aaron, all i ever wanted, animated, brenda chapman, danny glover, Dreamworks, egypt, exodus, hans zimmer, helen mirren, jeff goldblum, jeffrey katzenberg, let my people go, martin short, michelle pfieffer, miriam, moses, musical, patrick stewart, pharaoh, playing with the big boys, prince of egypt, ralph fiennes, ramses, river lullaby, sandra bullock, stephen schwartz, steve martin, steven spielburg, the plagues, the ten commandments, tzipporah, val kilmer, when you believe
“I have seen the oppression of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry […] And so unto Pharaoh, I shall send…you.”
– The Burning Bush
Over two years ago I talked about Dreamworks and their unfortunate habit of leaning on the Shrek-style bandwagon (which they themselves have to blame for creating in the first place) and how every once in a while it’s balanced out by a work of jaw-dropping animation and drama that pushes the boundaries of film in a way only Pixar, Disney, and the occasional Don Bluth film have succeeded. It’s been like this since Dreamworks’ inception. “The Prince of Egypt”, today’s film, was the second animated film released after their first, “Antz”, a fairly obvious attempt to copy Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life”, premiered that same year. Ask animation buffs which is the better film and you’ll immediately be directed to this one. It’s unusual that an animation studio that just got off the ground would try something like a musical remake of “The Ten Commandments”, but hey, some ideas can sound silly on paper and yet blow everyone away in practice. “The Prince of Egypt” is without a doubt one of those films. Fostered by both Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, directed by Brenda Chapman, with songs by Stephen Schwartz of Wicked and Pippin fame and music by pre-BWOOOOOMP-obsessed Hans Zimmer, it’s a movie that at times even manages to bring the great Cecil B. Demille epic to its knees.
Now unlike certain people who shall remain nameless, I have a deep respect for those of different cultures and religions. While this movie is based on a sacred text to many, it is in no way a direct take on said text, and any jokes I make toward the holy figures depicted are not a rip on the figures themselves, just the characters as they are in the movie. The movie opens with a similar disclaimer in case you’re worried they’ll be insensitive to anyone (frankly I think the filmmakers were more terrified of offending anyone religious than any audience member who went to see this).
From there we see thousands of slave toiling in the hot Egypt sun, creating the foundations for Egypt’s greatest monuments to itself, and DAMN if this isn’t the most cinematic exquisite looking slave labor that’s been animated. Not joking here, this whole film looks amazing; the contrasting styles between the Egyptians and Hebrews, the color palates, some of the best hand-drawn animation outside of Disney at the time, I mean there’s Every Frame a Painting and there’s EVERY FRAME A PAINTING. And I haven’t even touched upon the music yet because the opening number, “Deliver Us”, is as epic as one can get with massive orchestration and a chorus that belts out the pain and anguish of the slaves.
As the labor continues, Egyptian soldiers ravage the slave quarter and kill every baby they find. One woman, Yochaved (Ofra Haza), slips through the shadows with her two children Aaron and Miriam in hopes of saving her infant son. After reaching the shores of the Nile, she sings him one last haunting lullaby as she slips him in a basket and sends him down the river.
Little Miriam follows the basket as it floats past barges, nearly gets snapped up by crocodiles and raging hippopotamuses, and is almost swept up in a fishing net. I can only imagine that her only thought beyond her immediate concern for her baby brother is why the hell her mother thought THIS was the safest idea for her child. Luckily, the basket ends up where Queen Tuya (Helen Mirren) is bathing. She is immediately taken by the mystery baby and adopts him on the spot, giving him the name Moses. Miriam, who’s been watching in secret, prays that one day her brother will return to her, and the scene closes on last shot of Egypt as the chorus sings us out, Yochaved’s pleas for deliverance rising above them all.
Flash forward eighteen years later and we see Moses and his older brother Ramses (Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes respectively) are rambunctious young men who have grown up together as, well, brothers. While racing their chariots they end up accidentally causing a ton of damage to a temple and are reprimanded by their father the Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart). He insists on vocally tearing Ramses a new one for his recklessness despite the fact that Moses stands up for his brother and is willing to take the blame, a massive change from The Ten Commandments which I confess I much prefer.
While I admire Charlton Heston’s heroic and confident portrayal of Moses, he’s put on a pedestal so high above every other character that he’s difficult to relate to. Also when God enters the picture, Heston’s Moses becomes so devoted to him and following his word to the letter that it seems like he could care less about his loved ones. Kilmer’s Moses may start his journey as a pampered, playful prince, but he’s not arrogant or selfish; he was raised in a world so far removed from his origins that the thought of years of suffering never crossed his mind. But when he’s forced to come face to face with the truth, he risks his life to set it right. He has flaws, recognizes them, and tries to do better for the people around him and himself. It’s a story of one man becoming more than what he believed he was meant to be that I can buy.
