At last, the promised review is here! Yes, The Prince of Egypt review has finally arrived! But before I delve into this film, I would just like to make one thing clear. I understand that this film depicts a religious story and as such I will have to comment on religion. This is a review of the film rather than the actual Biblical story and, although I may be critical here and there on certain Biblical happenings, it will be a comment on a film rather than a comment on your religion. Comments on religion are for another post. Is that agreeable? If not, tough. So here we go!
Do I really need to do the obligatory overview? Really? I don’t know who I’m asking. Maybe the voices in my head, but anyway, here we go. Moses is sent down the Nile by her mother Yochoved in a basket in order to save him from Egyptian soldiers who are killing Hebrew babies on the order of Pharaoh Seti I (Patrick Stewart) who fears that the increasing Hebrew population will cause a Hebrew Uprising. The basket then makes its way to Queen Tuya (Helen Mirren) who adopts the baby and, twenty years later, Moses (Val Kilmer) is a Prince of Egypt alongside his adoptive brother Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) who lives a carefree life, until a forced meeting with Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) and his brother and sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) which begins a series of event, beginning with the escape of a slave girl Tzipporah, which lifts the scales from Moses eyes and begins one of the most well-known tales ever told.
OK, so are we done with what could have possibly been THE most pointless paragraph in existence? Good. Well I’ll get the obvious stuff out of the way so we get get down to business of criticising this film. Firstly the animation is brilliant. No surprise there, even for the newly formed company with the computer animated Antz being its only film at the time. It has that traditional Disney touch whilst somehow remaining distinct in its own right. The panoramic shots of Egypt are fantastically done and really give the viewer the sense that this is an epic tale and that only the most lavish depictions can do this story justice.
The voice acting is sublime with Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren providing brilliant talent despite their limited roles. Even Val Kilmer, a name I had forgotten a long time ago along with Brendan Fraser, Macaulay Culkin and the kids from Jurassic Park and Spy Kids respectively as those who haven’t really been in anything notable since the nineties or the early noughties, does a decent job of voicing one of the world’s most well-known prophets. However, for my money, Ralph Fiennes pulls off the best job of voice acting as Rameses. Fiennes gives Rameses a deep character that other voice actors may have failed to do, allowing us to see both a loving brother and a man bound by his duty to father and to the maintenance of Egyptian power.
However this is where the praising stops and criticisms come forth. One thing we need to say is that The Prince of Egypt was sold as, and let me check Wikipedia for this: “animated epic musical semi-historical drama film”. OK, let’s go through the checklist. Animated? Most certainly. Semi-historical? Yeah, I’ll give you that one, seeing as how it has the word “semi” in front of it. Epic and Drama? Double tick. Musical? Well…
Let me clarify. Is it a musical? Yes. Is it a good musical? No. Now I feel the raging hordeturning against me. Let me just ask you then. Name one song from The Prince of Egypt that isn’t When You Believe. No cheating! Thought of one? No? Well there’s my point illustrated. I’ve watched this film twice recently and I cannot remember the songs at all, and trust me, I have a good memory for that kind of stuff. The songs are just so forgettable. They pass through one ear, probably don’t get to the other because they’ve just ran out of steam and decomposed somewhere inside your head, leaving room for the frankly cool chariot scene at the beginning. I think that’s a fair criticism, now let me criticise the one good song in this film. Yes this song is good. Yes this song won The Prince of Egypt the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1999 (something for the pub quizzers there), and deservedly so.
But here’s my criticism. The song is poorly placed. I’ll paint the scene. Moses has unleashed the seven plagues upon Egypt. He turns the water of the Nile into blood, sends plagues of frogs, lice, flies, death among livestock, boils, firestorms, locusts and darkness. Yet the Pharaoh Rameses II, Moses’ adoptive brother, still refuses to let the Hebrews go. Then comes the final plague. The death of all firstborns. In order to protect their own children, God tell Moses to get his people to mark their doors with lamb’s blood so that the wrath of God will not harm them. They do this and many Egyptian firstborns die, along with Rameses’ son, essentially Moses’ nephew. Rameses finally relents and lets the Hebrews go.
Now it is at this point, after returning to his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam and his new wife Tzipporah (I’m not going into all that but yeah, when Moses flees Egypt, he finds Tzipporah, they learn to like then love each other and get married). But anyway, after meeting with them, Miriam (with Sally Dworsky singing instead of Bullock) and Tzipporah sing When You Believe. Now most people find this an uplifting moment as Moses and the Hebrews leave Egypt and head towards the Red Sea. Not me.
Think about it. This jubilant song celebrating their freedom comes directly after the slaughter of Egyptian firstborn boys, and before that nine other atrocious plagues. It feels to me despicable to have such a song where the Hebrews are given freedom, but freedom won though what can be described as terrorism through a deity. If the song were more reflective on what had been done to get their freedom, I’d just be able to stomach this scene. But it’s not that. It’s if you just believe, everything will work out, just don’t think about the body count. I realise I’m treading on thin ground here in a film criticism, and I could go on about the hardening of Rameses’ heart is utter nonsense, but that would not be conducive to this review, so I’ll just say that such a song feels hollow after such scenes of horror, even if Moses does look regretful throughout it.
But here comes my second criticism. In their quest to show the brotherly dynamic between Rameses and Moses, something I think the film does well, I am left feeling more inclined to side with Rameses than Moses. Now lets be clear here, I don’t support Rameses keeping the Hebrew people as slaves to the Egyptians, but Moses’ methods and Ralph Fiennes fine acting make me lean towards Rameses. Rameses comes off not as a man so cold and ruthless towards the Hebrew peoples, even with the climactic scene at the Red Sea, but rather as a man of his time. A time where the enslavement of a people was the norm and to consider freeing them is merely another way of showing weakness. To do so would be madness for a Pharaoh.
And what does he get for his refusal. Punishment for him and his people. To be persecuted in order for a God to show how impotent the Egyptian Gods really are, something which is shown through the Court Priests/Magicians, and for so many wrongs to be bestowed upon the Egyptians that Rameses has no choice but to let the Hebrews go. It feels wrong for anyone, even a God, to do this but it’s in the Bible so it’s permissible. Yet Ralph Fiennes’ acting means that I can never shake the feeling that Rameses is always left dealing with the responsibilities while Moses, although having changed from his youth, remains the one causing the problems for Rameses without suffering the way Rameses suffers.
I could go on forever on this film, like how I find it somehow amusing that God and Moses are both voiced by Val Kilmer, but I don’t want to set a precedent of writing a review that would take three day to read. But I shall say that The Prince of Egypt is a film worth watching. Despite my criticisms it is beautifully animated, wonderfully acted, slightly humorous at times, and a must watch for all DreamWorks fans. However, is The Prince of Egypt the be all and end all of DreamWorks traditionally animated films? No. I have to give it to Jeffrey Katzenberg for wanting to do a biblical film, something even Disney were sceptical would work, but if time and film history has shown us, films and religion always produce controversy as well as box office returns. Yet, while not a disappointment, The Prince of Egypt remains a film that almost reached something brilliant but missed the target.