A Celebration of the Animated Classic “The Prince of Egypt”

You should probably know that I am a bit of a traditionalist. I am always grumbling about the overuse of CGI in films and constantly spewing the phrase “less is more”. Obviously, the genesis of computer effects has allowed the conception of amazing visual effects that were not possible before: amazing death-defying stunts which pose no threat to the actors; foreign worlds beyond the realm of quarries and papier maché; and the invention of fantastical creatures beyond that of actors having Rice Crispies glues to their face or being suffocated under heavy latex suits. Furthermore, their use in animation has allowed film production in this area to accelerate at an exponential rate, producing good quality movies without waiting on the hand-drawing of each frame.

However, for all the advancements that CGI has brought to the film industry, it has encouraged just as much laziness and corner cutting (just watch any B-movie action flick of the nineties) and has caused films of the 90s and 00s to look incredibly dated extremely quickly. Some animated features have also suffered from the effects of lazy and cheap digital animation, with some productions full of glitches, embarrassing effects that look like they’re from a PS1 game, and the cold, dead, emotionless glassy eyes of supposed beloved characters.

Admittedly, I am probably coming across as a bit of a technophobe right now; there has always been lazy filmmaking, sloppy animation, and productions, suffering from the effects of tiny budgets all before the genesis of computer effects. Also, we have been thoroughly spoilt with 3D animation from the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks (Toy Story and Shrek to name a very small few) and the success of these assures us that future generations will be able to enjoy high quality animated films for many years to come. But, my real lament is the fact that because of the efficiency and money-saving of computer-generated 3D animation which still maintains high standards, traditional 2D (in mainstream Hollywood) has been chucked out of the window with the final nail in the coffin being “The Princess and the Frog” (2009), the last hurrah of traditional animation from Disney, which had a disappointing turn-out in the box office ($246million from a $105million budget in comparison to the $591million returned from Tangled’s (2010) $260million budget).

So, with the sad realisation that such traditionally animated films are becoming rarer and rarer, let us look back on one of the greatest modern animated films of all time: “The Prince of Egypt”.

the prince of egypt poster

The second DreamWorks outing in animation was the first in a traditional style, and it was this feature that helped to establish DreamWorks as a dangerous rival to the previously dominating Disney. So what is the deal with this film? What was it doing that Disney wasn’t? Why is it so awe inspiring and well respected? Well first let’s discuss the premise…

In short “The Prince of Egypt” is a retelling of the Exodus story, documenting the life of Moses from his rescue as an infant from the cull of the Israelites’ children, up to the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. This is already a very well-known story not only from the tradition of the Christian/Judaism/Islam faiths, but from other retellings including numerous biblical children’s serials and, of course, the huge budget epic “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston as Moses.

It could be said that the story has been done to death, as not only are most people familiar with the story already but it is probably one of the most popular biblical stories used in TV serials and film. Would the 1998 outing have anything new to offer? The answer is: most definitely. The Prince of Egypt tells the tragic human side of the story, which can be often overlooked in biblical epics (we can all agree Charlton Heston has the emotional range of a teaspoon), further exploring the depths of Moses’ soul beyond any adaption, including his terrible guilt and ominous sense of responsibility that tears him away previous loyalties. It even evokes sympathy in the audience towards a character that is usually portrayed as a traditional baddie.

After Moses is rescued from the river by Pharaoh’s queen as an infant, he is raised as a member of the Egyptian royalty, having no clue about his original Israelite roots. He forms a strong bond with his older foster-brother, Rameses, the heir to the Egyptian throne, fiercely defending him when he receives a severe chewing-out by his father (for usually some trick that was Moses’ idea). However, his royal childhood has made him a spoiled brat showing no care to the suffering of his true brethren who are kept as slaves by the Egyptians. A chance encounter with his biological brother and sister (Aaron and Miriam) ignites an epiphany in Moses in which he not only learns of his true heritage, but also of the massacre of the Israelite innocents by his foster-father. Horrified, Moses disowns him. From then on, Moses is unable to close his eyes to the pain inflicted upon his people, especially that inflicted by his beloved brother’s architectural whims. Moses becomes so distressed and enraged by the situation that he ends up killing a slave-driver, and in his guilt, runs away into the desert.