And of course, there’s Ramses, who is simply one of the finest villains to be drawn on paper, scanned through the CAPs system and put on celluloid. They say a sign of a great antagonist is one who does the wrong things for what they believe are the right reasons, and that rings true here. Seti has hammered into Ramses’ head that traditions must be upheld, that one weak link can bring a dynasty crashing down, and Ramses’ fear that he will be that link drives every decision he makes. To disappoint a parent with one bad decision is terrible enough as it is; to have that decision negatively affect an entire empire? To sum up, it’s a shame there was never an Egyptian god for therapy or Ramses’ story might have turned out differently.
Also note how fatherly Seti treats Moses when Ramses is not around. While it’s true that Seti is showing his firstborn some necessary tough love to prep him for the throne, you could also read into it further and see some subtle favoritism towards Moses going on. Seti recognizes that Moses has the potential to be a great leader yet can’t say the same for Ramses, the one who was literally born to take the throne. Ramses is constantly fighting for his father’s approval, but Moses already has it, and that is one of the tragic catalysts that drives the story. Moses finds that affection so abhorrent after learning the truth about his past that it ends up driving him away, and Ramses is so determined to be adored by his father that he winds up becoming exactly like him.
At a banquet that night Seti takes Moses’ advice to show more faith in his son and names Ramses Prince Regent, putting him in charge of rebuilding the temple. Ramses in turn names Moses Chief Architect, and gifts him his blue scarab ring. As tribute to the two princes, the high priests Hotep and Huy (Steve Martin and Martin Short) present them with a beautiful Midian woman they captured in the desert, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer). Tzipporah refuses to accept her new enforced occupation as royal concubine lying down though, even as she’s humiliated by the court and pushed upon a reluctant Moses.
Tzipporah is taken to Moses’ bedchamber but when he arrives he finds a tied up guard and a bedsheet ladder out the window. Moses distracts the other guards on duty and lets her escape. He follows her to Goshen, the home of the slaves, where a grown up Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) give her some water for her journey back to her tribe. Something I admit I find hilarious about this casting is that thanks to my Catholic school upbringing I know that Moses actually had a speech impediment (“I am slow of speech and tongue.” – Exodus 4:10). Aaron basically acted as his translator any time he went to speak to Pharaoh, meaning if the movie was made to be as slavishly accurate to the Bible as possible, it would have gone something like this:
The ever-optimistic Miriam recognizes Moses as her brother and tries to welcome him home in spite of Aaron’s eagerness to keep out of trouble. He even gets a few good lines here (“She’s exhausted from a day’s work – not that it was too much, w-we quite enjoyed it.”) Moses, as is expected, isn’t ready to believe such wild accusations from a common slave and things quickly get heated. Before he storms off, he catches Miriam singing a snippet of Yocheved’s lullaby and looking oddly familiar in the moonlight.
Struck by the resurgence of infant memories, Moses sprints back to the palace as we hear his inner monologue song “All I Ever Wanted”. It’s a fine dramatic piece if a little on the short side where Moses tries to reassure himself that the home and family he grew up with is where he belongs. Drained, he falls asleep and has a nightmare of Seti’s sanctioned slaughter and his mother’s sacrifice. It’s a great way for him to discover what we already know without merely repeating the first five minutes of the movie. Even if the CGI in this scene is rather dated by today’s standards, the stilted animation and stylization lends itself to the feverish, surreal nature of the dream and it plays around with traditional Egyptian hieroglyphic techniques; Seti looms over everyone monstrously while the Hebrews and Moses are ants in his wake, and movement is limited to claustrophobic rigid rows.
Moses catapults awake and, desperate to uncover the truth for himself, searches the palace until he finds the scene from his dream.
Seti finds his adopted son utterly crushed and Moses confronts him about his mass genocide. He attempts to justify it by saying the Hebrews grew too numerous and the threat of an uprising could no longer be ignored. Seti holds him tight and comforts him:
“Oh, my son…they were only slaves.”
And the look of horror and heartbreak on Moses’ face as he backs away…just…DAMN.
