Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Prince of Egypt (Dreamworks, 1998)

Well, Amblimation may have tanked after only three movies, but you can’t keep a good Spielberg down, and since he’d just recently founded a new studio with recording mogul David Geffen and former Disney exec and bad-decision-maker Jeff Katzenberg. So he trucked over Simon Wells and his animators and set them to making another animated film, now under the Dreamworks banner, with much better funding and infrastructure. And if there’s one thing Spielberg likes to tell stories about, it’s the plight of the Jewish people so...





Plot Summary

Short version for those who don’t know: Way way back many centuries ago, the Hebrews were an enslaved race in Egypt*, forced to build pyramids**. Pharaoh*** thought there were too many of them and feared an uprising, so he had all their babies killed*. One of those babies was floated downriver, where it was found and raised by the Pharaoh’s wife as a prince, brother to the future Pharaoh*. Years later, the child, Moses, learned of his ancestry and was visited by the god of his people****. He returned to his brother, who was now Pharaoh***, and visited him with apocalyptic plagues** until he freed every slave in Egypt**. And they all lived happily ever after*****.

* Probably didn’t happen.

** Definitely didn’t happen.

*** Father and son are both just called Pharaoh in the bible. This movie makes them Seti I and Ramesses II, which many think to be the pharaohs depicted in the Bible, but if you look at the evidence, then l think you’ll find that **.

**** That one’s up to you.

***** Just kidding. They did a bunch of genocide and had to wander around for 40 years because Moses got uppity.

"Hey, Moses, who am I? Check it out, who am I? I'm Antonio Banderas in Evita."

Good Thing

There are two things when adapting a bible story that must be extremely difficult. The first is characters, and they did that remarkably well. The characters of the Bible are archetypes at best, and that’s when they show any depth at all. The decision in this movie to focus entirely on the relationship between Moses and Ramesses was absolutely the right call. Ramesses is portrayed not as a cold, heartless king, but as a man struggling with the weight of a dynasty, desperate to not be the weak link Seti thought he would be. Likewise, Moses isn’t some towering, majestic messenger of God, like Charlton Heston’s rather goofy performance. He’s a shy man who was happy living out in the wilderness with his wife, and feels the burden of his God’s terrifying orders. The two want nothing more than to be the friends and brothers they were as children, but they are completely at odds, both fighting against an implacable foe, both unable to back down because of the reason they’re there. Moses is often framed with shots of nature or his people, Ramesses is often framed with enormous statues of his father or his gods. And while the other characters are rather thin, they’re supported by this excellent framework.

Bad Thing

The other hard thing, unfortunately, they don’t do so well, and that’s the construction of the story. The Bible was, of course, purporting to be actual history, and as such, the stories can be a little point-by-point and rarely have any actual conclusion. This results in a movie with big sudden rushes of plot and then long stretches of wheel spinning. And while they do effectively portray the misery of the slaves, the fact that none of the Hebrews except Moses and to a lesser extent Aaron are active characters does mean their plight is a bit more like a MacGuffin than anything. There’s one other story issue, but we’ll get to that. First...

Polite of God to leave a little non-bloody area to stand in.

Good Thing

This is probably the best looking movie I’ve reviewed for this blog. The animation is insanely good, with none of that weird late-90s CGI integration. There is CGI, mind, but it’s absolutely seamless. The characters are consistent and dynamic, and stylized while still having a higher standard of realism than Disney was using at the time. The 10 plagues were particularly good looking. SPEAKING OF...

Bad Thing

The other problem with Bible stories... Unless you already believe in them... Okay, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’m going to rip this band-aid off. God is an absolute psycho in this story. Just a full blown lunatic. He murders thousands of people who have nothing to do with the enslavement of the Hebrews, up to, including, and specifically targeting CHILDREN. And due to the aforementioned character-driven and humanistic nature of the story, the movie seems to be on my side here. I wouldn’t even call it a “bad thing” as such if not for the fact that we’re clearly supposed to be on his side. The first nine plagues are portrayed with a musical montage of fairly shocking brutality, and tenth is covered by a scene where the hand of God is shown TERRORIZING the Hebrews and MURDERING the Egyptian children ON SCREEN. So if the movie was going for it, they did so very effectively, but then at the end, Moses walks down the mountain with some commandments, all smiling at his people’s happiness. It’s jarring, and God is clearly in the wrong. And he’s even worse in the Bible, when Pharaoh is ready to change his mind, and God changes it FOR HIM just to show off some more.

And don’t think for a second it doesn’t make me nervous that no religious authorities had an issue with the way God was played in this. They ran this story past Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, and they were all fine with it. It was only banned in one Muslim country, and you KNOW how conservative Muslims with political power feel about depictions of their prophets. They are usually not on board. Anyway, I’ll let David Willis cover this aspect...

Read more at Also, my favorite webcomic ever.

Good Thing

Speaking of that plagues song, the music is great. Remember how I once said that Stephen Schwartz can’t do whimsy well, but he can do  portentous, overdramatic anguish well? Well, it’s a Bible movie, so portentous overdramatism is the way to go! Even the comic relief get a scary song.

Bad Thing

Speaking of the bible, the women of the story get so little to do. Once again, they try to amend this by giving them each some featured moments, but with the plot already written in (alleged) history, it just makes them cheerleaders for the men. Moses’s wife is introduced as kind of a fun badass (their romance is one of the film’s montages, and is just adorable), but as soon as they marry, she’s just the lady standing behind Moses. But hey, at least there wasn’t a sequel, or else they would have had to figure out what to do with her when Moses was leading a bloody genocide against her people. The Bible! You know they give that book to kids?

You can also buy them these, if you're some kind of freak.
Good Thing

Most of the voice acting is just astoundingly good, perfectly complimenting the animation. Ralph Fiennes as Ramesses is a particular standout, with a lot of extremely tricky emotions to play. Patrick Stewart also rocks as Seti. He rarely gets to play a straight up villain, and the cold indifference in his voice as he discusses the slaughter of the Hebrew infants is legitimately chilling. He slightly modifies his famous voice to sound more like Ralph Fiennes, which was good. Jeff Goldblum plays Aaron, which was a bit jarring for a moment, but I quickly got into it. Rather than immediately becoming Moses’s faithful sidekick as he does in the Bible, Aaron is cast as the scornful doubter, bitterly mocking the spoiled rich boy leader and his apparently uncaring god. It’s career-best work from Goldblum, seriously. And speaking of jarring, I braced for the worst when I heard Steve Martin and Martin Short as the court magicians, but while they were comic relief, they still maintained an air of dignity and menace that I did not expect from two comics.

Bad Thing

AND THEN SOMEONE CALLED VAL KILMER. There’s only one voice in the film I have a problem with. Michelle Pfeiffer and Sandra Bullock as Tzipporah and Miriam, his wife and sister, are bland but acceptable, but Val Kilmer as Moses is so dull and bland and out of place, especially when sharing the stage with Ralph Feinnes. The intent, I assume, was to emphasize the humility and hesitance of this interpretation of Moses, but the just comes across as flat. Kilmer also plays the voice of God (insert your own joke about God being a voice in your head), and does a much better job at that. His God is so full of quiet menace, and it’s quite creepy and fitting with the God required for this story who is, as I mentioned, kind of a monster. Kilmer’s singing double also sounds nothing like him. Most of them are fine, if somewhat pointless. I mean, Brian Stokes Mitchell sings for Danny Glover’s character, just hire Brian Stokes Mitchell to play the part. He’s got a great voice, and there’s only like four non-singing lines. Nice work for Danny Glover, I guess. Fiennes, Martin, and Short do their own singing, and good for them. Moses’s mom is played by an Israeli singer who recorded her part in 17 languages for the dubs, so hey, good for her.

"Hey, quick show of hands, do we really want to worship this guy? Aaron? I know you're on the fence about him already."


Do see this movie. It looks fantastic, the songs are great, and the character work is phenomenal. But do be prepared for a movie that is more good looking than well-written. There are a number of very compelling moments nestled snugly into a plot that’s a little creepy as soon as you give it any thought. In short, it’s a movie that speaks strongly to the emotions, but can’t withstand much input from the brain. Again, make your own joke about religion. I’m trying not to annoy anyone. I’ve got a blog to run here.


* The Ten Commandments is really a super-goofy movie. It’s not bad, as 1950s Technicolor Epics go, but it’s incredibly silly. The plague of blood is the best part. Aaron turns the weirdly yellow river red, and some extra yells “The water is turning into blood!” Then a fountain of a god starts flowing red and someone yells “Blood flows from the god!” Then they cut to a wide shot of the same, and someone yells “It is blood!” Holy cow, guys, we get it.

"God has made the water into blood!" "I'm more concerned about whatever was wrong with it before."

* Probably shouldn’t say holy cow around Moses. He gets tetchy. Bible joke.

* Katzenberg wasn’t solely a bad decision maker, by the way. I know I like to poke fun at him here for his dumber choices, but he did spearhead the Disney Renaissance, and made a lot of other good choices. It just took him a while to adjust to animation, and The Black Cauldron is not a great place to start your career. He’s the big animation guy at Dreamworks, and they generally do all right... with some missteps. As we shall see.

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