“Many nights we’ve prayed, with no proof anyone could hear. In our hearts a hopeful song we barely understood. Now we are not afraid, although we know there’s much to fear. We were moving mountains, long before we knew we could…”
I am going to start this review by saying one thing: I am NOT religious. I’m not going to turn this into a debate about religion, but I feel I have to get that out of the way, because given what this movie is, it’s sort of a topic that is hard to avoid. I feel that my readers should know what kind of mindset I’m in when I watch it and my background.
I was brought up Methodist and come from a “spiritual” family (at least that’s how my mom likes to be thought of). My mother-in-law is a minister and I love her to death, and will gladly go to her sermons and listen to what she has to say. It’s just that when you get down to it, I believe the whole idea of religion and going to church, to say it nicely, is “flawed.” That being said, I was a religious studies minor in college, and find the whole idea of religion and spiritualism extremely fascinating from an academic perspective. Anyone who knows me knows I’m extremely open to any and all beliefs, and if anything I am extremely curious about stories and people’s beliefs. In fact my discomfort when I’m in churches comes not from the fact that I can’t believe other people are praying/singing/giving thanks to a God I don’t believe exists, but instead a respect thing. It’s weird, but I don’t want to disrespect anyone by “pretending” to pray if it’s not what I believe in.
Anyway, I am getting way off topic. The reason I thought I should start my review like this is because of the subject matter of this movie, and my opinion about it. The Prince of Egypt is the book of Exodus from the Bible. It’s the story of Moses and the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. It can’t help but be spiritual and religious, because it literally comes from the source.
So what do I think of this movie? ……. I freaking love it. When I first saw this movie in 1998, I was extremely against church. Church was the way that my parents were still controlling me, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I was trying to figure myself out and what I believed in, and I didn’t want other people’s beliefs thrust upon me. I don’t know what would have caused me to see this movie, which at the time was everything I was trying to distance myself from. But I saw it. And I loved it. It is easily one of my favorite animated movies if not one of my favorite straight up movies. Why? Let me explain.
The Bible is, essentially, a collection of stories. It’s an anthology that was put together by someone, who chose which books to put in, and which to leave out. Like all other stories, they hope to convey a message, emotion, memorable characters, etc. Adaptations of stories, whether they be from books, the bible, comics, etc, unfortunately, tend to lose some of these things when they are transferred to the big screen. This movie does not. Not at all. You can tell that the people who were involved in this movie were interested not in money, but in the story, the people, and the message that this story of Exodus portrays. They treated it with the utmost respect while making it easily accessible for children and adults.
In case anyone is unfamiliar with the story of Exodus and Moses, here’s a quick recap (at least according to the movie). It’s Egypt, and the Hebrews are enslaved under the Pharaoh. He has just ordered his soldiers to slaughter any babies in the hebrew village (it’s explained later it’s to keep the numbers down). Moses’ mother and her children run to the edge of the river, and to save her baby son puts him in a basket and sends him down the river. The baby, Moses, floats into the palace and is adopted by Pharaoh and his family.
We then cut to a number of years later, where Moses is now a young man, and we get to see his interactions with his brother, Rameses, and his family. Although a Prince of Egypt, Moses does seem to have a bit more reservations about how people are treated. Running after a woman who he helped escape the palace that was given as a “gift” to him, he runs into Miriam and Aaron, his siblings. His sister begins spouting happiness that he has come to set them free, and he, obviously, freaks out. Now knowing the truth, he tries to deal with it, but after accidentally killing a man, he flees, not know who or what type of person he really is.
Out in the desert he runs into the woman he helped escape, Tzipporah, and her family, including her father, who is a high priest. Through the magic of song montage, we see him grow, learn, and marry Tzipporah. It is when he is older that he finds a cave with a strange burning bush in it, and God speaks to him, telling him he needs to return to Egypt and free his people from the repression of Pharaoh. So Moses and Tzipporah return to Egypt and he confronts his brother Rameses, now Pharaoh, and is met, obviously, with a No. After a few tries, God finally unleashes a number of plagues across the land, including famine, locusts, darkness, etc (yay another song montage). The last of which is a plague to kill the first born of every family unless the doorway is marked with lamb’s blood (this is where Passover originated from). Rameses, having lost his son, is extremely distraught, and tells Moses he and his people can go.
The hebrews get to the red sea, and suddenly Rameses has a change of heart and goes after them. Moses parts the red sea, the egyptians get flooded, and the Hebrews are left to wander the desert for 100 years (although we end with “yay! We’re free!”).
What this movie does SO WELL is the emotion. The center of this movie really does focus on the relationship between Moses and his brother Rameses. You get that they are close and they care about each other. That’s what makes it so heartbreaking when Moses returns and suddenly the two brothers don’t see eye to eye. Suddenly, they don’t understand each other any more. Moses begs and pleads with his brother to let the hebrews go, partially because it’s what he was chosen to do, but also partially because he knows what will happen if Rameses says no. He’s there to offer comfort when his son dies, and he is genuinely sad about what happened and what has happened to his brother.
This is what makes Moses in this story so incredibly interesting. Does he believe his people should be free? Yes. Does he believe what the pharaoh and the egyptians are doing is wrong? Yes. We get these things through the way he reacts when he sees someone beaten, or through conversations, or looks. But he is chosen to be this incredible leader against his brother. Sometimes, you really get the feeling that he doesn’t want to do this; he doesn’t want to be this incredible leader and a tool for God to use. He doesn’t want to hurt his brother. But that doesn’t matter; it’s what he was chosen to do. He does it because he knows it’s right, not because it’s easy.
Along with the emotional connection you feel for Moses and his brother Rameses, you also have these completely overwhelmingly beautiful emotional scenes. I don’t know what it is about some of them: if it’s the animation, the words, the music, or all of them, but some places I just feel like you have to tear up. Two that come to mind are the scene with the burning bush, and the parting of the red sea. Obviously two incredibly important, symbolic scenes. And this movie Nailed them. Again, I’m NOT religious, but the burning bush scene ALWAYS gives me chills. The flame is beautiful. The way it’s not rushed is beautiful. The words (taken straight out of Exodus btw) are, of course, beautiful. It’s not something I can really explain. Then the parting of the red sea is gorgeous. It’s 1998, so CGI was limited, but it’s actually really well done in this movie. There’s a shot after the water is parted that shows the scale of it, and, well… wow. Hard to describe.
One more mention about emotional depth of this movie, because I feel to not mention it would be a crime. The music. I’m talking about both the songs and the instrumental score, because both are insanely perfect. The songs aren’t “Disney-fied.” they’re not all peppy and happy. This would have been really wrong. Instead, they’re gritty and real. Some of them have odd tempos or syncopation. But they are perfect. They convey what they need to (heck, I even said 2 of them are used for montages). While all are good (except playing with the big boys – this is seriously the weirdest song…), I have my favorites. The song about the plagues is brilliant. The one in the beginning is beautiful and tells a story and sets the scene well. The one I have to talk about, however, is “When you believe.” The Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey version was on the radio all the time in 1998, and with good reason. This song is about hope, and is sung when the Hebrews are leaving Egypt. The animation they put with it is great. The little girl helping the older woman. The two egyptian guards who just say screw it and leave with them. The little girl leading the giant oxen. It makes me cry EVERY TIME. They are so happy.
Ok, enough about emotion. The characters are… good… I guess. We get to know Moses and Rameses really well, but to be honest we don’t get to know the supporting characters greatly, except maybe Miriam. His other brother Aaron (voiced by Jeff… uh… Gold… uh… bloom) is actually non-recognizable in his voice, believe it or not. But we don’t see much of him. We have two hands to the Pharaoh named Hotep and Hoy (voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short) who honestly were thrown in to be….. comedic relief….? I honestly don’t know, because with those voices, they should have been, but they’re not funny. This movie doesn’t need those characters. They are very out of place in the few scenes they get. Luckily they aren’t used much. Moses’ wife Tzipporah is ok, but again, no depth. I would get more upset about this, but the focus really is on Moses and Rameses, so I’m willing to overlook it.
Let’s talk about Rameses for a second. Part of the reason this character works so well as a villain is because you can see where he’s coming from. You know him before he’s a villain. He’s lovable, but put under a ton of pressure to be better than his father. He is the morning and evening star; the one with all the responsibility. As a young man, we see him struggling with this. When Moses returns, he is happy beyond all belief to have his brother back in his life until he learns why he has returned. There’s disillusionment, anger and betrayal. This turns into utter hatred once his son is killed by the plague, and from here, he just grows almost insane. But again, you sort of understand. His only son just died from something inexplicable and the only person you can put any sort of blame on is your estranged brother who showed up after years claiming to have magic from a God you don’t believe in. I’d be upset too. Maybe not “I’m going to try and kill everyone” mad, but I’d be mad.
You don’t have to be familiar with this story to understand it. You don’t have to be one of the religions that holds it in its doctrine to enjoy it. In fact, I think that this is a movie everyone should see. Not because it talks about God, but because it really is an amazing movie. In the end, the bible is stories; they form the basis of a religion for millions of people, but they are still stories. Regardless of who you are or what you believe in, these stories are still stories that are worth reading. They can teach you things, like Aesop and his fables. They can teach you about hope, or love, or treating people the way they ought to be treated. And those are lessons that EVERYONE should learn.
I very much recommend The Prince of Egypt (1998) to everyone. If you have really young children just be aware that this is a very gritty, tell-it-like-it-is movie. I like to think that this movie really opened up my eyes to not see religion as incredibly oppressing and for what it really can be. It made me less judgmental. See it. Try to view it completely non-partisan. If you’re not moved, well, I don’t know what.
I give The Prince of Egypt (1998) a 4.95 out of 5. It’s as close to perfect as I can get, but man… Hotep and Hoy just seem so out of left field it kills me…
Up Next: Chicken Run (2000)