The Prince of Egypt (1998)

D: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
S: Voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer

Rather bloodless rehash of the story of Moses, far from the first attempt to tell it and certainly not among the best. Truncated and rewritten to suit the demands of a would-be Disney-style rendering, DreamWorks SKG's version suffers from an excess of ambition and a lack of courage. To be fair, the pressures of dealing with a figure whose place in the religious life of so many people (from several different belief systems) can't have been conducive to a good script, but executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg was probably as eager to prove secular points to his former Disney bosses as to make any political or religious statements.

The film concentrates on the sibling rivalry between Moses and Rameses (one of the film's avowed rewritings of 'history'), following the revelation of God to the former. Moses is voiced capably by Val Kilmer, with Ralph Fiennes playing a much more complex role as Rameses (not quite villainous, not quite sympathetic). A variety of big name actors voice supporting roles including Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Martin Short and Steve Martin. It is scored by Hans Zimmer with original songs by Stephen Schwartz.

Moses is certainly one of humankind's most fascinating figures, and ripe for filmic treatment. His story is even a perfect opportunity to elaborate upon religious themes, and indeed comment upon social and political attitudes relative to our perception of the time. How individual people and groups react to this kind of writing or rewriting of the 'facts' (which, are, remember, still in dispute) will inevitably depend entirely upon their predisposition to them. The Prince of Egypt falters however on a far more basic level, with weak characterisation and a lack of edge in its portrayal of human conflict.

The problems are entirely in the writing, which has been undertaken with the obviously unhelpful advice of various religious consultants and tempered by the concerns of political correctness. Despite some strong political reactions to the film (as Zionist trope, as anti-Egyptian propaganda, etc.), the primary flaw is that its narrow focus tends to relegate much of the action to an impressive light show, with God making a nicely spectacular contribution in the form of plagues, the pillar of fire and the parting of the red sea, but really doing nothing more than causing a family tiff which happens to free some slaves (again, a questionable 'reality'). Moses and Rameses go toe to toe as brothers separated by politics and religion, and the film tries hard to establish a sense of mutual love and respect beneath these differences which is eventually worn away (providing us with an element of tragedy). Yet the battle is fought in the name of God and over the lives of the Hebrews. The latter are portrayed as little more than cyphers, with some initial attempts to add depth to Moses' characterisation via his sister Miriam (voiced by Sandra Bullock) and brother Aaron (voiced by Jeff Goldblum). Robbed of the darker dimensions of the Moses story (the doubts and failures of the Hebrews during the exodus), they become empty vessels for a story of liberation by powers beyond their comprehension, meaning both God and the political world represented by Moses and Rameses. The former, as observed, seems more like an excuse for big action scenes than a real and tangible moral presence, and despite the presence of themes of revelation, social justice, righteousness, superstition, etc, it boils down to a confrontation between brothers which can't sustain them.

Moses is himself denied his full range of humanity, with his own pride and doubt completely abandoned once he encounters the pleasures of sheep herding and marriage, and then encounters the burning bush. Much like Charlton Heston in Cecil B. De Mille's second version of The Ten Commandments, character development virtually stops once God appears, which is a careful, respectful attitude on the part of the film makers which drains the film of any drama it might have had afterward. He is also denied his sins in the desert and his final punishment by denial of access to the promised land (never mentioned in the Hebrews' hopes for freedom here. It is as if freedom itself is adequate, having somewhere to go seems irrelevant). Rameses is a more difficult proposition, and the film does well in its attempt at a nuanced characterisation. He is saddled with the burden of political leadership and the necessity to show strength while attempting compassion. He does eventually surrender to villainy of course, but he remains a whole character when Moses has long become merely a vessel for divine intervention, which makes the confrontation less human and emotional than it should be for the drama to work. The secondary characters suffer the same fate as Moses, and after some initial attempts to introduce and develop several, the film simply drops them into the multitude who follow the hero and gape at God's wonders with suitable awe and respect.

On the level of animation, the film is well crafted but not exceptional. Its mixture of traditional and contemporary techniques allows for some spectacular scenes, and an attempt has been made to explore certain design concepts in character animation which match a 'rounded' feel to hieroglyphic representations (a stylish dream sequence cleverly blends the two). Yet it seems somehow less impressive than when done live in The Ten Commandments. It is as if the freedom of animation promises more than the film can deliver, and though its makers have tried hard to match and surpass previous versions of the big special effect highlights, they are treading familiar ground with superior technology and producing nothing particularly different (apart from the rather erotic portrayal of the female body throughout).

There has been a conscious attempt here to push the animated film further than it has gone before, especially in its tackling of a religious subject (it is as if Katzenberg has responded to Pocahontas with an even more potent 'true-life' character). But the result is neither radical nor surprising, not helped by its dramatic flaws and its pedestrian songs. Hans Zimmer's score is frequently excessive, and in their attempts to impress the viewer with complex action (the chariot race, for example), the makers have lost sight of the substance of what they are attempting to do. Of course your reaction to the film might well turn on what you feel that is, and there have been, as I said, several strong political reactions to the material. This alone is worthy of note, and makes the film significant in the animation renaissance of the late twentieth century. Yet it is disappointing to feel as empty as you do upon viewing The Prince of Egypt, sensing neither commitment nor sincerity on the part of its makers to do anything but attempt a project which must have terrified them beyond the ability to do anything but see that the task was completed with as much technical prowess as they could muster. It lacks, dare I say, a religious centre, or at least a human heart; a sense of why this story needed to be told again and what value it has for contemporary people. It is ephemeral, incidental, and superficial in a way which is more disheartening than it is offensive. Of course this is not to say that an even more slavishly 'faithful' rendering would have been any better, but it would be nice to think that a story as powerful as this one can inspire us without meaningless embellishment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.