Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Prince of Egypt: An Underrated Classic

Whether you're a Christian, a Jew, or some other faith completely, odds are you've at least heard the Exodus story. It's been portrayed in everything from a cinematic epic to a Rugrats episode to an animated musical.

I know what you're thinking. Death. Destruction. Large-scale natural disasters. Hardly Disney-esque animated musical fodder. (Then again, have you seen Bambi? Yikes.) But when fledgling DreamWorks animation decided to make their very first (well, technically second, but the actual first one is a rather long story for another post, so suffice it to say, their first original) animated film, that's the subject matter they chose. It was a bold risk. But did it pay off?

Did. It. Ever.

The result was nothing short of a breath-taking artistic masterpiece, and one that I feel is grossly under appreciated. So, just in time for Passover (this weekend, y'all), let's dive in to The Prince of Egypt.

If you've read the book of Exodus (or seen The Ten Commandments), you know the story. But I'm gonna rehash it again anyway. Because it's my blog, that's why. And because it's a story that's always worth telling again.

Pharaoh of Egypt feels threatened by the growing Hebrew population, so he sentences all the Hebrews to slavery and all their baby boys to death. But one mother saves her child by setting him adrift in a basket in the river. The boy is adopted by Pharaoh's daughter...or...wife, I guess, in this version. (The film has some glaring historical inaccuracies, for sure. Would I have appreciated having a more accurate film? Yeah. But... I'm not gonna chuck out the baby with the bathwater on his one. The left-out bits, slight truth fudges, and over exaggerations aren't enough to distract from the spirit of the story.) And Moses grows up in Pharaoh's household as a prince of Egypt, second to Rameses, his older brother.

As they come of age, Rameses is having difficulty gaining his father's approval while Moses seems content to be a care-free goof-off pulling pranks and getting into mischief. But despite his immaturity, Moses does truly want to see his brother succeed. They have a close bond. And even though Moses always ropes Rameses into his trouble, he's always around to get them out of it again.

But a chance encounter with Moses' biological siblings Aaron and Miriam reveals Moses' true heritage. He's not a prince of Egypt at all, but the son of Hebrew slaves. Moses flees to the palace but in the midst of his identity crisis discovers that it's all true and that the man he calls father really did order the slaughter of countless baby boys- a number Moses should have, by all accounts, been part of. Later, as Moses witnesses an Egyptian officer beating a Hebrew slave, Moses attacks and kills the official (by accident in the film, very much deliberately in real life). Fearing for his life, and convinced he could never really belong to the royal line given his ancestry, Moses opts to run away. He doesn't exactly know where he's going. He just sort of races into the desert.

Eventually he comes across the Midianites where he meets up with Tzipporah, a woman he had previously been introduced to in Egypt. She had been meant as a concubine for him, but he opted to let her escape, impressed by her fierce independence. He's accepted into the Midianite clan and becomes friends with Jethro, priest of Midian and Tzipporah's father. Jethro makes Moses into a shepherd, he and Tzipporah eventually develop a relationship and marry, and Moses settles into a quiet humble life with just his wife and his flock.
But Moses can't retire just yet. While watching the sheep one day, Moses encounters God. Not any Egyptian god, but the God of his ancestors. The Creator of the Universe. The Great I AM. True, at the moment...He looks an awful lot like a flaming bush. But stranger things have happened. God tells Moses that He has heard the cry of the Hebrews and is sending Moses to speak to Pharaoh and demand their freedom. Moses isn't too keen on the plan, but how do you say no to God?

And so Moses packs up his family, heads back to Egypt, and prepares for a confrontation with the man he once called brother. The most powerful man in the known world. Rameses.
It's quite a literal face-off.
I'm assuming you know how this story ends, but for the 1 person in the universe who hasn't heard it... oh, good grief! Just go read the book of Exodus and come back. All caught up? Yes? Good.

The two men who were once brothers are now forced to become bitter enemies. Moses is doing the work of God in trying to free his people. Rameses is trying to live up to his father's legacy of strength and unyielding power. It's a perfect standoff of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. But unlike the dead gods of Egypt, the God of the Hebrews can move mountains. And turn rivers into blood, flood the earth with frogs and flies and lice and all sorts of other nasties...heck, He can even make it hail fire. Let's see Ra pull that one off, eh?
Through all these plagues and more, Rameses hardens his heart and refuses to grant the Hebrews their freedom. But there's another plague coming. And this one hits very close to home. Just as Seti ordered all the Hebrew boys to die, the first born son of all the Egyptians will die. The Hebrews are charged to slaughter a lamb and paint their doorposts with its blood as a sign to the angel of death to pass over them. No one is safe unless they are covered by the blood (sound familiar, hmm?) even Rameses. Despite Moses' pleading with Rameses to surrender and prevent this horrible tragedy, Rameses holds his stance and determines that because of Moses' meddling, maybe Seti didn't go far enough with the slaughter of the Hebrews. Moses resigns himself to the fact that the catastrophe that follows is Rameses own doing.That same night, all the unprotected firstborns die. When Moses goes to see his grieving brother, who is mourning the death of his own son, Rameses bitterly tells Moses to take his people,leave Egypt, and never come back.

