The Prince of Egypt (review)

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Gods and Monsters

With all the uproar over the historical accuracy of animated features like Pocahontas and Anastasia, it’s a wonder there isn’t a similar hue and cry over The Prince of Egypt. Could it be that the audience realizes that the story of Moses, while a beautiful and inspiring one, is too mythic and improbable to actually be true, and therefore isn’t worth nitpicking? Have people come to their senses enough to realize that they don’t want to be teaching their kids to worship a deity that smites innocent children in their beds?

Ah, but I get ahead of myself. The Prince of Egypt is a fairly faithful rendition of the biblical story of Moses, from his being cast adrift as a baby on the Nile by his Hebrew mother to prevent him from becoming another victim of the genocidal Egyptians to his eventual return to his people to lead them from slavery into freedom. That by-the-Book policy means this film depicts not the benevolent God modern-day religions talk about but the nasty, Old Testament Yahweh, the one who rains fire and plagues of locusts and frogs down on the Egyptians enslaving his chosen people.
That vindictive God is the central figure in perhaps The Prince of Egypt‘s most powerful scene. In a quiet and terrifying sequence, like a dark Goya painting come to life, Yahweh, who has sworn to punish the Egyptians further when all the plagues don’t have the desired effect, steals through the city one night, killing all the first-born Egyptian children, innocents all.

For a while, as I watched The Prince of Egypt, I thought there was a sly, subversive undertone at work. There’s a marvelous scene in the film in which Moses and two Egyptian priests engage in a kind of “my god can beat up your god” battle, and Ra and friends do seem to hold their own against Yahweh. I thought: Wow, the filmmakers are daring to give the Egyptian gods the same credence they’re giving the Hebrew one — in effect saying that Ra is as likely to exist as Yahweh. But the film cops out in the end, later showing the Egyptian priests to be nothing by illusionists and Yahweh as truly mighty.

That probably had something to do with the religious advisors to the makers of The Prince of Egypt, who reportedly had a big problem with the way the film originally depicted the voice of God: as an amalgam of voices, young and old, male and — here’s the dealbreaker — female. Apparently it was just too offensive to suggest that God might be a chick. But no problem if God is a vengeful, vicious kinda guy — in fact, it’s says he is right there in the book.

So it seems that it’s the ordinary folks and not their religious leaders who are being the sensible ones here. Instead of complaining about details that don’t match those in a lovely but fictional work of mythological, allegorical literature, lay audiences can enjoy The Prince of Egypt as a ripping yarn, and one that is ravishing to look at. From a dream sequence in which hieroglyphics come to life to lifelike reflections on water and the perfectly captured texture of a basket, The Prince of Egypt‘s animation is simply stunning. Animated fire and the shadows it casts are brilliant and exquisite, as are the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea sequences. Much of the animation is gloriously stylized — the influence of Egyptian art is evident in the thin, elongated body of the queen.

The script may be a little stilted and lacking in passion, but with the exception of the always wooden Sandra Bullock (Practical Magic) as Miriam, Moses’s true sister, the voice cast is fabulous and includes Val Kilmer (The Ghost and the Darkness) as Moses and God, Ralph Fiennes (The Avengers) as Ramses, Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: Insurrection) as Pharaoh Seti, and Helen Mirren as the queen.

Whether you’re a believer or not, The Prince of Egypt is highly entertaining.

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