Review: The Prince of Egypt (dir. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner & Simon Wells, 1998)

Review: The Prince of Egypt (dir. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner & Simon Wells, 1998) December 14, 1998

Feature-length animation is enjoying a renaissance. From Mulan and A Bug’s Life to Antz and Rugrats, animated movies have succeeded where more highly touted live-action features have failed. But audiences ain’t seen nothing yet: the most ambitious challenger to Disney’s throne is just around the corner, and it is, of all things, a rather grown-up cartoon about the life of Moses.

The Prince of Egypt began in a brainstorming session involving Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, co-founders of DreamWorks SKG. Mr. Katzenberg, the former Disney executive who rejuvenated the studio with Broadway-style show tunes in such films as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, said he wanted to tell serious, mature stories that were not just fairy tales. Mr. Spielberg suggested he produce an animated remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. But the three studio chiefs agreed it would not be enough simply to regurgitate a favourite movie; they would have to take extra care to ensure that their film appealed to people of religious faith.

Mr. Katzenberg solicited the help of several hundred scholars and religious leaders from the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities. The resulting film is a visual extravaganza with the most seamless integration of computer-generated images and hand-drawn animation to date. And it also happens to be the most faithful adaptation of the Bible to hit the silver screen in at least a generation.

The film does take some liberties with the story; the baby Moses is discovered by Pharaoh’s wife, not his daughter, and the adult Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) confronts Pharaoh without any help from his brother Aaron (Jeff Goldblum). But these changes are minor, and they serve to highlight the relationship between Moses and Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), the Pharaoh-to-be with whom Moses grows up.

In DeMille’s film, Moses and Rameses were rivals in a tawdry love triangle for the affections of a princess and the throne that went with her. But in The Prince of Egypt, Moses and Rameses feel a brotherly love for each other, at least until they are torn apart by their respective destinies.

Moses is an adult when he learns that he is actually Hebrew; he also learns that, as a baby, he narrowly escaped a mass execution by the Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart), the man he has grown up to regard as his father. Moses flees the palace, runs to the desert, and finds a surrogate father in Jethro (Danny Glover), a shepherd who points Moses’ attentions heavenward to an even more benevolent Father in Heaven.

Rameses, on the other hand, cannot let go of his need for Seti’s approval. When Moses returns to Egypt some years later, Rameses — who has succeeded Seti as Pharaoh — is happy to see him at first, but is distraught when Moses demand that he free the Israelites. There’s a concern over father-son relationships here that echoes the growth of Promise Keepers and related movements. Moses is liberated by his relationship with Jethro, while Rameses’ heart is hardened out of his need to live up to Seti’s expectations.

The film is full of clever, fantastic and dazzling scenes, including a chaotic chariot race, a hieroglyphic nightmare sequence, a series of plagues culminating in the ghost that kills the firstborn, the parting of the Red Sea and Moses’ mystical encounter with the burning bush. Unfortunately, the film stops just short of presenting a complete account of the Exodus, ending with the Hebrew slaves liberated by the Red Sea; there is no golden calf, no grumbling in the wilderness, and no giving of the law, apart from a single wordless shot of Moses carrying two stone tablets.

But the parts of the story that the film does tell, it gets right. And it just might encourage children (and others) to look up the biblical story for themselves. In fact, the beginning and end credits encourage viewers to do just that. This is something for which parents, teachers and believers of all stripes can be thankful.

— A version of this review was first published in BC Report.

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