The Prince of Egypt
Review by Jason Morrison
With Disney having virtually exhausted every other possible source of fable and legend, the DreamWorks crew turned to a source once off-limits-the Bible. I have a feeling the reason Don Bluth, Disney and friends never turned to the good book was the prospect of saying it's as believable as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or Fievel Goes West. That might offend a whole key demographic-Christians-and we all know how morally opposed big companies are to offending demographics.
But DreamWorks apparently thought it was time to go for it, and picked a story out of the Old Testament so as to risk the wrath of Jews as well. The Prince of Egypt is the story of Moses delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and though it tends to deviate a bit from the book it doesn't really hold punches.
Moses (Val Kilmer) is brother of Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), heir to the throne of Egypt. As the pair romp about, causing trouble as rich, gods-on-earth youth tend to do, he's unaware the people toiling away building monuments are actually his family. His Egyptian mother found him floating down the Nile in a basket and adopted him. Meanwhile the Hebrews are suffering horribly under the Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart), who is impart the grave responsibility of the office on Rameses, the royal heir. The fun ends when Moses bumps into a Hebrew woman who claims to be his sister. When she sings a lullaby his mother sang as she let him drift down the river, he starts wondering. When Seti confirms his suspicions, he sees the cruelty of the Egyptians, accidentally slays a guard, and flees despite his brother's protests.
He ends up living as a shepherd with a small tribe, gets married and lives a happy life. Along comes god in the form of a burning bush, and suddenly it's up to Moses to free his people, who once hated him, and turn against his brother, who is now Pharaoh. Lots of miracles ensue, and since this is from the Bible, I'll let you guess as to who wins in the end.
What you just heard was the G-rated, family-firendly plot summary you probably expected. Luckily, the film refuses to gloss over some very important-and very disturbing-details integral to the grim Bible story.
For example, the reason Moses was left to the current by his mother was to avoid death-the Pharaoh, fearing the Hebrews might rise up, ordered the death of all the first-born sons. A very disturbing (and cinematically beautiful) dream sequence and a colossal hieroglyph mark the event in the film. And when Rameses refuses to let Moses' people go, the film includes powerful scenes of suffering from each of the plagues-not a pretty site.
I couldn't help but think, "how on earth would I explain this to a kid?" as fire rained down on the innocent and guilty alike, poor farmers dug at barren blighted soil and a tidal wave killed an entire army. In fact, sitting behind me in the theater was a mother and three young children. During a most disturbing scene where god kills all the first-born Egyptian children, the oldest said, in absolutely the most innocent, frightened voice "mommy, what's going on?" That about floored me. Knowing from mom's earlier comments she intended this to be a fun, exciting Bible lesson, I could just imagine what was going through her head-what do you say, "God is killing all the Egyptian first-born to get back at them for killing the Hebrews?" How about, "Because Rameses would not listen innocent families, who have no vote or say in the whole matter, are being punished?" This whole eye-for-an-eye, angry jealous god thing really doesn't make much sense in the context of the New Testament, let alone in the "all men are created equal" U.S. of A. At one point, Moses tells Rameses he must let the Hebrew slaves go-other slaves, apparently, still deserve to be slaves in god's eye.
I think it was an excellent decision by DreamWorks not to add stupid cutesy talking animals or market a thousand toys based on the film. Oh, they would have sold, but can you imagine buying little Suzie a Hebrew Village Playset, complete with dead babies to toss into the river with real working crocodiles? Or fake "Fun Lamb's Blood" to smear around your doorjamb, just in case god's out for firstborn tonight. There could have been a whole line of Happy Meals, too. I can see it now-going to McDonald's and having your little brother tug on your fingers saying, "Ask the man if they have boils still. Johnny next door got locusts, frogs, and boils! I guess the famine one would just be an empty Happy Meal box.
Where am I headed with this? Actually, a big complement. Though Prince of Egypt takes a number of liberties with the original story, it is not some feel-good, happy crap you can make a beanie baby out of. This movie is much more for adults, and should get them thinking a little more about what they believe in and why. So what if Moses and Rameses' brotherly love is absent in The Bible? It's a great theme which makes Moses role--delivering pains to his brothers kingdom and family--complex and difficult. Even the idea that Rameses has to act as he does to maintain tradition, not be the "weak link" of the dynasty, is introduced though not thoroughly explored.
I do not know if I could really give this film a letter grade, because what it means is so much more important than details. The opening sequence is choppy, the Egyptian priests are a bit annoying, and there are 15 new sphinxes every time you turn around. But most everything else is good to great, even Jeff Goldblum as Aaron. I definitely recommend seeing it though. Heck, bring your younger brothers or sisters too-kids should be asking you those hard questions.
The film ends as the Hebrews reach the other shore of the Red Sea, to freedom. And as Moses gazes over his people, and the promise ahead, there's only one thing left to say:
"Have fun wandering in the desert for forty years, guys."
(Out of five)