Today, Ridley Scott‘s racist retelling of the story of Exodus is in theaters. Everything about this movie raises my hackles. So, I’m protesting by reviewing my favorite Moses movie: The Prince of Egypt. Well, it’s the only purely Moses movie I’ve ever watched all the way through. I’ve yet to see The Ten Commandments. That doesn’t mean that it’s any less awesome of a retelling of that classic tale.
While I was growing up, there were few rivals for the animated throne that Disney had occupied for decades. I was fine with that because, hey, I loved Disney. If there were awesome non-Disney animated movies, that was pretty cool too. The Prince of Egypt was the first movie that really made me sit up and take notice of Dreamworks as a would-be usurper. Prior to this movie, they’d mostly released live-action films. They had one animated film on their list and that was Antz, which was a largely forgettable alternative to the similarly bug-related A Bug’s Life from Pixar.
The Prince of Egypt blew me away, though. I remember seeing it in theaters and being amazed by the gorgeous animation, fantastic music, and depth of story. I’m not going to dip into a big description of the plot because it’s one of those stories that most people know. My parents raised my brother and I without a whole lot of religion in our lives and I still knew the basic premise. In a nutshell, Moses was raised by Egyptian royalty. He finds out he’s actually one of the Hebrews, a group who makes up a significant chunk of the slave population of Egypt. He’s thrown for a huge loop and runs off into the desert. Soul-searching and all kinds of revelations ensue (not Revelations, that’s a different story). God sends him back to Egypt to plead with the Pharaoh to let his people go. This is where there are a bunch of plagues as the Pharaoh is not keen on losing his free labor. Ultimately, Moses is able to free his people and they flee Egypt.
Got it? Good.
From the start of the film, The Prince of Egypt just lays it all out there. You see and hear the plight of the Hebrews during the amazing opening number, “Deliver Us.” It features a full choir and the vocal talents of the late, great Ofra Haza. She’s featured throughout the score but is most prominently featured as Yocheved, the mother of Moses and his older siblings. There’s this iconic image of Yocheved just after she’s nudged the basket of baby along. The wind has blown her hair and head-covering so that her face is partially obscured. All you see are her big eyes and tears sliding down her cheeks. It’s very powerful.
After we’ve sorted out the fate of basket baby Moses, the film fast-forwards to establish the relationship between Moses (Val Kilmer) and his brother, Rameses (Ralph Fiennes). They’re racing and causing all kinds of mayhem. This scene and the others between the two men are among my favorites in the film. I like how they really made Moses’ dilemma personal by giving him that closeness with Rameses. Not only that, but I’m always impressed by how a man who’s most famous for playing some great villains can make Rameses seem so sympathetic. Ralph Fiennes is that good. They’ve also given that character an added emotional layer and some complex feelings about his father, Seti (Patrick Stewart).
You can tell that I have a lot of feelings about this movie.
Dreamworks did an incredible job translating this story to screen in a way that made it accessible even to a non-religious audience. They also worked with hundreds of experts to make sure the story was handled respectfully. Each one of the actors chosen to lend their voices to these characters put in some fantastic performances. Then, there’s the music. I listened to the soundtrack a few times today and many more times earlier this week. The songs fit in so perfectly within the framework of the movie and everything feels so natural and seamless. My favorite song is “Through Heaven’s Eyes.” That could possibly because I’m partial to almost any song that Brian Stokes Mitchell sings.
While The Prince of Egypt isn’t without its flaws, I don’t have too many things to talk about in this section. Sure, there’s the fact that almost every single one of the actors is white with the notable exception of Danny Glover as Jethro, the high priest of Midian. Having said that, it’s great to see a movie about the Bible full of faces appropriate to that region. Yep, folks, I’m talking about how all of the characters are varying shades of brown.
I’m pleased with how feisty Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) is in this film and how Miriam (Sandra Bullock) is instrumental in kicking off Moses’ journey. They’re still just side characters as this is Moses’ journey, but it’s nice to at least see them doing something. It’s always nice to see women participating in these sorts of stories.
Since this is an adaptation of a Bible story, I’m not going to go into the depiction of the Egyptian priests as being nothing but charlatans. I know what kind of movie I’m sitting down to watch. If I wanted a more favorable depiction of non-Christians, I’d watch “Vikings.”
Speaking of religion, one of the things I like best about this movie is at the end, as the credits are rolling, they chose three different passages describing Moses. One is from the Hebrew Bible, one is from the New Testament, and the other is from the Qur’an. All too often, it feels like the commonalities of those three religions is forgotten in favor of exploiting their differences. In a post-9/11 world, it’s nice to have that reminder every now and again.