This should be a moment of celebration and victory of Moses. But it isn't. He's heartbroken that his brother has brought such destruction on himself and countless others and wishes he could have convinced Rameses otherwise before it came to this. He's frustrated that his brother's own stubbornness has caused such mass suffering. And he misses the heart of the best friend he once knew- a heart that has now turned cold as ice in hatred toward him.

The Hebrews gather their few belongings and make their way to the seaside for a brief respite. But it is not to last. Rameses has once again had a change of heart. Content to no longer simply let them be, he seeks vengeance. The Hebrews are helplessly trapped between Rameses' army and the sea.

I say helplessly. But that isn't true. For God is always a helper to His people. He blocks the army with a pillar of fire and parts the sea clear down the middle, allowing the Hebrews to pass over on dry ground. But it isn't long before the army is on their heels. As the Hebrews reach the other side, the walls of water begin to cave in. The army is drowned, and Rameses is thrown back against the opposite shore. With no more army and no more slaves, he has witnessed the downfall of the greatest empire the earth had known to that point. All he can do is curse Moses' name to the heavens.
I just wanted top put this gif here because it's awesome.
For his part, Moses' journey is far from over. He may have escaped the wrath of Rameses, but he still has several million people to lead through a desert to the promised land. He leaves his heart for his brother at the seaside and continues onward to a mountain where God Himself writes down some very specific instructions. Moses comes down from the mountain to deliver God's message to his people. But that's another film entirely. (One they'll never make, I'm afraid. Which is a shame because I'm sure given the nature of what really happened...and modern society's thirst for violence and irony, it would make a great movie. As far as Israel's history goes, the next 40 years would be repetitious as heck. Ok, more like the next 400 years, but who's counting?)
Oh, yeah. And...there's that.
There is so much to love about this film. It was an ambitious project from the get-go. The last time it had even been attempted on this scale was Cecil B. DeMille's classic The Ten Commandments. And that movie was huge, even by today's standards. To try and make an animated musical out of it...it took some serious guts. But the end result was brilliant. Like I said...there were some inaccuracies. The entire part of the story where Moses is nursed by his own mother thanks to Miriam's intervention was completely dropped, Moses' son was written out. His conversation with God was very abbreviated, as were his conversations with Rameses. But, on the whole, the message was still there. That God looks out for His people and can use anyone, even a man like Moses, who was likely spoiled, a murderer, a fugitive, and all-told, a bit of a screw-up. A man slow of speech and short of temper (it may not have shown in the film, but real-life Moses was VERY short-tempered. In fact, it was that very temper that prevented him from entering the promised land he'd worked so hard to get to. But that's another post.). And he became the most significant prophet the Jews ever had. (At least until a guy named John shows up a thousand-ish years later. But that's also another post.)

Aside from the story, the acting is great. Well...most of it. Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes both blow everyone else out of the water in this film. And Val not only had to play Moses, but God, too! Some of the rest of the cast...eh. I get that they were trying to bring a lot of A-listers to the table. But Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin and Martin Short....tried. You can tell they really did. But they just didn't seem to fit. They didn't "become" the character (which is particularly shocking since both Stewart and Bullock are GREAT at that in live action films). This is one reason why I much prefer to leave voice acting to the voice actors. They know how to wear a character vocally, a task not always easy to do, especially if you're used to acting on stage or screen, playing off of other actors, not recording your lines in a booth by yourself. People with acting experience know what I'm talking about. But their performances aren't enough to kill this film completely. It's a minor distraction. That's all.

The art in this film is positively stunning. I mean even the layouts are fantastic. It may be hand drawn animation...but it feels like an epic. Just look at the size and grandeur of this thing!


A real feast for the eyes. It takes a lot of talent to make ink and paint on a piece of paper look this huge.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about this entire film is the music. It is my second-favorite movie soundtrack. (The other, oddly enough, also belongs to another DreamWorks film. But that's another post.) First of all, they actually have real Hebrew in some of the songs which truly adds an authentic flavor to the music. The fact that Ofra Haza, an actual Israeli singer, plays Yocheved just adds to that fact. But everything from the opening chorus number "Deliver Us" to the joyous celebration that is the song "Heaven's Eyes" to the point-counterpoint of "Let My People Go" just fits perfectly within the frame of the story. Even the orchestral theme they use for God is sort of out-of-this-world. A mix of mystery, majesty and wonder. Usually whenever I watch the film, I can't get it out of my head for several days. So I'll pass that joy on to you. You're welcome.

All told, minor issues aside, this film is a classic. At least, it is to me. The music is great, the story is great, even the art is great. If you're not going to a Seder this Passover, or heck, even if you are, gather the family around and give it a watch. It's a great reminder that there can indeed be miracles when you believe, and sometimes, even when you don't. Because we serve an awesome God. And He can do anything.

Oh, and Pesach Sameach. (That's "Happy Passover".)

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