The following morning Moses receives some better worded sympathy and a reprise of “All I Ever Wanted” from the Queen, but it’s not enough for him. It doesn’t matter that he’s still family in the eyes of his adopted parents and sibling; that doesn’t erase the fact that he’s of the people they have subjugated for years. On a brief tangent, the man who animated this scene lost his mother around the time he was working on it, and that feeling of loneliness and loss mingled with motherly affection shines through with heartbreaking clarity.
As Ramses begins planning for monuments and temples that will cement his legacy, Moses walks through the throng of slaves. He can no longer see the beauty that sheltered his eyes, only the sweat and blood that served as its foundation. When a slave master begins whipping an old man, Moses snaps and tackles him, causing the master to fall off the scaffolding to his death. Overcome with fear and shame, Moses flees the city. Ramses intercepts him at the gates trying to understand what’s going on but Moses tells him to “ask the man I once called Father”. Then he begins his self-imposed exile into the most deadly but jaw-droppingly gorgeous desert on film.
Along the way Moses strips away the symbolic trappings of his old life, Ramses’ ring being the one exception. After surviving a sandstorm and being led to an oasis by a stray camel, he saves three little Midian girls from sheep rustlers. Then he falls down a well, because even when he’s found refuge the world ain’t done messing with Moses yet. The girls rescue him with the help of Tzipporah, who happens to be their sister – though after one look she recognizes him and lets him fall again.
When Moses is brought back up for real, he’s welcomed into Tzipporah’s tribe by her father Jethro the high priest (Danny Glover). Despite having won over the tribe, Moses feels he’s done nothing in his life worth celebrating. Jethro convinces him otherwise in “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, a criminally underrated song in a musical already filled with great numbers; a life-affirming song reminding that every small act can lead to greater things and there’s always a chance to change for the better if you let it happen. It also underscores a montage of Moses adjusting to his new Hakuna Matata lifestyle as a shepherd, him and Tzipporah falling in love with each other and eventually marrying.
Moses rises early one morning and finds a sheep has gone astray. He follows it deep into the mountains and is drawn by a strange light glowing inside a cavern.
I’m not going to exaggerate here – this scene with Moses and the Burning Bush is one of my favorite scenes in any movie. It captures the size and scope of such a monumental moment in the Book of Exodus in such an intimate setting. Whether or not you’re a religious person, you get the feeling that you’re in the presence of something sacred and not of this world. Even the bush itself looks more ethereal than an actual burning piece of flora. There’s so much power and yet it’s balanced out with the kindness and love that you’d believe the God of peace would have. Something clever that they did here that I can’t get enough of is the voice of God itself; it’s Moses’ own voice, because what better way to hear God than have it be the voice you’d hear in your head – yours and no one else’s.
And Hans Zimmer’s score…if it’s not his best piece of music he ever composed, it is easily one of his best.
Moses asks The Bush what it is, and it tells him “I AM WHAT I AM”.
It continues by saying the Lord has heard his people suffering in Egypt and that’s all he can stands, he can’t stands no more. To that effect he has chosen someone to be his voice and lead them out of Egypt – Moses.
Moses is understandably reluctant but Yahweh lays some holy verbal smackdown on him. Just to show that he’s not entirely Old Testament God, however, he soothes Moses by telling he will be there to guide him. He also imbues his staff with with his might to prove his wonders to Pharaoh and all of Egypt, and leaves him in misty-eyed awe of what has happened.
Moses returns home and explains everything to Tzipporah. It’s all done through animation. No dialogue here, just the movement and the music selling it, and it is beautiful. They hitch the next camel to Egypt and find that Ramses is now Pharaoh, and one of a long, long line of leaders whose daddy issues are stirring up trouble in the Middle East.
Ramses is thrilled to see his brother and thinks he’s come back to rule by his side. Moses has the unfortunate task of telling him the opposite. As a show of God’s might he has his staff turn into a snake. Ramses, not to be outdone by a race of people so poor they can only afford to worship one God, has the high priests demonstrate the power of the Egyptian deities, which they do in the delightfully threatening “Playing With the Big Boys”. Even though, according to the original story, pagan magicians and gods were real then and exercised plenty of power – just not as strongly as God’s – the movie makes it clear that Hotep and Huy are just passing off their stage magic as real power with lots of bright flashes and smoke to distract their audience. It also shows you can’t beat the real deal as we see the two cobras “conjured” by the priests are devoured by Moses’ in the song’s climax.
