the Hebrews gather up and slowly leave Egypt. There's a song, naturally, and lots of smiling young kids helping elderly women and cute goats and shit, but honestly I just couldn't stand it by this point and had to fast-forward through it. Next on the agenda: Parting the Red Sea! Moses and the peeps get there, when suddenly Rameses, who has changed his mind yet again, comes fear them all with his army. The clouds gather and the pillar of fire (first seen now, never explained) blocks the way of the army, while Moses saunters rather casually down to the sea, raises his staff, hears an encouraging word from God (oh right, GOD is involved here), and slams it down to great CGI effect. The water shoots up, as seen in the photo, but for me, it's that old complaint about CGI: you're just looking at pixels. The effect in the Ten Commandments was impressive, even as you can see exactly how it's done, because you marvel at the filmmaker's ingenuity. Here, no ingenuity. Just pixels. And by the way, you know how in the bible it was actually Aaron who did the physical work here? Yeah, forget that. Remember: complications are OUT.

The Hebrews cross. More people helping each other. Thankfully no song. One thing I did like about it is that they do make it seem like it took a day or so to cross, not a few hours like in Ten Commandments. Part of the "inspiring wonder" we have to shoehorn in to make this a kids' film is that we see the shadow of a humpback whale swimming just beyond the wall of water. This made me curious, and I went and looked up the range of the humpback whale, which conspicuously omits the Red Sea, as it is quite a narrow little crevice to get into, but I suppose it COULD happen. But I think it's more a result of: Kids' movie + God's oneness with nature + general lefty good feeling = Humpback Whale. I don't see why they couldn't have thrown in a polar bear, while they're at it. Cute penguins? Anyway, they get across, the pillar of fire goes away, Rameses' army goes in, Moses closes the sea and kills them all. This is also a note of contention among the few people that dislike the movie: our hero just killed hundreds of people and it's all presented as a pretty awesome thing to do. Rameses is conveniently spit back onto the other side so we can dramatically close out our brotherly conflict and because if he was dead, well then, he couldn't feel bad about it all, could he?

Now it would seem that the golden calf falls into the category of "Complications," and you KNOW what we have been saying about complications. But everybody wants to see those Ten Commandments being brought down from the mountain. But can't we do it without all the complications? You bet we can, l'il fella! Acknowledging that people came here to see the Red Sea get parted and after that everything else is a distraction, we cut right to Moses coming down off the mountain (Gee, I didn't know that he had left) with the stone tablets (must have just found those, since we see no involvement from God) and the final shot is of him holding them, looking down on his prosperous new people, delivering their new laws, ready for them to start their new society in the land of milk and honey. This is what they meant up front about being true to the spirit, not the reality, because the reality is that actually Moses saw them worshipping the golden calf because even after all that, parting the Red Sea and everything, they still didn't believe in God, and he grew so furious he smashed the stone tablets in rage. But you know, that sounds complicated.

Okay, so it's over, but for the smash Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey duet that I don't think a single person remembers today. Incidentally, they had to change the lyric from "You can do miracles when you believe" to "THERE CAN BE miracles..." because they didn't want to imply that anyone but God can do miracles.

So honestly, it's not that bad. It's also not that good. The most interesting this about it is their attempts to take what is NOT a story for children, and make it into one. They took perhaps the smartest route to this (misguided) goal in centering it on a conflict between two brothers, but I think even that conflict is too grown-up for kids under twelve--the main audience here--and then once Moses goes off into the desert and the story returns to its biblical roots, it's all adult stuff! There's no amount of chipper songs that can make the plagues interesting and spooky-but-not-scary for kids, ditto Passover, ditto the whole rest of the story. So it seems like a case of noble intentions in wanting to make an entertainment telling this story for kids (if it's not actually the result of very cynical intentions to lob a kids' movie at an underserved audience guaranteed to take their kids and buy it for home edu-tainment).

The other interesting thing is the near-absence of God (compared to the biblical story), which results in a funny need to balance between Moses as traditional hero who is greater than normal men, but without going too far so as to upset the balance with God... who, then, is strangely absent. I don't know, it's a funny case. There is a young Jewish woman at work who I thought was in the target demographic so I asked her if she had seen this as a child. Indeed she had. I asked her what she thought and she said "Ummm, I thought the baby was really cute." She also said "It was just so good to be out of Hebrew school and watching a cartoon, I didn't care." Which, in retrospect, I think is precisely this movie's pitch.

Should you watch it: 

No real reason to.