Next week, the new film “Exodus: Gods and Kings” opens here in Australia. In its honour, I re-print my review of the 1998 animated film “The Prince of Egypt”, which appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 24 December 1998.
Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells
Featuring the voices of Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Ralph Fiennes, Danny Glover, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer, Martin Short, Patrick Stewart
It probably seemed a bit like a joke at the time: when Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks SKG partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen reportedly dared him to re-make “The Ten Commandments” as an animated film. You would need to think of yourself of the Cecil B. DeMille of our time, and have the chutzpah to consider actually personifying Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Tzipporah, Ramses and even portraying the voice of God. But Katzenberg did, and of such big dreams are big and memorable films made.
“The Prince of Egypt” tells the story of Moses and the Exodus, from the time of Moses as a small baby set adrift upon the Nile River until the moment of receiving the Ten Commandments – all of this in just over 90 minutes. What a challenge. The film-makers state openly that they have “adapted” and “interpreted” parts of the story; certainly their changes to the Biblical accounts are likely to sponsor critical debate for some years. The worry is that films like “The Prince of Egypt” (and its direct antecedent “The Ten Commandments”) – through the power and brilliance of the film-making – become the “real” history, implanted in popular imagination.
But what of “The Prince of Egypt” as a film? It is, quite simply, superior animation and technically stunning. It offers a new style and presentation of Pharoah’s Egypt – gargantuan, using shades of ochres and desert yellows – and is willing to be both “big” and little. The big is large indeed, with enormous monuments under construction and a truly majestic (and apparently very expensive) parting of the Red Sea. When it comes to current notions of what makes an animated film “work”, “The Prince of Egypt” is both daring and conservative: in mostly avoiding the “comic interlude” and flashy song and dance production number, the film’s “ha ha” and “break out” moments are strictly limited, and the real story is emphasised in a remarkably straightforward fashion. This makes it less likely to offend religious viewers, but is not the common wisdom of how to make money from a major film release.
Moses is voiced by an appropriately deep-voiced Val Kilmer, and his complex friendship and comradeship with “brother” Ramses (the voice of Ralph Fiennes) is one of the more unusual aspects of this film. This Ramses is not the one-dimensional villain he is often portrayed as. Sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) comes across, dare we say it, as a gutsy New York Jewish woman. Brother Aaron (Jeff Goldblum, with his best snaky voice) is given some key psychological points to score on Moses, very unlike the Aaron in “The Ten Commandments”. Other voices include African-American actor Danny Glover as Jethro, the high priest of Midian and father of Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is drawn of distinctly dark skin; Patrick Stewart as the Pharaoh Seti; and Steve Martin and Martin Short as the Pharaoh’s court magicians. Ofra Haza – one of Israel’s most popular singers – sings Yocheved’s lullaby to Moses as he is put in a basket on the Nile.
“The Prince of Egypt” is dramatically compelling, but not a film for small children: there is much brutality and death in the story (so what else is new?). The plagues and the strong drama are handled with great subtlety and graphic cleverness, and the obsessive care put into its production is evident throughout. A fascinating experience.
(Below a theatrical poster from the film’s release, with an interesting “tag line” that reads, “The power is real, the story is forever, the time is now”.)