(DISCLAIMER: All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
Writing reviews is only partly why I do this blog. The other part is getting to know you guys; finding out your likes and dislikes, your passions and the things that drive you crazy. Learning the things that make you all wonderful unique human beings and then selling that information on to advertisers. And you’re a pretty diverse bunch. In the regular cohort of commenters I’ve met evangelical Christians, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Catholics and a larger-than-I-would-have-thought-possible contingent of furries.
“Not my fault. I didn’t ask to be this gorgeous.”
And by and large we all tend to get along and I’d really like to keep it that way. Sooo…just to remind everyone, today’s movie is Prince of Egypt, a 1998 animated movie based on the story of Moses. It is not a sacred text, even though it’s narrative is based on one depicted in a sacred text. But it’s a movie. Got that? It’s just a movie. And if I make jokes about Moses, please remember that I’m mocking Moses the character played by Val Kilmer and not the actual prophet and oh God, please, please don’t kill me I have a wife and child who’d kinda miss me oh dear God I don’t want to die.
So, let’s get a little background. The story of Moses and the Israelites’ escape from Egypt is probably one of the most widely known stories in human history, and only partly because it’s a foundation text of the three big Abrahamic religions. It’s just a phenomenal story, epic, sweeping, full of spectacular miracles and human tragedy. So it’s no wonder that there have been cinematic adaptations of Exodus for almost as long as there’s been cinema. Some stories work best on the page, and then there are some that are just crying out to be translated into a visual medium. When you read about Moses parting the red sea, or the plagues, or the pillar of fire, your first thought is “Damn. I want to see that.”
Preferably without having to look at any Middle Eastern people.
Prince of Egypt was the first traditional animated movie Dreamworks made back when they were still trying to do CGI and cel animation simultaneously. I’m actually not entirely sure whose idea the movie was. More than a few sources that I’ve read have said that this was a movie Katzenberg had been trying to get made for years at Disney and failing, but in the “making of” Katzenberg actually says that it was Stephen Spielberg who suggested doing an animated remake of The Ten Commandments. Possible that both men just had the same idea of course, but the way Katzenberg tells it he makes it sound like he was wandering in the desert looking for an idea and Spielberg spake unto him. Of course, after years of having his dream project shot down, Katzenberg might have just come up with the Spielberg story as a cover: “Oh, you think this is a bad idea for a movie? Well guess who came up with that idea. Stephen Goddamn Spielberg, that’s who.”
Realising that their new company’s reputation was riding on this movie, Katzenberg and Spielberg pulled out all the stops; A-list cast, a host of former Disney animators at the top of their game and songs and music by Academy/Tony/Grammy winner Stephen Schwartz and the FUCKING ZIM!!
This movie was Dreamwork’s coming out party, a clear warning to Disney that their reign as the undisputed kings of American animation was about to come to an end. But with all the time, money and A-list talent poured into this epic, did the final movie measure up to expectations? Let’s take a look.
So the movie begins with a disclaimer asking everyone to just take a deep breath.
“Please, please don’t kill us.”
The movie begins in Ancient Egypt where the air is riven with the lashing of whips and the unmistakable sound of kvetching. As Pharaoh’s troops enter the slave quarters and kill every Hebrew infant they find, Yocheved (Ofra Haza) and her two children Aaron and Miriam hurriedly make their way to the banks of the Nile with a wicker basket. Inside is baby Moses, and Yocheved sings Deliver Us, a hauntingly beautiful lullaby, before setting the basket afloat on the river.
And every goddamn frame of this film is a work of art. Every. Goddamn. Frame.
The character designs for this movie are just masterful, hitting just the right balance between realistic and cartoony. This is what Pocahontas was aiming for and failed spectacularly. It’s also, I’m just going to get this out of the way now, the most beautiful film ever created by an American animation studio.
Sorry, not sorry, Walt. Nothing in the Disney canon matches the visuals on display here. Simply in terms of the beauty of the animation and the backgrounds, you have to go to Japan to find anything that exceeds it. I’d give this 25/20 if I could.
The basket drifts down the river, almost getting eaten by hippos, crocodiles and several trillion bacteria before washing up in the private bathing area of Queen Tuya (Helen Mirren, playing a queen of all things). Tuya opens the basket and Moses lays on the charm like a little baby Joe Tribiani.
“How you doin’?”
Unable to resist that much sheer charisma, Tuya adopts Moses right there and then. So Moses has gone from slave to third in line to the throne of the greatest kingdom on earth in one morning. Say what you will about Ancient Egypt, but that’s some impressive social mobility they got going there. I also have to make mention of this movie’s fantastic facial animations, like the epic stink-eye Tuya gives her handmaidens when they look shocked at her picking up this baby despite not even knowing where it’s been.
