It’s not often that you see film studios attempt to capture religious figures cinematically, particularly in the format of an animated musical. However, the 1998 DreamWorks film ‘Prince of Egypt’ uniquely did just that. We are presented with a protagonist who showcases outstanding bravery to demand that the leader of slaves lets his people go following years of persecution. In the news, we learn of atrocious abuses on human rights yet rarely take it upon ourselves to do something about it. With that in mind, it’s hard not to marvel at this portrayal of someone courageous enough to challenge the people and systems known to be wrong.
In the ‘Prince of Egypt’, we follow Moses, an Egyptian prince, who discovers his secret Hebrew background and accepts his role as the chosen deliverer of his people. This story, based on the book of Exodus, is a narrative found in the Holy Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Despite this film being DreamWorks’ first ever animated film, it was a large commercial success grossing $218m worldwide, making it the most successful non-Disney animated film at the time. Since the year of its release, it has received a mixed reception from religious groups, being banned in the Maldives, Malaysia and Egypt for its depiction of Islamic prophets (though interestingly enough, Val Kilmer who voices Moses, also voices God to suggest that it his inner voice speaking). However, it has also developed a strong cult following. I learnt that this year marks its 20th Anniversary which prompted me to re-visit the movie musical.
In the first few minutes, I am reminded that this film has one of the most remarkable opening sequences I have ever seen. The number “Deliver Us” is set in the dusty Egyptian desert. We immediately get a sense of the dry climate and intense heat. These momentous pyramids, defining features of the Ancient Egyptian landscape, are built by thousands of struggling Hebrew slaves in dangerous conditions. The animation impressively depicts the exasperation on the slaves’ faces, yet also the conviction that they will be delivered from this suffering by their God. They are beaten senseless by the Egyptian slave drivers and the song is their cry for help to be taken out of this misery. The opening effectively establishes the atmosphere and context, and although the animation was created 20 years ago, it stands out as being among some of the best I’ve seen.
Despite its ‘U’ certificate, the film deals with some quite adult themes such as lust, violence and loss. However, I do think that it uses animation quite effectively to tackle the difficult subject matter. For example, in one scene whereby Moses learns that the Egyptians murdered the first born of every Hebrew, this is entirely revealed quite creatively to him through Egyptian paintings on the wall. I would say that it just about balances being appropriate for young audiences without losing its integrity.
I was pleased that the characters actually looked Middle Eastern and I was just about able to look past the various array of accents such as Ralph Fiennes’ British accent voicing the Pharaoh, Rameses and Val Kilmer’s American accent voicing Moses.
The score is by Oscar-winning musical composer Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer, the duo behind many musical classics including Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. One of my favourite songs is ‘Through Heaven’s Eyes’ which uses a musical montage effectively to advance the story. This number marks a change in the tone of the film. Up until this point, Moses’ world has been filled with lots of parade and spectacle and he has been taught that the most important thing is to continue a legacy. But through this number we see Moses humble as he realises there’s more to life than the way we perceive things. He is warmly welcomed by this new community and embraces a new way of life. It’s a truly joyous song with simple yet wise lyrics. And of course, it’s made even more wonderful by the fact that it is sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell.
Despite my own religious views, I found myself being in complete awe at the story as a result of the way the film brought it to life. Although I found the extent of violence throughout at times difficult to digest, it was the resolve of Moses that I found most admirable. The film is probably one of the most underrated movie musicals and I’d be interested to see how well this would translate into a stage adaptation.