In the desert Moses finds atonement, starting a new life with a nomadic tribe. Whilst guarding his father-in-law’s sheep, he becomes entranced with a burning bush – burning with a heavenly light. Upon this sight, Moses encounters the voice of the God of the Israelites who commands him to return to Egypt to liberate his people. Moses is shocked and aghast, he feels unworthy of the task. After all, he is the son of the man who murdered their children. At Moses’ refusal, God bluntly reminds him of his divinity and therefore total authority, having created all of humanity. God then turns to gently comfort Moses, seeing that he is frightened by the unfathomable supernatural force before him. God assures Moses he will guide him throughout the journey, entrusting his power to Moses’ disposal. With this revelation, Moses realises his responsibility to his continually suffering brothers and sisters back in Egypt, and feeling assured with the support from God, he returns to fulfil his destiny. However, in his absence, his older brother has finally ascended to the throne and is causing even more misery towards the Hebrews. Rameses is absolutely overjoyed by the return of his younger brother but becomes confused, hurt and angry when he realises that he has only returned to take away his slaves. The situation is only worsened by the fact that Rameses is incredibly paranoid in his kingship, terrified that he will bring the end to his family’s ruling dynasty. The threat Moses poses to his total authority makes him stubborn and hardened, refusing to meet Moses half-way. Unfortunately, Moses’ obligation to his people means Rameses’ lack of co-operation incurs the wrath of God, bringing destruction and pain upon himself and the Egyptians much to Moses’ grief. Despite the triumphs and the victories of the Israelites, Moses is left to wonder at what cost.

It would be a lie if I informed you that the movie does not focus on the religious and supernatural aspect of the story as other adaptations do, as Moses’ relationship with God in the movie is extremely important. However, previous adaptations (especially those directed at children) simplified the conflict between the Pharaoh and Moses, making it very black and white, with Moses being on the side of God depicted as righteous over Rameses. In contrast, The Prince of Egypt is unafraid to show the grey and very human side of the conflict, Moses’ obedience to God alienates him from his beloved older brother and arguably causes the suffering of innocents. This movie serves as a fable that sometimes following what you believe in is never an easy thing and can spur the derision of those who you hold dearest upon yourself. Despite The Prince of Egypt being a “family film”, this production does not pull its punches in delivering this somewhat grim message to younger viewers, even if it does still offer the comfort that those who strive for goodness will always have support, no matter how small, and that this support can always grow; that goodness does have the power to triumph over evil.

On the topic of younger audiences, this film must receive the praise it deserves for never being condescending to the audience and treating children as intellectuals. I had a religious upbringing and I can honestly say that there are an awful lot of sub-par biblical TV serials and movies aimed at children out there. Many of these are incredibly laughable (even for my 8 year old self all those years ago) as they water down the topics and content of these stories so that the true message cannot be properly discerned. The Prince of Egypt is a shining example of a children’s movie that delivers mature content to children in a manner that is not too frightening but still gets the deep message across – the sooner that children are encouraged to explore the concepts of life, death, religion, faith, good and evil, the better these explorations can contribute to their personal development.

The film excels among other animated features not only in plot but also in animation. It is a perfect choice for a 2D animation nostalgia hit, but it also incorporates CGI effects. The careful mix between hand drawn and digital animation produces an incredible realism to the movie. Such moments as the turning of water to blood, the parting of the Red Sea, the construction of the Egyptian temples, and Moses’ dream sequence are utterly breath-taking, the scale of which hadn’t been seen in animation before this picture’s release in 1998. The temples and palaces are a regal symbol of the prosperity of the Egyptian pharaohs, the desert seems endless, the red sea an impenetrable barrier, and the plagues sent by God seem truly terrible. Never in a movie have I been convinced by God’s omnipotence as when I watched the rain of fire upon the Egyptians and the angel of death sweep across the land in this movie. The burning bush scene alone is a masterpiece of animation and is possibly one of the best depictions of God I’ve ever seen.

The high quality of the film can also be attributed to its stellar cast including the likes of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes (ever-the-perfect-villain) as Rameses, Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Martin Short and Steve Martin. This movie may not have had as much precedence or received as much attention without this cast and it also assured that the voice talents were of the highest quality. I especially give credit to the leads, Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes; I don’t know if they recorded together but there seems to be a genuine love between the two characters and I was absolutely convinced by Moses’ guilt and desperation and Rameses pain at the apparent betrayal.

What finally made this great film a true epic was the fantastic score and soundtrack. “He who prays sings twice”, a statement that is very true for this film: the film begins with “Deliver us” embodying the outcry of the Israelites for their God to save them and then ends with the award winning “When You Believe” used as their subsequent rejoicing and thanking of God for the miracles he has performed for them. Music is used in all the great emotional points of the movie and emphasises those moments. It is perhaps best used in the Plagues sequence that not only shows the antagonism between the brothers but also describes the crushing of Moses under the weight of his duty “And even now I wish that God had chose another, Serving as your foe on his behalf is the last thing I wanted…” I have shivers just recounting those words.

To conclude, I’d suggest that if you want a trip down the 2D memory lane, The Prince of Egypt is the door I recommend you knock on as you’ll be greeted with a great story that’s excellent for children but just as good for adults, with great animation, a great cast and a great score. Enjoy!

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