Director: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
Cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin, Martin Short
Plot: Orphaned Jew, Moses (Kilmer) is adopted by the Pharaohs, unaware of his heritage, until God makes him the spokesman for the Egyptian slaves.
When it came to animation back in the year of 1998, Walt Disney had the market covered. While the 70s and 80s were troubling times for the animation company, the 90s saw the studio pick up its mantle with some of its greatest successes. Time had been kind to them. After all, who were the competition? Arguably there are no other animation companies with the scale of Walt Disney’s studio. However, the 90s saw all of that change with Pixar releasing the outstanding Toy Story and, a few years later, Dreamworks Animations rising to the challenge with Antz and The Prince of Egypt. While the Prince of Egypt hasn’t stood the test of time as well as Toy Story has, it is a stunning piece of film-making that forced Disney to prepare for its first major rivalry.
The Prince of Egypt even feels like a film preparing to go to war with Disney, almost every inch of this production aimed at spectacle, grandeur and depth. While Disney mine their ideas from popular literature, moulding it into child-friendly reinterpretations, Dreamworks go one bigger and simply adapt the Bible into a story. For those of you unaware of the famous Biblical story, it revolves around the era of the Pharaohs and their enslavement of the surrounding Hebrews. As Patrick Stewart’s cruel Pharaoh slaughters any Jew that could over-throw him and enslaving the weak, baby Moses is put in a basket and put in a river, the tide carrying him away from the massacre in his village. Moses’ basket is found by the very Pharaohs who tried to kill him, although, unaware of his heritage, they adopt him and treat them as one of their own. Fast forward to their older years and Moses is the adopted brother of Ramesses, the heir of the kingdom. The pair of them are as thick as thieves, although Ramesses has the weight of his position on his shoulders. However, Moses stumbles upon the truth of his adopted parents and their murder of his people, sending him on a path that leads to him finding the Voice of God and taking arms against his brother, in order to put an end to slavery in Egypt. It is considered one of the most powerful inserts in the Bible with memorable moments and grand messages about the betterment of humanity. While the move to adapt it into a children’s film might seem risky to some, risking angering the religious and turning off the atheists, Dreamworks looked through the potential obstacles and saw the potential for dramatic strength. Moses’ story can be whittled down to a story between two brothers, both sent on radically different journeys. While God’s message and the contextual readings are inescapable, this is so much more than a Sunday school film that waters down the content for the good of the sermon.
The animators see fit to not shy away from the content of the story and throw themselves into depicting each scene as realistically and as brutally as possible. The Prince of Egypt often wades into a dark tone, as it hammers home its message. While shown through the use of hieroglyphics, it is hard to get past a plot point where Patrick Stewart throws babies into a river of crocodiles, when his rule is threatened. It’s not just the cruel Egyptians who get the most gruesome scenes, as Moses’ siege on Egypt has its own share of uncomfortable moves. Arguably the most iconic scene in the entire film sees God sending a plague into the town, which takes the life of every first-born male heir. The direction is stunning, making sure the scene is done as tastefully as possible. A white light claims the lives of the young. One boy walks through a door with a jug of water, only for his hand and the jug to roll out after him. Yet, as restrained as the violence of this film tries to be, the material is clear in its meaning. Monsters are made of both sides of this holy war. The way to keep this in the realms of family friendliness is to put as much thought into the fun scenes as well, creating a well-rounded experience. Time is spent honing the two brothers before their great dispute, a well-directed chariot race scene, setting them out to be charismatic daredevils. Even then their positions are made clear, Ramesses taking the high road over the roofs, while Moses thrives from the lower position. By the time, they are at war, the visuals are stunning. The parting of the Red Sea was the big moment and Dreamworks perfect it from the Hans Zimmer grandiose score to the flashes of light that illuminate the giant creatures lurking in the waves inches from the characters. It must be a joy for a young child to rediscover such moments for the first time, swept up in the magic of cinema. That being said, Prince of Egypt struggles with making the entire film one for the kids. Perhaps the film is at its weakest, when it panders to them. Several musical asides, clearly emulating the current Disney classics, are a swing and a miss, harkening to be the kind of film that Prince of Egypt isn’t really comfortable being. Perhaps the only way Dreamworks could justify getting this risky movie made was by including such songs, but time has proven that they only get in the way of a cinematic triumph.
But the key thing that makes Prince of Egypt so gripping to me is the portrayal of Ramesses, the villain of the piece. With religious movies, you expect the telling of the story to be fairly black and white. Moses was the hero who led humanity away from the monsters of the past and into the ways of the future. But the writing team blur the lines between good and evil here slightly. Of course, slavery is still depicted as bad, trademark scenes of old workers stumbling in the sand and getting whipped by over-zealous slave-drivers. And, even when Moses taints his soul with the plagues he unleashes on Ramesses’ kingdom, he is idolised as the hero of the film. He is redeemed by referencing the brutality of his actions and the fact he reaches out to Ramesses to avoid the destruction every step of the way. However, where the film diverts from the usual religious story-telling, is that Ramesses doesn’t entirely feel like a monstrous bad guy here. In fact, from a certain angle, the ruler is a victim of circumstance. This is a clear purposeful move here, as the narrative spends time showing the character as the playful brother, painting him as something other than the one-dimensional antagonist. Even when he becomes Pharaoh, from his point of view, you can see why he fights back. Slavery has been a part of his country for so long, he isn’t so much selfishly fighting for domination, but defending his land from terrorism. In fact, he foregoes pointless killing, hoping his adopted brother will come to his sense in time. Even when the plagues start hitting, he is manipulated by his advisors into thinking that he is doing the work of the Gods himself. The only time he truly embraces the role of murderous villain is after the tragic killing of his firstborn son, which arguably justifies his rage-filled quest for vengeance. This personification of an archetype adds depth and power to the Prince of Egypt. Ralph Fiennes’ casting works wonders too, yet another superb villain role to the add to the actor’s rogue gallery catalogue. The emotional dialogue compliments the animator’s facial pain during the heart-breaking scenes perfectly. When the, apparently evil, ruler is seen, bending over the corpse of his dead son, illuminated only by one glorious shaft of lighting, even those adamantly supporting Moses’ plight will feel a prang of regret at the actions of the slaves. Perhaps the message is this: the real villain here is humanity’s ignorance, a closing thought which works much better than the usual children’s movie answer of writing in a megalomaniacal figure that can be bested.
Final Verdict: Dreamworks ambitions were colossal, but the pay-off is superb with a three-dimensional motion picture that blends visual with emotional wonderfully.