The Prince of Egypt
The Prince of Egypt – where to begin? It’s not exactly a hot new flick. In fact, this December will mark 20 years since its theatrical release (which, um, excuse me while I freak out since that is definitely my earliest going-to-the-movies memory). And after all this time, The Prince of Egypt is one movie I keep revisiting every few years (and to be honest, weeping more profusely at each time).
The plot is a tale as old as time (or rather, older than properly recorded history) so I won’t belabor the details. As in The Ten Commandments and Exodus: Gods and Kings, the Jewish Prophet Moses takes center stage in this oft-told story that lays the crucial groundwork for many major world religions.
Raised as the son of a powerful Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses (Val Kilmer, Song to Song; sung by Amick Byram) is rocked by the discovery that he was actually born of a Hebrew woman, a member of the slave class in Egypt, and barely escaped genocide sanctioned by his own adopted-father. Instead of leaning into his claim to royalty, Moses chooses the harder path: “Let my people go,” he famously demands about his enslaved brothers and sisters.
The rest is ancient history. So what it is about this flick that keeps me returning?
Broadly speaking, the movie is totally a sumptuous banquet for the senses. I think we can all agree that a huge part of moviegoing is entertainment: the “shock and awe” factor. We want our jaws to drop, we want our ears to tingle. Between the majestic score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King), the jubilant and heart-wrenching songs by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), and the glorious, mind-bending animation courtesy of Dreamworks artists, there’s enough spectacle to satisfy even the most skeptical cinephile.
The layer beneath is the creative team, which also earns high marks! The screenplay by Philip LaZebnik (Mulan; Pocahontas) is tender and funny by turns, offering gripping conversations and characters with depth. The all-star cast captures the spirit of each character completely; from the emotive Ofra Haza as Moses' birth-mother, to comedic giants like Steve Martin (Father of the Bride), Martin Short (Inherent Vice), and Jeff Goldblum (Isle of Dogs), who pepper the movie with many moments of fun and laughter.
But most crucially, clear and strong direction is more necessary in animation than maybe any other genre. And when producers at Dreamworks were deciding who to give this multi-million dollar project to, they trusted the capable hands of stalwart Disney writer Brenda Chapman (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast).
Now, don’t let my personal devotion blur the less magical parts of the movie. For a story entirely about people of color, the cast is intensely whitewashed (a problem that the recent headed-to-Broadway stage version addresses with a diverse cast).
And of course, the Exodus tale deals with heavy themes like infanticide, slavery, and war. People of faith have wrestled with the “divine justice” at work in the Plagues of Egypt for centuries, and while there is an incredible darkness to watching it unfold on screen, the movie-makers handle those scenes with tenderness, empathy, and humility.
The story of Moses, his sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock, Ocean’s 8), and the Children of Israel is one of the most moving and inspirational tales that’s ever been told. Growing up in a Christian family gave me a great reverence for this and other stories from the Torah, but after marrying a student of Hebrew Bible and moving to historically-Jewish Brooklyn, the Exodus narrative is even more powerful to me.
It’s one thing to hear your friends repeat the clever phrase, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” when Passover comes along. It’s quite another to watch it unfold, and consider the incredible survival of Jewish people through the course of history. The Prince of Egypt’s creative team dares to tell a beautiful new story of friendship and brotherhood, all while still remaining true to the central messages of identity, faith, and hope.
Before I re-watched The Prince of Egypt, I’d forgotten who Chapman was. I didn’t know that she was the first American woman to direct a major studio’s animated project (paving the way for my current hero, Ava DuVernay who similarly made history with A Wrinkle in Time). In fact, I’d totally forgotten that a woman helmed the movie at all – but I shouldn’t have.
From the opening number where his mother Jocheved hides baby Moses in a basket to protect him from Pharaoh's guards, to the final scene where his sister Miriam, the prophetess, sings her song of victory and celebration (performed by Sally Dworsky), this movie reminds viewers that our protagonist wouldn’t have made it very far without the influential women in his life.
Maybe that’s why I keep coming back. The story reminds me that in a world run by men and kings, there is wonder and strength in the woman, in the child, and in the slave, to change the course of history. And The Prince of Egypt brings those underdogs to breathtaking life in a truly unforgettable way.