The Greatest Story Never Told

The Prince of Egypt offers up the 10 commandments of (brotherly) love

DreamWorks' grandiose attempt at an animated feature for adults is a flimsy musical about Moses--a Sunday-school film strip writ ultralarge and decked out with the spectacle of Hollywood Bible epics. Slender sermons nestle among flashy action sequences and diaphanous fashion statements from the more tasteful pages of the Nefertiti's Secret catalogue. Although prayerful snatches of the Hebrew language can be heard in a couple of songs, the phrase "the Hebrews" first crops up in conversation approximately a half-hour into the movie. The Prince of Egypt's messages could apply to any religion, sect or victim group, and are expressed in choruses and refrains suitable for learning by rote, including "There can be miracles when you believe," and "You must look at your life through heaven's eyes." Long before the Egyptian army meets its watery demise in the Red Sea, the movie itself drowns in banalities.

The animation is as uninspired as it is gigantic. In the one genuine imaginative stroke here, hieroglyphic panels come alive to dramatize the Pharaoh's slaughter of Hebrew babies. The movie tries to impress the heavenly heck out of you with sobriety as well as calculated dynamism. It aims to suck in Ned Flanders without alienating Bart Simpson.

It's as if the filmmakers are dropping pyramids on your head. The DreamWorks creative team devised cunning combinations of traditional animation and computer animation to conjure thousands of slaves and hundreds of charioteers moving through vast, towering settings. But all they achieve emotionally is an ersatz awe. As soon as you endure the introductory evocation of Hebrew slaves manufacturing bricks and dragging them by the ton under the Egyptian lash, you know what you're in for--punishment posing as enlightenment. Even Moses' trip down the Nile in a baby basket becomes an apocalyptic voyage: The swaddled prophet barely makes it past a pair of battling hippopotamuses to a placid, aristocratic bathing area and the arms of his royal stepmother.

Although they want the movie to appeal to grown-ups, the directors and writers dumb down the story in a touchy-feely sort of way. They turn their epic into a hybrid centering on an identity crisis. It's half The Ten Commandments, half Ben-Hur--and it doesn't leave enough oxygen between kinetic blowouts and young-adult angst for any Old Testament fervor to catch fire. Once the movie cuts ahead from Moses' infancy, the major relationship isn't between Moses and his God, or between Moses and his brother Aaron, his sister Miriam, or his wife Tzipporah. It's the totally invented bond between one Prince of Egypt, Moses, and another, Rameses--Moses' playmate and brother. This way, once the adult Moses takes up the Hebrews' burden and confronts Egyptian tyranny, the animators get to restage Ben-Hur and his pal Messala hugging and tussling all over again. Moses and Rameses thrash out whether two men's boyhood affection can survive their political antagonism, not as Jew and Roman (as in Ben-Hur), but as Jew and Egyptian.

Of course, that emphasis takes the blunt edges off the vengeful and chauvinistic aspects of the story. On the brink of manhood, when Moses discovers that he's actually a Hebrew, he warbles mournfully that all he ever wanted was the royal Egyptian lifestyle. Even after he assumes his role as the Hebrews' earthly deliverer--even after God throws his arsenal against Egypt--this Moses just about tells Rameses, "It hurts me as much as it hurts you." But the movie is still about the Exodus. For the core saga to go over, the audience must experience a burst of revolutionary energy and faith. Instead, what The Prince of Egypt gives us is more like tea and sympathy--Moses weeps over Egypt's ruins while Miriam and Tzipporah tunefully rally the Hebrew people.

In The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille's gloriously gaudy 1956 version of the story (De Mille first did it as a silent in 1923 with an interspersed modern morality tale), Charlton Heston's Moses was a stalwart fellow even when he was a prince of Egypt. He was a humane slave driver, while Yul Brynner's Rameses was an imperious, double-dealing schemer. These two were never buddies, much less brotherly. They were rivals--for the hand of a sexpot princess and for the throne of the old Pharaoh. Everyone in every class of Egyptian life seemed to spend his spare time siding with Rameses or Moses.

On this sturdy spine De Mille hung diverse flirtations and skullduggery, giving melodramatic traction to Moses' emergence as liberator of the Hebrews and spokesman for universal freedom.

In The Prince of Egypt, less is less. Supporting characters and scandals and divine retribution take a back seat to the platonic love between Moses and Rameses. The upshot is a self-consciously sensitive and woefully internal rendering of an age of miracles. It's fitting that Val Kilmer, the same actor who gives voice to Moses, also gives voice to God Himself. Proper faith comes off as an outgrowth of self-esteem. When Moses argues with the grown Rameses to let his people go, he's not just an Old Testament prophet; he's also a New Age prophet urging his old friend to change and grow. Until then Moses and Rameses are evenly weighted in emotional depth and virtue. Far from being a standup guy, Moses is a scamp, goading Rameses into high jinks like a chariot race that topples a temple (and, of course, recalls Ben-Hur). Rameses is a well-trained aristocrat shaking under the psychological oppression of his royal destiny.

It's up to Moses to persuade Rameses' father Pharaoh Seti that all the kid needs is a chance to prove himself. That's not good for the Jews. Rameses ends up following the racial guidelines of dear old Dad, the same Pharaoh Seti who ordered the tossing of Hebrew infants into crocodile-infested waters.

As a consequence of the tortured buddyhood at the movie's heart, the morals in The Prince of Egypt are more psychological than, well, moral. Rameses turns out to be an arrested adolescent, still trying to please Daddy. Moses matures: not just because he finds out that he's a Hebrew, not just because he comes face to burning bush with God, but because, yes, he looks at himself through heaven's eyes. Moses and Rameses wailing about how sad it is that they once called each other brother--that's the emotional undercurrent the film provides for the devastation of the plagues and for the parting and terrible reunification of the Red Sea. Rather than humanize the drama, this focus softens and diminishes it.

The plagues and bloodletting are perfunctory--a testament to the film's family-hour sensibility. It's understandable that the moviemakers wanted to avoid turning their picture into a scare show, but this film's quick trot through pestilence and affliction lacks the requisite nightmare intensity and leaves a big dramatic hole. As religious scholar Alan F. Segal observed in an essay on The Ten Commandments, "The biblical story is written as a contest between the true God of Israel and the pharaoh, or false god, of Egypt. That is why the usually terse biblical text goes on at length about the plagues and how the pharaoh is only very slowly convinced to allow the Israelites to leave."

Nothing in The Prince of Egypt compares to the Angel of Death in The Ten Commandments descending on Egypt like the splayed fingers of a green skeletal hand. And few will talk about DreamWorks' atmospherics the way they still do about De Mille's billowing clouds. This movie has no personality--visual or otherwise.

The DreamWorks code of political correctness blands everything out: The movie cuts right from the Exodus to Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, tablets in hand--without any mention of the golden calf. About the only people not protected under the code are pagan ministers. Steve Martin and Martin Short share the thankless job of injecting a little comedy into the proceedings as Mutt and Jeff priests of Ra. You can gauge how fundamentally humorless the movie is by how few laughs Martin and Short generate. (What a great comedy team they should be--even the coupling of their names is witty.)

The energy level rises only when Moses' father-in-law Jethro (the ebullient Danny Glover) leads his tribe in a cheerful hora. The animators elongated the middle third of the characters' faces, theoretically providing a broader canvas for emotional expression. They would have been better off expanding on the talents of their performers. Kilmer as Moses (and God), Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, Patrick Stewart as Pharaoh Seti, and most of the others disappear into the vortex of the imagery. The producers of this glorified latter-day frieze have gone nuts for computer-generated extras without clinching the essentials of character and catharsis. The sad result is that The Prince of Egypt is less man than mouse.

The Prince of Egypt
Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells.
Rated

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