“Bitch, you got something to say to me?”
Fast-forward eighteen years or so and Moses (Val Kilmer) is now a Prince of Egypt…
…who spends his days drag-racing in his chariot with his older brother Rameses (Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes and I swear to almighty YHWH that is his real name). Things get out of hand when the two brothers end of trashing the temple and are brought before Pharoah Seti who is voiced by Patrick Stewart. Hear that Disney? When Dreamworks got Patrick Stewart they had him voicing the PHAROAH OF ANCIENT EGYPT. That is an appropriate use of Patrick Stewart.
This? This is not.
Also, it’s been a few paragraphs since I reminded everyone so…
Every goddamn frame.
Moving on, Pharoah chews out Rameses and basically calls him a disgrace to the dynasty, even though Moses tries to take the blame for what happened (quite rightly). This scene establishes something quite interesting; Moses is very much the favoured son in Seti’s eyes, despite the fact that he’s not his biological child. Now, it might just be that Seti feels he has to be stricter with Rameses knowing that he’ll be the one to succeed him on the throne, but we get two scenes where Seti lets his regal guard down and acts genuinely paternal towards Moses in a way he never does towards Rameses. And this is all in service of the story. Seti shows his love to Moses, a love that Moses then has to reject when he discovers his true origins. Rameses’, on the other hand, spends the entire film trying to win the love and approval of his father. And it really just feels like Seti doesn’t think Rameses is worthy of the throne. And it’s true, Moses does seem to be the more confident and well-rounded of the two, which is doubly impressive when you remember that his mother was also his grand-aunt.
No. Seriously. Look it up. Yocheved banged her nephew.
Moses tells Set that Ramses should be given a chance to prove himself, so at a banquet later that night the pharaoh declares Ramses Prince Regent and puts him in charge of rebuilding the temple he ruined. Ramses then gives Moses a green scarab ring and declares him Chief Architect and I’m sure all the other architects are just thrilled.
“Gosh, I’m such a dummy. I spent seven years training when I could have just been found by the Boss’ wife in a puddle.”
The temple priests then present their new boss with a “gift”, a Midianite woman named Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) that they found wandering in the desert. Sensing a real “you come near me, I cut you” vibe from Tzipporah, Ramses instead gives her to Moses and orders her taken to his chambers and yikes this is a sketchy scene. Tzipporah has been kidnapped from her home and given as a sex slave to the local royals and the whole scene is played waaaay to light and jokey for my taste. This is pretty fucked up. Fortunately, it doesn’t last long. When Moses goes to his chamber, he finds that Tzipporah has escaped and left one of the guards bound and gagged in his room.
And his little dogs, too!
Moses chases her but when the guards are about to discover her he instead distracts them, telling them that there’s a man bound and gagged in his room and they need to go deal with that.
“Huh. Really? That’s usually more of a “Ramses” problem.”
Moses follows Tzipporah to the slave quarters where he sees her taking water from two Hebrews, Miriam (voiced by Sandra Bullock) and Aaron (voiced by Jeff…uh,uh…Goldblum?). Now, one of my big gripes with DreamWorks is casting for star power rather than voice acting ability and Prince of Egypt is no exception to this. Sandra Bullock’s not terrible as Miriam but it’s kind of ridiculous to cast such a big name for such a small part and really distracting. Anyway, Miriam recognises Moses and thinks that he’s finally come home and Moses becomes furious at the suggestion that he was born a Hebrew. Aaron steps in and tries to pull the old “she thinks the monkey is the sultan” trick by claiming that Miriam is crazy but she refuses to be silent and yells that she is his sister and that he is the son of Yocheved.
“Also our Mom banged her nephew! I know it’s a lot to take in but you have a right to know!”
Furious, Moses says that they’ve gone and done it now and that he’s going to ensure that they’re punished for their insolence. But then Miriam sings a reprise of Deliver Us which Moses recognises.
“My mind…flooding with…baby memories!”
He runs back to the palace singing All I Ever Wanted, where Moses sings about how being a Prince of Egypt was all he ever you get the idea. It’s a great song, let down only slightly by the fact that Amick Byram, Moses’ singing voice, is just a little too polished for my liking. He just sounds like he’s trying to sound good more than carry the emotion of the song across.
