Moses is one of the great characters of history, whose life holds meaning for believers and non-believers alike. As a national leader, he is a liberator of his people and a lawgiver. As a spiritual figure, he has a personal relationship with God, walking and talking with him, while remaining faithful to his plan. The Bible also shows us Moses’ human side, presenting him as a man of strong impulse and occasional doubt.
Throughout the ages, popular culture has often sought to interpret Moses' story, emphasizing those aspects which render it more accessible for its time. An example is Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film, The Ten Commandments. Made when the Cold War was at its height, it depicted Moses’ actions as a victory for democracy over dictatorship, an important theme for that era. Charlton Heston played him as a majestic, slightly distant figure who spoke and carried himself with great authority—qualities admired in leaders in those days.
Hollywood's newest major studio, DreamWorks, run by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, music mogul David Geffen, and former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, has chosen to make an animated feature about Moses which includes Broadway-type show tunes. One might wonder if this kind of format, usually deployed for more lightweight fare, is appropriate for such a serious subject. But directors Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells, and Steve Hickner use the genre wisely. They have produced a mass-audience work which is both entertaining and religiously orthodox.
In keeping with the spirit of the 1990s, The Prince of Egypt presents a more accessible figure than found in the DeMille epic. He's a populist, folksy hero whose personal conflicts and relationships help propel the plot, and unlike Heston's Moses, he's a likable guy with whom any of us would feel comfortable spending time.
The filmmakers have also broken new ground in animated-film technique. Employing some 350 animators over a four-year period, they have conjured up an imaginative visual spectacle, inspired by the art of 19th-century biblical illustrator Gustave Dore, impressionist painter Claude Monet, and film director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia). And, following the strategy developed by Disney under Katzenberg, The Prince of Egypt uses the voices of well-known stars for each of the major characters.
The story line adheres more closely to the biblical text than did The Ten Commandments. Egypt has the greatest empire on earth, and the Hebrews are its slaves, involved mainly in the construction of massive building projects.
The action begins with Pharaoh's orders to murder all the innocent Hebrew children. The baby Moses is hidden in the bulrushes of the River Nile to avoid the slaughter. The basket carrying him washes up by Pharaoh's palace and is discovered by the queen (Helen Mirren), who adopts him as her own. This is a change from the Old Testament where the baby was found by Pharaoh's daughter, not the queen.
The Bible doesn't have much material about Moses' life in Pharaoh's court, and it's here that the filmmakers invent the personal relationship that becomes the movie's emotional core. The young Moses (Val Kilmer) is raised as the brother to Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), Pharaoh's eldest son and heir. They're shown to have a friendly rivalry based on athletic competitions such as chariot races. Moses often gets his sibling out of jams for which the stern, domineering Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart) would judge him harshly.
The movie intelligently handles Moses' gradual realization that he's a Hebrew, one of the slave people, not a ruling-class Egyptian. His personality is transformed from that of carefree aristocrat to one of a man of conscience with concern for the oppressed. “All I've ever known to be true is a lie,” he exclaims in a moment of self-realization. As in the original text, Moses kills an Egyptian overlord who's bullying a Hebrew slave and flees into exile. The fugitive makes a new life for himself in Midian, a land of mountains and deserts, as part of the family of Jethro (Danny Glover) and marries his daughter, Tzipporah (Michele Pfeiffer). This idyll is interrupted by the appearance of the Lord in the burning bush where Moses is given his mission to free the Hebrews from Pharaoh. The animators capture the awesomeness of this incident with great skill.
When Moses returns to confront Pharaoh, the drama is heightened when he recognizes the Egyptian ruler as his old friend and former sibling, Rameses. Both liberator and despot have conflicted feelings as they scheme to outwit each other. Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) has a less important role here than in the original, and Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short) provide comic relief as Pharaoh's sorcerers who try to thwart the Lord's purposes.
In their re-creation of the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea, the filmmakers give us a sense of the majesty of God's power one would have not thought possible in an animated movie. The dramatic climax is the Hebrews' escape from their oppressors. Moses' descent from the mountain with the Ten Commandments is only referred to briefly in a quick coda.
The Prince of Egypt is a movie for the entire family, although some of the action may be too intense for children under the age of 8. Adults and young people will find its reverent retelling of Moses' story informative and moving. One hopes Hollywood will produce more films like this one.
John Prizer is currently based in Paris.