Hollywood isn’t known for remaining faithful where Biblical source material is concerned, but the greatest proof that it is possible is The Prince of Egypt, one of the first animated films of Dreamworks’ filmography. While Dreamworks Animation’s lineup has ranged from excellent (How to Train Your Dragon, Chicken Run) to mediocre (Shark Tale, Bee Movie), not since have they reached the high mark they set right from the beginning.
No Moses film yet has stuck completely to the Book, often downplaying Aaron’s involvement and Pharaoh’s vacillation during the plagues. Though this one too takes its liberties, it indeed remains faithful to the “essence, values, and integrity” of the source material, as stated in the prelude note that reveals the filmmakers’ respect for the story they’ve undertaken. The film does borrow a few aspects of The Ten Commandments, but improves upon every one. Rather than making Moses and Rameses rivals from the beginning due to a contrived love triangle, it makes them close friends and brothers pitted against each other in a tragedy of pride and divine intervention. Rather than Moses’ murder of the Egyptian being violent but somehow justifiable, in this version it is instead portrayed as an accident, allowing Moses to remain righteous while providing the shame to propel him to self-banishment. (I realize it was no accident in the Bible, but I like this kind of change.) All this improvement also comes with masterful abbreviation; events that took The Ten Commandments half an hour to portray are depicted in mere minutes of concise storytelling, sometimes funny but often of surprising depth.
Enhancing both plot and entertainment, the film’s soundtrack by Stephen Schwartz is inspired, with every song memorable and perfectly spaced in the film’s runtime. From Israeli singer Ofra Haza’s impassioned “Deliver Us” at the beginning to the Oscar-winning “When You Believe” as the Hebrews depart Egypt, the music serves the story rather than replacing it, just as the CGI flourishes enrich the beautiful hand-drawn animation. I’ve often hummed Jethro’s “Through Heaven’s Eyes” whenever speed is required (somehow it seems to make me move faster), while “The Plagues” has a dreadful majesty reminiscent of the music in Disney’s Hunchback.
Likewise, The Prince of Egypt is a perfect example of star power applied judiciously. The voice actors are all big names, including Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, Patrick Stewart as Seti, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah. In each case, the voice so fits the character that I don’t just hear Jeff Goldblum but a believable Aaron, not just Danny Glover but a jolly Jethro. I could hardly recognize Steve Martin and Martin Short as Pharaoh’s magicians, who nonetheless have fun with their own song, “Playing with the Big Boys.” It’s interesting to note that, just as Kilmer also voiced the powerful yet personal depiction of God (with background whispers from the rest of the cast), Charlton Heston also voiced God in The Ten Commandments.
The most moving part (pun intended) is rightly the parting of the Red Sea, just as much a wonder to behold as it was in DeMille’s 1956 film. A shot of some enormous fish in the wall of water, lit by distant lightning, has an eerie power best suited to this animated outlet. The Prince of Egypt combines high studio quality with an earnestness unseen in many Biblical films, eschewing dark revisionism and modernist explanations in favor of faithful and profound filmmaking. It’s one of the few animated films that I feel should have been nominated for Best Picture, a brilliant example of how cartoons can be elevated to dramatic excellence.
Best line: (Miriam, singing “When You Believe”) “Many nights we’ve prayed, with no proof anyone could hear. In our hearts a hopeful song we barely understood. Now we are not afraid, although we know there’s much to fear. We were moving mountains, long before we knew we could….”Rank: 60 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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