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10. The Prince of Egypt
As much hype as The Ten Commandments receives for being lavish, ancient, annually broadcast, and DeMille, it is only the animated The Prince of Egypt which has the ability to stir the soul. The stories of our people, biblically speaking, have been transferred many times from the scroll to the big screen, often with amateurish sets, cheesy ye old dialogue, and godless actors attempting to convey a spiritual or revelatory experience. The result, artificial Jewish history by way of perhaps well meaning but ultimately misguided studios looking to fill a slate and score some points with middle America . Though three directors and two writers are credited with putting the movie together, the beautifully hand drawn depiction of Moshe’s birth, adolescence, and transition to God-chosen savior of an enslaved nation of Hebrews, is really the love child conceived by three Jews who never did, in a most authentic sense, forget where they came from.
Steve Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen combined their formidable talents and clout to create the still ticking studio DreamWorks SKG in 1994 and released The Prince of Egypt as their maiden voyage into family friendly animation four years later. Again, because S, K, and G represented powerhouses in directing, producing, and music, The Prince of Egypt was uniquely positioned to rival Disney at its own game. By way of top tier voice talent (i.e. recognizable Hollywood stars), experienced animators, and award winning musical composers, DreamWorks relates the exodus from Egypt with equal parts self-assured confidence (from a technical standpoint) and humility and wonder (from the narrative perspective). That reverence and wonderment in storytelling is passed along to the audience, and I would venture particularly a Jewish one, as the images so ingrained in our religious consciousness from nursery through the rabbi’s latest sermon come to life with awesome, fearsome clarity and splendor.
Along with the major episodes recounted in Shmot, Va’rera, Bo, and Beshalach, certain liberties were taken with the plot (as implied by those parshiyot) to flesh out the saga. Most significantly the fact that Moshe was raised in the home of Paraoh and that he very likely had a deep, tragic, and complicated relationship with the ruler/deity in human form of Egypt. The Prince of Egypt presents a scenario where Moshe and Paraoh (here called Rameses and played powerfully by Ralph Fiennes) engender a special, no strings attached bond that deteriorates once Moshe flees from the palace to discover where he came from. It is difficult not to feel for the fully realized Rameses (a character not so thoroughly defined in Torah) as he begs his beloved brother Moshe to return home. The crumbling link between Moshe and Rameses not only assists in our sympathizing with and understanding Paraoh better, but it invariably informs us more starkly of Moshe’s tremendous burden. While Moshe is never depicted as being torn during his mission, we sometimes forget that the empire he was asked to cripple and the plagues he was commanded to inflict were upon those he once called his own. Dripping wine from our pinkies is one thing, seeing innocent first born children die in a sweeping destructive storm is another.
It is also interesting to note that according to the movie, quite logically, Rameses heart was hardened not miraculously by God on the spot, but by feelings of bitter spite emanating from his brother’s shocking betrayal. Rameses, a man trying to convince himself that he is a god (“The morning and the evening star!”) is unable to think rationally due to Moshe’s incomprehensible metamorphosis from freewheeling pagan stud to bearded prophet.
The visual majesty of the film is breathtaking, from the hard edged lines of the characters playing off grandly scaled background art, to the brilliant occasional usage of computer animation in order to emphasize the magic and mystery of a moment. When Moshe encounters the burning bush and confronts a God who calls Himself I Am That I Am, the impossibly lofty milestone in the evolution of man is carried with such transcendent, frightening, and overwhelming energy; it is almost as if the scene compels the audience to remove their shoes for holy ground is underfoot.
Ironically, it is only when The Prince of Egypt tries in vain to replicate Disney’s formula that it suffers and stumbles. A feeble attempt to portray Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) as a nebbish comic foil crashes and burns. The same can be said, though less so, for trying to make Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) a scantily clad warrior princess who marches before Paraoh at Moshe’s side. Although some of the tunes incorporated into the film are pleasant and surprising (like a toe-tapping Az Yashir sung as a joyous nation emerges from slavery to redemption), and others are marvelous (like the Oscar winning “When You Believe,” performed soaringly on the soundtrack by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey), it seems that less would have been more. The opening number, “Deliver Us,” for example, is terribly melodramatic and reminiscent of a schlocky Broadway musical. Martin Short and Steve Martin’s duet (as conjurers in the employ of Paraoh) provides nothing but distracting time filler.
If DreamWorks were more confident and less wary of Disney’s shadow, The Prince of Egypt would undoubtedly have been a better movie. When trying to be something it is not, the film wanders aimlessly like Hebrews through the desert. But it is those thrilling instances of purity (“Rameses! Let my people GO!”) which shine on, haunt, and remain with us after the closing credits. As Jews, we are inclined to constantly seek out inspiration in order to keep our faith through this Diaspora, and The Prince of Egypt, missteps and all, is a more than valid resource. Next Passover/Easter, when The Ten Commandments is solemnly aired to mark the season, avoid it like the plague and make The Prince of Egypt a bold new tradition.