Moses and Ramses continue their conversation in private. Moses tries to show Ramses how he sees Egypt, built on the backs of suffering thousands, but Ramses can only see what his father has imprinted on him; a rich legacy to maintain and build upon. Slaves are only a part of the natural order he was raised to believe in, and upsetting that order by freeing them would make him appear weak and crumble his dynasty. As great as the dialogue is, half this conversation is told visually, perfectly illustrating how much of Seti’s grip Ramses is under.
With neither of them willing to concede to the other, Moses returns Ramses’ ring, the very last symbolic connection to his family. If you’re looking into how to do amazing character animation, look no further than the moment where Ramses is forced forced to accept that his brother is now his enemy. In only a matter of seconds we see him go through confusion, betrayal, heartbreak, and finally, rage-fueled vengeance. On top of that, it’s a potent graphic translation of one of Exodus’ hard-hitting lines:
From this point on, expect no mercy from Ramses. It died with that one look.
Ramses has the slaves’ workload doubled, which does not do Moses any favors when he goes to check in on them. Even Aaron is pissed off at him. But with a little encouragement from Miriam and Tzipporah, Moses gets through to his people with a rousing speech about faith and goes to show them what the power of God can do. As Ramses and his family are sailing by, Moses wades into the river and transforms the waters of the Nile into blood. Once again Ramses has Huy and Hotep demonstrate that their gods can do the same with a little Kool-Aid and declares this contest of My God’s Bigger Than Your Gods has ended. But Moses knows it’s only beginning.
And then…we get my favorite song in the movie.
We’ve seen the benevolent, loving God in the burning bush; now it’s time the vengeful terrifying God to rear its head. And rear it he does. As a reminder, Stephen Schwartz is the lyrical genius behind The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s “Hellfire”, so he knows a thing or two about how to express soul-shaking inner turmoil. The chorus begins as a whisper, a barely audible chant, an ominous warning that you can barely understand until the first plague strikes. Then it builds relentlessly, each punctuated cry driving home the fear as swarms of frogs and locusts overtake the palace, fire rains from the sky, famine and pestilence sweep across the land; Moses is forced to watch it all for the sake of his people, and Ramses is forced to endure it all for the sake of his pride. Though the chorus states that the devastation will endure until the people are freed, neither of them will break, neither of them will yield. And until one does, all of Egypt suffers.
After the ninth plague (total darkness) takes effect, Moses wanders into the palace he once called home and finds Ramses hiding in his favorite thoughtful spot from what seems like a lifetime ago. When he can’t get Ramses to discuss the situation, they start reminiscing on times both bad and good that they shared together. No matter how rough things got, they always had each other to fall back on. Ramses turns to Moses and simply asks why things can’t return to the way they were before.
Both men are different sides of the same coin, each one answering to a powerful father, but neither of them can deny the connection they once shared. And in that split-second, it would appear that they’re ready to perhaps put that above all else and reconcile. It’s a moment of hope, but one that turns out to be false as Ramses’ terrified young son enters asking what the man who brought the darkness on them is doing here. In another universe, Moses would be his beloved uncle; here, he is the boogeyman, the one behind the chaos and destruction.
With that stark reminder, Ramses slips back into the role he is tragically destined to play. In spite of Moses’ pleading, Ramses declares there will be a great cry throughout all of Egypt as he finishes the job his father started. Moses, knowing there’s no turning back now, departs, his warnings that the worst of all the plagues is approaching having fallen on deaf ears and a hardened heart.
Back in Goshen, Moses explains to the Hebrews what the final plague will be: The Angel of Death will come and steal the souls of the firstborn of Egypt. The only way to be saved is to smear the doorframe with lamb’s blood, and it will pass over them.
OHHHHHH now I get it!
Before we get any further, I’d like to tell you a bit about what my introduction to the story of Moses was. Long before this movie came out, I had a little picture book about the baby in the basket prologue, but my initial experience with the Exodus was the Rugrats Passover special. It doesn’t downplay its significance to Judaism or the traditions of Hebrew heritage, far from it, but it does try to instill some humor for the kids. Case in point: the last plague. That scene, though a little eerie, was mostly played for laughs as Pharaoh Angelica realizes that she’s the only daughter of her parents and begs Moses, played by Tommy, to call it off before she’s worm chow. Plus, so as to not traumatize the kids, the Angel is said to “take away” the firstborn, which I thought was in a literal sense like Sarah Sanderson in Hocus Pocus. So imagine my shock when eight year-old me watches The Prince of Egypt for the first time and sees everything go completely quiet as a smoky wraith emerges from a wormhole in the sky and children die onscreen as it sweeps in and out of their homes. It’s not graphic, but one second they’re breathing and the next they’re not. Name the last animated movie that had the sheer gall to do that. Even the color scheme of this scene is an understated reflection of what’s occurring; it’s monochromatic, almost totally black and white, as if the life were sucked out of the scenery as well.
And when it is done, it is just as Ramses foretold – there is a great cry in Egypt, but it’s one from his own people. It echoes through the palace as Ramses carries the body of his only son to an altar and quietly grieves.
Moses appears from the shadows. Ramses, aware of his presence without even having to look, tells Moses to inform his people they’re finally free to go, and rebuffs any attempt at sympathy.
And remember how I said earlier that Heston’s Moses is so focused on obeying God and getting the Hebrews out of Egypt that he has no time for being relatable or considering how the consequences affect his loved ones? Well, once our Moses leaves the palace, he breaks down and weeps, releasing all the guilt and strain caused by his impossibly great burden.
Had the exodus from Egypt immediately begun on a triumphant note it wouldn’t have meant as much since we’d have to force ourselves to ignore the fact that so many innocents in Egypt have just died. By allowing Moses, and by extension the audience, to express and come to terms with his sadness and regret before slowly transitioning to the Hebrews’ moving out with the coming dawn, it means all the more to see the long struggle for freedom amount to something, that something truly good has come from years of blood given for blood. I appreciate silence we get to let it sink in, especially since it’s proceeded by the next song.
With the mass exodus comes the movie’s Oscar-winning number “When You Believe”, a lovely theme that starts with a few hopeful voices and swells into a mighty chorus, especially when the children kick in singing actual Hebrew. It’s hard not to get a little choked up. And yes, I enjoy the end credits version too. I’m a sucker for those pop ballads that followed every animated film in the 90’s; they may have been there to promote the film on the radio and try to score an Academy Award, but dammit they worked. You rarely get that kind of emotion after movies like this anymore.
The Hebrews finally reach the Red Sea and it should be smooth sailing from here on in.
Everyone panics when two things happen – a giant pillar of fire blocks the Egyptians’ path, and Moses goes into the water. The voice of God comes down from the heavens once more to remind us that Moses has got the touch, he’s got the power (through him, of course), and BOOM.
Another stunning take on an incredible iconic Biblical scene, the parting of the Red Sea is…what’s the word? Amazeballs? Yeah, let’s go with that. It’s rife with details that give it a sense of wonder and awe and even some authenticity, from the usually pessimistic Aaron being the first to join Moses and prove there’s nothing to fear, to the livestock having to be blindfolded before the Hebrews lead them along, to this gorgeous moment where we can actually see the sea creatures swimming through the water as they pass.
Eventually the fire clears up and Ramses, who’s too angry to think straight, leads the Egyptians after them. The last of the Hebrews makes it through just in time as the sea collapses in on itself and washes away the threat. Moses hears a stranded Ramses scream out his name one last vengeful time. He says his quiet final goodbye, having finally put the past behind him and looks to a bright future as the leader of his freed people.
I may as well come out and say it – The Prince of Egypt is my favorite Dreamworks film, and twenty years later they have yet to match it. It’s a testament to how adroitly they tell this tale that I’ve seen dyed-in-the-wool atheists consider it among their favorite films. For an animated take on The Ten Commandments, you’d expect it to be watered down fare for the kiddies, but they do not sugarcoat a thing. They treat this story with the respect it deserves while giving it a unique perspective; it’s a grand and epic tale of an entire nation’s liberation while also an intimate tragedy about two brothers torn apart by fate. If anything the fact that it’s animated allows for more creative and eye-popping visualization that brings it to life more than most live-action flicks can. The only movie I can think of in recent years that came close to match such an opening in terms of scope and drama was Kubo and the Two Strings, another animated epic.
For the longest time I wondered why with all its beautiful music and stunning visuals nobody thought to bring it to the stage. The good news is that there have been some readings for a potential Broadway adaptation going on for a while. The bad news is that the main one which was supposed to take place in New York was abruptly cancelled, though the reason for it being concerns over cast diversity is one that’s entirely justified.
Until then, I’ll be keeping an eye out for any updates regarding it and I’ll enjoy revisiting this exquisite biblical drama in the meantime. I give it my highest recommendation.
Special thanks to Kelvin Cedeño for his gift of Charles Solomon’s The Prince of Egypt: A New Vision in Animation,an extraordinary book from an extraordinary friend. I couldn’t have written this review without it.
All screencaps courtesy of disneyscreencaps.com
Except this one: