by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Directors: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
Cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short (whew!)
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 80% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Egyptian Prince Moses learns of his identity as a Hebrew and, somewhat reluctantly, realizes his destiny to become the chosen deliverer of his people.
I sat down to watch The Prince of Egypt for the umpteenth time today, ostensibly in honor of Passover, but really it’s just an excuse to watch it again. In the 24 years since its release, it’s become one of my favorite animated films. I started out thinking it was a gimmicky cash grab. Then I realized how majestic the score and songs were (by Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz, respectively). Then I came to appreciate how effectively it humanizes the Exodus story, so it becomes something more than just an excuse for some crazy visual effects. Then I looked more closely at those visual effects and realized how magnificent they are, too.
So now it’s a treat when I watch it. But something rare and unexpected happened to me when I watched it today. Before I get into that, though, for anyone who may still be unfamiliar with this marvelous film…
Moses (Val Kilmer), a prince of Egypt, younger brother to Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) and son to the great Seti (Patrick Stewart), is comfortable with his place in the world. One day, he comes across Miriam (Sandra Bullock), a Hebrew slave who boldly informs him he is not Egyptian. He is, in fact, the son of a Hebrew slave woman who set him adrift on the Nile River to spare him from the bloody purges ordered by Seti, the man he calls father. Disturbed and conflicted, Moses unthinkingly kills an Egyptian slave driver in a heated moment and leaves behind the only family he’s ever known to face his fate in the desert.
There he meets Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Midianite girl on whom he showed mercy earlier, and her family. Embracing his new Hebrew identity, he marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd. Time passes. One day, Moses is searching for a lost sheep when he is confronted with a strange sight: a bush that appears to be, not burning, but covered in cold white flames, nevertheless. To his shock, a voice speaks from the bush. It is the God of his ancestors, and He is displeased with how His people are being treated in Egypt. He commands Moses to go to Egypt and tell the pharaoh to let His people go…
Need I go on? The staff, the plagues, the blood, the angel of death, the pillar of fire…it’s all presented here in spectacular fashion.
When DreamWorks first announced plans to make what basically amounts to a musical version of The Ten Commandments, I was skeptical to say the least. I even remember what theatre I saw it in: the Ybor Centro movie theater in 1998. I sat through the movie, and I allowed my skepticism to color my entire viewing experience, right up until the sensational Red Sea parting, which even now is one of the great animated sequences of all time. But aside from that, I felt The Prince of Egypt was all flash and no substance, a way for an upstart movie studio to get people into theaters with an overabundance of star power and little else going for it. But after watching it on home video repeatedly…I mean, REPEATEDLY…I started to analyze it a little more.
The first thing that really renewed my interest and appreciation for the film was the humanization of the main characters, particularly the relationship between Moses and Rameses. Moses is no movie idol in this film. He’s just a man. Kind of a scrawny man, too, not classically handsome like his brother, Rameses. Where Moses looks a little spindly and frail, Rameses looks like he lifts weights, or whatever folks did back then on “arm day.” I also like how the movie allows these two men to behave and relate to each other like real brothers might. They race chariots down city streets, needle each other, call each other names, play pranks on the high priests, the whole nine yards. It’s a dynamic the two men surely must have shared as brothers growing up, but it never gets addressed in other interpretations of the story. Because we get to see how much they love each other, the scene where Moses reluctantly turns his back on Rameses carries so much more weight than we might be accustomed to seeing.
This dynamic comes full circle when Moses returns to demand freedom for the Hebrew slaves. Rameses is now pharaoh, and laughs at Moses’ demands, wondering what his “angle” is. And then, when the plagues are visited upon Egypt and the city has nearly crumbled, the two men share a scene of astonishing power. Rameses sees his city in ruins, but ruefully remembers how Moses used to get him out of trouble when they were younger. It’s a wonderfully human moment.
The second element of the film that sparked my renewed interest was the music. At the end of the opening number, which is itself emotionally powerful on several levels, a solo female voice sings out, “Deliver us!” right at the end of the song. I can no longer remember a time when that moment didn’t give me goosebumps. The score by Hans Zimmer is magnificent. There is one particular motif of a choir of voices that we hear whenever we are in the presence of something holy or mystical, and even that gives me goosebumps. Another moment that deservers recognition is during the big number, “When You Believe,” as the Hebrews are flowing out of Egypt. At one point, the song is replaced by a Hebrew folk song, “Ashira L’Adonai,” sung by a little girl. Her voice is joined by several others, and then a few more, and then a whole choir, and then the whole orchestra comes in for a reprise of the chorus, and if you don’t get goosebumps at that moment, you need a vacation.
The third element that keeps me coming back to this movie is the visuals. True, the CGI visuals are relatively primitive compared to what was going on at Pixar around the same time. The chariot race between Moses and Rameses features CG chariots which you may notice have wheels that don’t always turn while the chariot is moving. This was an aspect of the film that led to my early dismissal of it. But then came the Angel of Death scene, with a hole literally torn in the sky and sinister tendrils pouring out of it and into the village streets. And then came the eye-popping Red Sea sequence. More so than any other version I’ve seen, The Prince of Egypt made me feel in my bones that, yes, THIS is what it would have looked like if uncountable tons of water were parted down the middle, clearing a path large enough for the entire Hebrew nation to walk across. (Depending on who you ask, that number could have been up to two million people, so we’re talking about a WIDE path.) As they walk between the two massive walls of water on either side, lightning flashes illuminate sea life swimming alongside them, including some really large fish. Now THERE’S something you don’t see every day.
So, yeah, the movie is amazing. People may quibble about its historical inaccuracy, or the liberties it may take with certain religious beliefs. But that does not diminish its power in the slightest bit.
Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the opening paragraph:
I sat down to watch the movie today, and for reasons I can’t explain, the opening scenes were bringing a lump to my throat. That solo female voice singing “Deliver us!” nearly brought a tear to my eye. And it nearly happened again after a wedding song. And again, when Moses is leading the Hebrews out of Egypt to the strains of “When You Believe.” And when Moses slams his staff into the shallow waters on the banks of the Red Sea, and those waters shot up into the air and kept going and going…my God, man, I nearly lost it. I was one thread of self-control away from going full-on blubber-fest. I mean, I grabbed my chest like a Victorian lady reading a Jane Austen novel. In the middle of my emotional experience, I kept asking myself, “What is WRONG with me?!”
The answer is, of course, nothing is wrong with me. I was just in exactly the right frame of mind to have a borderline religious experience while watching a movie. It’s the same when I watch the finale of Fantasia 2000, when the sprite erupts from the ground in a gesture of pure joy. Or when Riley learns the importance of experiencing sadness at the end of Inside Out. Or any number of other transcendent films that can put me right in the middle of the story emotionally. The Prince of Egypt does exactly that through a well-managed mixture of story, visuals, and music. It may not be perfect from a technical standpoint, but it gets me where it counts, and that’s all that matters.