Before Noah… before The Passion of the Christ… there was The Prince of Egypt.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of the film that was arguably the first successful biblical epic since the genre’s golden age. To celebrate this milestone, here are 20 things you may or may not know about this movie.
1. It came very close to being the first DreamWorks cartoon. It may seem hard to believe now, given that DreamWorks’ animated films have so frequently been associated with adolescent humour and non-stop pop-culture references, but when Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney and co-founded the DreamWorks studio with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen in 1994, he aspired to epic greatness. After Katzenberg pitched the idea that animated films could be grand and epic like Lawrence of Arabia, Spielberg suggested that they make an animated version of The Ten Commandments — and the resulting film was supposed to help establish the DreamWorks brand. Corporate rivalry and technological changes got in the way of that, though. After Disney released Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995, DreamWorks bought a stake in Pacific Data Images (the company that had created 3D versions of Homer and Bart Simpson for a 1995 episode of The Simpsons) and began production of its own computer-animated cartoon, Antz, which was going to come out in March 1999 — three months after The Prince of Egypt. In June 1998, however, Katzenberg announced that Antz would come out in October 1998, one month before Pixar’s second film, the similarly insect-themed A Bug’s Life — and two months before The Prince of Egypt. And so Antz, rather than The Prince of Egypt, became the first animated DreamWorks release — and in some ways it became more indicative of the kind of film that would define the DreamWorks brand. As hand-drawn epics like The Road to El Dorado (2000) and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) went on to flop at the box office, computer-animated comedies like Shrek (2001) and Shark Tale (2004) turned out to be huge hits, and Katzenberg ended up announcing that DreamWorks would abandon traditional hand-drawn animation altogether.
2. It was not the first Bible film that Jeffrey Katzenberg was involved with. In The Prince of Egypt: A New Vision in Animation, a lavishly-illustrated coffee-table book, Katzenberg called his new film “the first Bible movie in more than forty years.” Obviously, he was exaggerating: Ben-Hur came out in 1959, only 39 years before The Prince of Egypt, and films like King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Bible: In the Beginning… were still being produced well into the 1960s. But Katzenberg had presumably been involved with one or two other Bible movies himself prior to The Prince of Egypt, during his time as president of production at Paramount Pictures — a position he held between 1982 and 1984. That was when Paramount came close to producing Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, before shutting it down in 1983 due to concerns over the budget and the controversy that the film was engendering even before the cameras rolled. (Scorsese eventually got the movie made, on a much smaller budget, at Universal in 1988.) Bruce Beresford also shot the big-budget Bible epic King David for Paramount between March and July 1984, mere months before Katzenberg left Paramount to help oversee the “Disney renaissance”. (King David was eventually released in 1985, but it flopped, so it’s not hard to see why Katzenberg pretended it never existed thirteen years later. The tendency to ignore recent Bible movies has affected other filmmakers too; when Darren Aronofsky was promoting Noah — another Paramount release! — in 2013, he called it “the first biblical epic in almost 50 years.”)
3. DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and the movie’s version of Moses have a lot in common. Some aspects of the film’s depiction of Moses were taken directly from Katzenberg’s life, such as the scene in which he and Rameses pour water on the magicians Hotep and Huy from a great height; Katzenberg himself had done similar things to passersby below the New York City apartment in which he grew up. Katzenberg was also so actively involved in the development of the film — acting out how he wanted Moses to sob against the wall when Rameses’ son dies, for example — that some of the filmmakers called him the film’s “personal trainer”. More deeply, though, quite a few people observed that the film’s storyline had a special resonance for Katzenberg, given his recent history: just as Moses is exiled from the Egyptian court and goes on to become the lawgiver who leads the Israelites, Katzenberg was cast out of Disney and went on to create a rival studio in DreamWorks — a studio that prided itself on creativity and doing things better and more progressively than Disney had done. Inspired by the fact that DreamWorks had hired away as many of Disney’s writers, composers and animators as it could, one of the film’s crew reportedly drew a cartoon in which Katzenberg, as Moses, confronts Disney CEO Michael Eisner, as Rameses, and says, “Let my people go!”
4. Steven Spielberg had a lot of input into the film. As head of the animation department and a relentless promoter of its films, Katzenberg was the public face of The Prince of Egypt. But the film, as noted above, was Spielberg’s idea, and in the DVD commentary and other bonus features, it is often noted that Spielberg suggested specific camera angles and editing techniques for certain parts of the film; he also insisted that the film end with a shot of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the songs for the film, has also said that, when he was struggling to come up with a song for Jethro — he ended up writing four completely different tunes — Spielberg liked one line from the first song so much that he insisted it be used in all the later songs. (The line in question: “When all you’ve got is nothing, there’s a lot to go around.”) Spielberg’s affinity for the Moses story is, of course, quite evident in a number of his films; he explicitly references it in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and he almost directed a movie about Moses for Warner Brothers just a few years ago. (Speaking of Close Encounters, note how stylistically similar the child abduction scene in that film is to the Angel of Death sequence in The Prince of Egypt. In both films, spooky lights descend from the sky and take children from their homes — but while the parents are clearly traumatized, the children are not.)
5. It was the first animated film from a major studio to be (co-)directed by a woman. The Prince of Egypt had three directors, one of whom, Brenda Chapman, became the first female director of a major animated film due to her work on this film. In the DVD commentary, Chapman mentions that she is very pregnant and due to give birth in a week or so; the resulting daughter served as the inspiration for Merida in Disney-Pixar’s Brave (2012), which Chapman was going to direct until the studio took the film out of her hands. Chapman did get a directing credit on Brave, though, so when the film won its Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Chapman became the first (and so far only) woman to win an Oscar in that category. DreamWorks, meanwhile, went on to hire female co-directors on films like Shrek and Shark Tale, and the studio’s Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) — directed, without any male co-directors, by Jennifer Yuh Nelson — has the distinction of being the top-budgeted and top-grossing movie ever directed by a woman of colour.
6. One of the film’s other directors is the great-grandson of sci-fi author H.G. Wells. Chapman’s two male co-directors were Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, the latter of whom went on to direct a live-action version of his great-grandfather’s book The Time Machine (2002). Since then, Wells has also directed a motion-capture version of Mars Needs Moms (2011). Hickner, for his part, went on to co-direct the DreamWorks cartoon Bee Movie (2007), starring Jerry Seinfeld, as well as a few animated shorts.
7. The songs were written by Stephen Schwartz, who had written musicals based on biblical material before. One of Schwartz’s earliest hits, of course, was Godspell, which was based on the life and teachings of Jesus and was turned into a film in 1973. Schwartz also wrote Children of Eden, a musical about Creation and the Flood that was first performed on stage in 1991. His other stage productions include Wicked, a 2003 retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the witches’ point of view that is currently the 6th-longest-running show in Broadway history.
8. Schwartz was fired from a Disney film because he worked on The Prince of Egypt. Schwartz — who first worked with Katzenberg on Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) — had already toured China and written two complete songs for Mulan (1998) before Spielberg and Katzenberg asked him to work on The Prince of Egypt over at DreamWorks. Schwartz was willing to work on both projects simultaneously, but Disney CEO Michael Eisner took him off Mulan, and the songs that Schwartz had written for that film were never used. Schwartz did eventually work with Disney again, though, on the hybrid live-action / animated film Enchanted (2007).
9. The script was written by Star Trek veterans. The screenplay is mainly credited to Philip LaZebnik, who, among other things, had co-written three episodes of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine prior to this film; one of them, called ‘Darmok’, was partly inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the film’s credits also note that additional material was written by Nicholas Meyer, who may be best-known as the co-writer and director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991); he also co-wrote the script for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). (The voice of Seti, meanwhile, was provided by Patrick Stewart, who appeared as Captain Picard in Star Trek: Insurrection just one week before The Prince of Egypt came out.)
11. The studio solicited input from Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders. On the DVD commentary, the directors talk about how, among other things, they wanted Moses to come to Miriam’s defense when he kills the Egyptian taskmaster, to make the scene more “personal” — but rabbis from across the Jewish theological spectrum objected that Moses needed to act in defense of a random stranger to underscore his growing attachment to the Hebrew people as a whole. (Wells says the need for the slave to be anonymous was “the only thing” that rabbis from across the Jewish theological spectrum could agree upon.) The depiction of the Egyptians was softened in response to concerns that the film would perpetuate negative stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs, as consultant Jack Shaheen describes in his book Reel Bad Arabs. The scene in which Moses is bathed by Midianite women was toned down after a Mormon official found it too titillating. Katzenberg also told Christianity Today that the film’s climactic song, ‘When You Believe’, was re-recorded at some expense because representatives from all three religions objected to a lyric that said “You can work miracles when you believe”; the song now says “There can be miracles when you believe,” to avoid implying that the miracles are somehow performed by humans rather than God. The film concludes with a title card that has quotes about Moses from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures.
12. The filmmakers and their marketing team tried very hard to avoid suggesting that God has gender. In ‘Plagues’, the only song with lyrics that reflect the perspective of God, a mixed chorus pronounces judgment on the Egyptians. The filmmakers also experimented with a mix of male and female voices for the scenes in which God speaks to Moses, but they found the results too artificial and potentially confusing to viewers who were expecting the God of Moses to be a single monotheistic deity, rather than a polytheistic pantheon like the Egyptians had. So the filmmakers ultimately decided that the God of their film would speak to Moses in his own voice — a technique that had been used in films like The Ten Commandments and Moses the Lawgiver (1974) — and they justified this by appealing to a concept from Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, which says that people hear God in their own voice. (Significantly, God also speaks to Moses in the form of audio flashbacks, so that Moses effectively hears God speaking to him through the voice of his sister Miriam, etc.) DreamWorks still insisted on gender neutrality for God wherever possible, though, which caused a stir when Eric Metaxas, one of the evangelical writers who had been commissioned to write religious children’s books for the movie, was told that he could not use the pronoun “he” to refer to God (though the pronouns “he” and “his” are used for God a few times within the film itself).
13. The movie had three “soundtrack” albums. One of them consisted of music from the actual film, another consisted of “Nashville” artists singing songs inspired by the film, and the third consisted of “Inspirational” tracks inspired by the film. This was not the first film overseen by Katzenberg to get three music tie-ins; the Warren Beatty version of Dick Tracy (1990), produced by Disney when Katzenberg was in charge of both live-action and animated films there, spawned a Danny Elfman score, a various-artists compilation album, and the Madonna album I’m Breathless.
14. There was also a fourth CD that you could only get as part of a Wal-Mart promotional package. This fourth disc was, for the most part, a sampler of tracks from all three of the widely available soundtrack albums, but it also included sections of the Hans Zimmer score that were not included on any of those discs. (True story: when I finally got my hands on a copy of the Wal-Mart disc, I created a new disc that included all of the music from the film, arranged in the proper narrative sequence — I even split one of the tracks in two because it included music from two different parts of the movie — and when I toyed with the possibility of uploading the track list to an online CD database, I discovered that someone else had already done that. That’s right, there are other obsessive movie-soundtrack fans out there just like me!)
15. The Prince of Egypt was, for a short while, the top-grossing non-Disney animated movie ever. It was not quite the first non-Disney cartoon to gross over $100 million in North America — that honour goes to The Rugrats Movie (1998), which came out a few weeks earlier — but The Prince of Egypt eventually inched ahead of that film and held the top non-Disney spot until another DreamWorks release, the stop-motion Chicken Run, came out in 2000. The Prince of Egypt remained the top-grossing hand-drawn non-Disney animated film of all time until The Simpsons Movie came out in 2007.
16. It’s the only Bible movie to win an Oscar since the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. It won for the song ‘When You Believe’. It was also nominated for best musical or comedy score, though it lost that award to Stephen Warbeck’s score for Shakespeare in Love. The Prince of Egypt was also — along with fellow 1998 release Saving Private Ryan, which won five awards including best director for Spielberg — one of the first two DreamWorks films to win any Oscars. (Click here for a list of all the other Bible movies that have been nominated for Academy Awards. None, alas, were nominated in 2014.)
17. The film had a straight-to-video “prequel”. Like a lot of major animated features, The Prince of Egypt spawned a video-only follow-up, but instead of a sequel featuring the same characters, it was a sort-of prequel that showed how the Hebrews ended up in Egypt in the first place, called Joseph, King of Dreams (2000). The part of Joseph — the boy with the coat of many colours — was voiced by Ben Affleck (a future Batman), and his brother Judah was voiced by Mark Hamill (the voice of the animated Joker). Katzenberg said he was planning even more straight-to-video sequels — including one about Noah, which he said was “moving in production” — but these were never finished.
18. The film’s influence could still be felt during the Bible-movie controversies of 2014. A disclaimer at the beginning of The Prince of Egypt — which assures viewers that the film respects the beliefs of the faithful even as it takes dramatic license with the story — was copied almost word-for-word and applied to promotional materials for Noah when some Christians expressed concern that that film might stray too far from the Bible. And when people threatened to boycott Exodus: Gods and Kings because of its “whitewashed” cast, images from The Prince of Egypt were distributed on social media as an example of how Hollywood had once gotten it “right” and should do so again.
19. The Prince of Egypt was turned into a stage musical last year. Stephen Schwartz wrote new songs for a stage-musical version of The Prince of Egypt that premiered in 2017. At the time, he told Playbill, “The movie is basically a brother story, but it deals a lot with the Bible story. The show gives us a chance to explore that brother relationship and its many different rises and falls more. Jokingly, I say it’s Wicked with boys.”
20. A few of the people involved in this film have gone on to other Bible-themed projects. Val Kilmer, who provides the voice of Moses, went on to star in a stage production of The Ten Commandments: The Musical (2004). (Despite mentioning the DVD edition of the musical at this blog twelve years ago, I have still never actually watched it, myself.) Ralph Fiennes, who provides the voice of the Pharaoh Rameses, went on to provide the voice of Jesus for The Miracle Maker (2000). Screenwriter LaZebnik is now attached to an animated version of the Noah story. Composer Hans Zimmer went on to score The Da Vinci Code (2006), which had a quasi-biblical flashback or two, as well as The Bible (2013) and its big-screen spin-off Son of God (2014). And Mariah Carey, who sang the end-credits version of ‘When You Believe’ with Whitney Houston, went on to record the theme song for yet another animated Bible movie, The Star (2017).
— This is an expanded and updated version of a post I wrote for the film’s 15th anniversary in 2013. In addition to the sources mentioned and hyperlinked above, I have taken some of this information from Nicole Laporte’s The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies and a Company Called DreamWorks and Carol de Giere’s Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked.