A big-budget animated film on Moses raises hopes for the good that popular culture might do

HOLLYWOOD—The Christian press is usually treated as the poor relation of the American media. Barely acknowledged by its mainstream secular counterparts, its product is largely unknown even to people of faith who are not members of the denomination which sponsors a particular outlet. As a result, much intelligent God-centered reflection on the relationship of our culture to Christianity is marginalized, and important voices never get the wide platform they deserve.

This December DreamWorks is releasing The Prince of Egypt, a feature-length animated film about Moses. As part of their promotional campaign, the studio invited 40 or so Christian journalists from around the country to a preview screening earlier this month in Los Angeles. Their intent was to build positive word-of-mouth for the movie. But the gathering turned unexpectedly into a Christian-community building experience.

DreamWorks had hired as public relations consultants prominent members of the evangelical Protestant community so most of those assembled worked for publications of that persuasion. However, present also were representatives from Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian journals.

The first scheduled event was a tour of DreamWorks’ animation studios, but on the bus ride from the hotel to the facilities, the conversational buzz was already loud. AChristian press junket is an almost unheard of occurrence, and the journalists were taking advantage of the situation to get to know one another and to learn about each other's work.

On my bus editors of evangelical Protestant parenting magazines were exchanging information with movie critics from Catholic and Presbyterian publications. Although there was some polite small talk, most participants were eager to talk about different strategies for sharing God and the Christian way with readers on their various subjects. The half-hour ride became a kind of low-key consciousness-raising session.

The movie itself was everything we could have hoped for. A more detailed review will run in these pages the beginning of December, the week before the opening, and Christians should prepare themselves for a faith-affirming experience. The storyline follows Exodus closely, and there are fewer embellishments to the original than found in Cecil B. De Mille's 1956 live-action classic, The Ten Commandments. The Dream Works’ version creates a friendship between the young Moses and the pharaoh-to-be, Ramses. This adds an element of personal conflict to the Hebrew leader's efforts to free his people that enhances the drama.

The filmmakers use the most advanced animation techniques available to tell their story. The design is influenced by, 19th-century biblical illustrator Gustav Dore, French impressionist painter Claude Monet, and epic movie director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago). Hand-drawn two-dimensional animation is combined with state-of-the-art three-dimensional computer-generated effects to reproduce the miracles of the burning bush, the plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea. These scenes pack an emotional punch and capture the sense of awe and reverence found in the biblical text.

Throughout the making of the movie the filmmakers consulted with dozens of Christian and Jewish historians and theologians. In addition, 558 representatives of different faith communities, including Islam, viewed an early cut of the movie. Among the prominent Christians who attended were Cardinals Roger Mahony and William Keeler as well as high-profile protestants like Rev. Billy Graham, Rev. Jerry Falwell, and Dr. James Dobson. Some of their comments led to changes in the final product.

After the screening, DreamWorks put on a sumptuous buffet in the studio courtyard. At my table was a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, an evangelical Protestant, and a member of a women's political action group. Ideologically, we were evenly split between conservative and liberal. Everyone had a positive reaction to the film.

The filmmakers were praised for making their story a genuine religious experience. Some of my tablemates thought it would be an excellent device for instructing school-age children in the meaning of the text. A few of us even wondered how the backers of such a deeply spiritual production — Dreamworks’ founders Steven Spielberg and David Geffen — could remain supporters of President Clinton after his recent behavior. Everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, was outraged by the president's lies and evasions and remembered news reports of Clinton visiting with Spielberg and Geffen during his stay last month at Martha's vineyard.

The next day brought meetings with DreamWorks’ president Jeffrey Katzenberg and the movie's producer Sandra Rabins, who left the impression that if The Prince of Egypt is a hit the studio might make more religiously-themed dramas. Christian activist Dr. Ted Baehr, publisher of the family-values oriented magazine Movieguide, reminded us that up until 30 years ago the kind of co-operation between religious experts and producers encouraged by DreamWorks was the norm. Now, of course, it's rare.

The public-relations consultants for The Prince of Egypt emphasized what an effective tool for evangelization the movie could be and urged us to publicly support it for that reason. At times the line between hype and Christian commitment was blurred, but it was obvious that the consultants’ work on the film was motivated in part by religious fervor.

We all left Los Angeles enthusiastic about the movie and inspired by the other Christians we'd met and the ideas exchanged. It was a glimpse of the kind of power that might be generated by a band of believers who dedicated themselves to using popular culture to advance the faith.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.