Anyway, Moses falls asleep in front of a wall of hieroglyphs and has a vision where he sees Seti butchering the Hebrew children and Yocheved placing him in the basket. Since this is something that we, the audience, have already seen, the movie avoids repetition by having the scene done in the style of ancient Egyptian art, where a two-dimensional Yocheved avoids the Egyptians by hiding behind a pillar or running along the ceiling. It’s a beautiful, mesmerising sequence, even if the CGI is starting to show its age a little. I also love how the animators stayed true to the hierarchical proportion of Egyptian art, where the size of the human figures is in direct relation to their social status (Seti is gargantuan, whereas Yocheved and the other Hebrews are tiny, ant-like figures).
Shocked, Moses wakes up and realises that everything Miriam told him was true.
“Her own nephew?!?!”
Moses confronts Seti who tries to explain that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous and posed a threat to his reign.
“I never wanted you to find out. In retrospect, commissioning this huge mural was a mistake. I see that now.”
Seti embraces Moses and says “Oh my son. They were only slaves.” And Moses recoils in horror, and flees into the night. The next day, Ramses begins work on repairing the temple while Moses wanders amongst the slaves in a daze. The direction of this scene is fantastic. Before now, the slaves have been almost entirely invisible and our view of Egypt has been of the massive statues and temples, the gorgeous alabaster columns and all the wealth and opulence of the kingdom. Now though, like Moses, we are confronted with the system that makes all this possible.
On the other hand, how else are they going to get this stadium ready for the World Cup?
The slavery, brutality, blood, mud and filth are in the foreground whereas the pristine white temple is far in the distance. When Ramses speaks to Moses, he (and we, the audience) can hardly hear him over the cracking of whips and the screams of the Hebrews. Moses’ eyes and ears have now been opened and he can never see or hear the world again as he once did. Finally, Moses snaps when he sees an overseer whipping an elderly man and pushes him off some scaffolding to his death.
Moses flees the city and Ramses tries to stop him, saying that sweeping one little murder under the rug ain’t no thang. But Moses tells Ramses that he can’t go back, and tells him to ask “the man who I once called father” why that is. Moses then flees into the desert and is it time? I think it’s time.
“No words. Shouda sent a poet.”
“Jodie, what the hell time do you call this?”
One of the influences on the animators was French engraver Gustav Doré, my absolute favourite artist to the point where I got one of his pieces tattooed on my back.
Six hours. Cried like an infant.
After days of wandering in the desert and near death, Moses finally reaches a watering hole where he sees three girls being harassed by some brigands. He helps them out and then passes out and falls down a well so the girls pull him out with the help of their big sister, who turns out to be Tzipporah. Tzipporah is the daughter of Jethro (Danny Glover), high priest of Midian. The Midianites accept Moses as one of their own and over a montage set to Through Heaven’s Eyes, we see Moses remake himself as a new man, going from Prince of Egypt to humble shepherd.
He’s lambing. Lambing in the name of the Lord.
Over the montage, Moses and Tzipporah grow closer until finally he asks her a very important question.
“So…we’re absolutely sure you’re not my aunt?”
“Heh. You’re funny.”
“Hahahaha…answer the question.”
Batman and Catwoman are married and it seems like everything’s comin’ up Mosehouse. But then, while searching for a lost sheep in the mountains, Moses comes across a burning bush who tells him to take off his shoes because he stands on hallowed ground.
“I don’t want to be “that bush”, but I just hoovered in here and your shoes are literally encased in sheep faeces.”
The bush is voiced by Val Kilmer because the filmmakers reasoned that Moses would hear God speaking in his own voice (coincidentally, Val Kilmer also thinks that he hears the voice of God whenever he speaks). Moses asks the bush who he is and the bush simply replies “I AM THAT I AM”.
“AND WHAT I AM NEEDS NO EXCUSES”
Yahweh tells Moses that he has heard his people’s cries and that he has to back to Egypt to free the Hebrews and so Moses and Tzipporah haul camel back to the Middle Kingdom.
Under Ramses, the plight of the Hebrews has grown even worse as he tries to build a kingdom whose glories eclipse those of his father.
Wouldn’t be the last time Daddy issues caused problems in that part of the world.
Ramses is at first delighted to see Moses who he thinks has come back to take his place by his side. Instead, Moses tells Ramses to let his people go and that if he doesn’t, God’s going to start trouble. And you don’t want that. Dude’s got a temper. To show Ramses that he’s legit, Moses transforms his staff into a cobra and waaaaait a minute.
Are we…are we sure that Moses is working for God? ‘Cos those are two things I normally associate with…the Red Rooster
. No, no. That’s ridiculous. Because then God leads them out of Egypt and everything turns out great for the Jews OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!
“Mouse? Please stop trying to blow up six millennia of Judeo-Christian tradition with your insane fan theories.”
“BUT IT ALL MAKES SENSE!!!”
Okay, well Ramses is not impressed and commands his two court magicians, Hotep and Huy, (Steve Martin and Martin Short) to show him the power of their gods, which they do in a villain song called Playing with the Big Boys Now. Interestingly, the movie makes clear that Huy and Hotep are frauds who are just using Vegas stage magic and passing it off as divine power. But in Exodus, the magicians are the real deal, they actually do have supernatural powers, it’s just that their power is weaker than God’s. Ramses speaks with Moses privately asks him what this is all really about. And again, the movie shows us how Ramses and Moses now live in different worlds. Moses sees this…
And Ramses sees this…
When Moses persists, Ramses becomes angry and coldly says “I do not know this God.” He then orders the slaves’ workload doubled.
Aaron and the other Hebrews are a little, uh, a little, uh annoyed? But Moses gathers them together at the side of the Nile as Pharaoh’s barge goes past and calls on Ramses to let his people go. Ramses orders his guards to seize Moses who then raises his staff and turns the entire river to blood.
One of the things I love about this movie is the little details. For example, in Exodus it’s made clear that the ten plagues only effect the Egyptians and not the Israelites. Now, the movie doesn’t have time to make this explicit but it does show it in other ways.
Look at the part of the river around where Moses is standing. Neat, right?
Pharaoh orders his magicians to repeat the trick and they whip up a bowl ofKool-Aid and Pharaoh agrees to pretend that that’s just as impressive and sails off, presumably until the river scabs over and he has to get out and walk. Aaron complains that nothing’s changed and that Pharaoh still has power over them and Moses replies “Yes, Aaron, it’s true. Pharaoh has the power. He can take away your food, your home, your freedom.”
Clearly he hasn’t been listening to Mel Gibson. Then again, no one should.
He then goes on to say that Pharaoh can take away their lives, their children, their dogs, their loincloths, their little hats and can even strap a slave on each foot and force them to crawl around like human roller-skates. But he can never take their faith.
“Uh huh. Uh huh. And…would some kind of exchange be possible?”
And then, in the words of the great prophet Wayne Johnson, he who was known unto the people as “The Rock”, it is time to layeth the smacketh down.
My favourite song in the whole movie, hands down, is The Plagues. It’s a dark, ominous, chant steeped in religious symbolism and themes of obsession and Stephen Schwartz wrote this, really?
The devil, you say.
It starts off quiet and sinister with the appearance of the second plague, the frogs.
Then, as the plagues increase in number and severity the chorus gets more furiously insistent and the lyrics drive home just what Pharaoh is up against: “I send a pestilence and plagues/ Upon your cattle, on your sheep
Upon your oxen in your field/Into your dreams, into your sleep/Until you break, until you yield”.
And the beat just hammers it relentlessly. This is the power of God as something terrifying, unstoppable, merciless. Meanwhile Moses begs Ramses to see reason as he watches his beloved former childhood home succumb to fire, disease and darkness. And underneath it all, there’s the chorus, never letting up. More plagues. More pain.
Until you break. Until you yield.
But Ramses won’t give in. Because like Moses, he too has all-powerful father who he can’t forsake. The two men are more alike than they realise, something the movie makes visually explicit.
“Joker’s just a mad dog. I want who ever let him off the chain.”
At last, with Egypt shrouded in darkness “so thick that it could be felt” (mmmmph there’s some fantastic lines in Exodus) Moses visits Ramses to try and get him to see reason. He finds his brother sulking in the darkened, nearly deserted palace. Ramses remarks that Moses has always brought him trouble, and recalls a time when he goaded Ramses into switching around the heads of the various Egyptian gods. This caused the priests to lose their shit and fast for two weeks.
Although between you can me, some of the priests could use a little fasting. You get me?
Moses tells Ramses that he needs to let the Israelites go, like, now. Those other plagues? Those were just God’s way of introducing himself. That was a friendly handshake. Now, the real pain starts. But Ramses replies “I will not be dictated to. I will not be threatened. I am the morning and the evening star.” (mmmmph there’s some fantastic lines in this movie). Ramses then says that his old man had the right idea how to deal with uppity Hebrews and says that it’s time the crocodiles got another feeding. Realising that he’s been left with no choice, Moses returns to the slave quarters and tells the Hebrews to daub lamb’s blood over their doors. He says that the angel of death will visit Egypt but, if he sees the blood on their doors, he will pass over.
So now we get one of the eeriest and most beautiful sequences of the whole movie where the angel of death, represented as a glowing white vapour, enters the homes of the Egyptians and kills the first born of every household, including Ramses’ own son. Moses visits his brother again as he prepares his son for burial. Ramses refuses to even look at Moses, and simply whispers “Your people have my permission to go.”
Until you break.
Until you yield.
Outside, Moses finally buckles under the weight of all that has happened and collapses in tears. This, for me, is the single most vital scene in the entire movie. I’m not going to get into whether Moses’ actions (or God’s) were justifiable. I do think that, when you’re trying to free an entire race of people from slavery and the threat of genocide, very little can be considered morally out of bounds. And I do think that the blame for this rests very much on Ramses’ shoulders. But there still has to be recognition that what has been done to the Egyptians is heinous in the extreme. Any hint of triumphalism on Moses’ part would utterly ruin the character and destroy any sympathy the audience has for him (or should, at least). By having this scene, we at least get to see the effect that this has on him. That, as a good and decent man, he is crushed with the guilt of what he has had to do in service of his people and his God.
And so, Moses at last leads his people out of Egypt while Miriam sings When You Believe, which won Schwartz an Oscar. The adult contemporary version by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey is far too saccharine for my taste, but the one in the movie is actually genuinely uplifting. And there’s one bit, after the big swell where it goes quiet except for a small child singing a Hebrew prayer of thanks…onions. Shut up. Funnily enough, the song contains the line “There can be miracles, when you believe” which was originally “You can do miracles, when you believe” until the coterie of religious scholars that DreamWorks hired to consult on the film politely but firmly told them that, unless your name is God?
No. No you cannot.
So the Hebrews reach the red sea and everyone is looking at Moses all “so what’s we do now?”. Then, they hear a horn being blown and see Pharaoh’s army on the mountain getting ready to charge.
“Want me to take care of this?”
“Oh c’mon, that’s extreme even for me!”
A pillar of fire then descends from heaven and blocks the way of the Pharaoh’s army and God tells Moses to raise his staff over the water and the Red Sea parts. It’s a stunning sequence, but again, one of the greatest things about the movie is the little details, like the wry smile Aaron gives the other Israelites before they go through the parted sea. It’s just a nice “Yeah, I know. This looks safe, right?” expression.
“See the way half the sea goes one side, and uh, uh, half the sea goes the other side? That’s chaos theory.”
Another lovely detail is how, when the Hebrews walk along the sea-bed, they have to blindfold their livestock. I just love that the film-makers actually took the time to think about little details like that, it makes the whole movie so much richer.
The pillar of fire goes out and Ramses, now in full on “too stupid to live” mode, drives his army into the red sea after Moses.
“Okay guys? I know I do a lot of stuff that seems morally questionable from a modern perspective…but c’mon. This guy had it comin’.”
God causes the red sea to flood again and Pharaoh’s army is wiped out with the exception of Ramses, who’s left howling on the banks of the red sea like a wounded animal.
Moses continues on his way, and there is much joy and singing and dancing amongst the children of Israel.
“Tsk. Dance party ending. Typical DreamWorks.”
And so the movies ends with Moses returning from Mount Sinai with the two stone tables and cuts to credits right before things get really, really awkward.
“Okay guys, item one. One God and only one God. He was very clear on this; no idols, no statues and especially no golden cows…ARE YOU FRUCKING KIDDING ME?!?!”
The Prince of Egypt is a movie that, like Hunchback of Notre Dame, I didn’t really like as a kid but has grown and grown in my estimation in the years since. Visually, it’s damn near flawless. As a movie, a personal story of two brothers, it’s fantastic. It’s only the second movie DreamWorks ever made and seventeen years later they still haven’t topped it. Not only one of the greatest animated features ever made, but in the very top echelons of Biblical movies, right up there with The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and Ben Hur. If you need any further proof, even my wife (who tends to react to displays of overt religiosity like the little girl in The Exorcist) adores this film. If you haven’t seen it, see it. If you have, see it again. If you’re watching it right now, hook up a second TV so you can watch it twice simultaneously.
The most beautiful traditional animated feature to come out of the states.
Val Kilmer gives a subdued, but very human portrayal of Moses.
An absolutely brilliant, complex villain, tragic and human but capable of terrible evil.
Supporting Characters: 18/20
Yeah. Yeah. God is Good. Yeah. Yeah. God is great.
Not quite on par with their work for Hunchback of Notre Dame and Lion King, but still one the best soundtracks in either Stephen Schwartz’s or Hans Zimmer’s discography.
FINAL SCORE: 94%
NEXT UPDATE: 11 June 2015
NEXT TIME: June is animé month here on Unshaved Mouse, and we’re going back to Studio Ghibli with From Up on Poppy Hill.
Neil Sharpson aka the Unshaved Mouse is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer based in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday.