The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “The Prince of Egypt” (1998)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,

The Prince of Egypt, the first traditionally-animated film that Dreamworks released, really feels like competition for Disney. While The Swan Princess and Anastasia feel like studios trying to replicate a Disney formula, The Prince of Egypt feels fresh and original. The Prince of Egypt is what The Hunchback of Notre Dame could have been.

This is a film that does not feel confined to being a children’s film; it is an animated film. While The Prince of Egypt makes the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Israelites more accessible to children than The Ten Commandments, it is a large, epic film.

The story of Moses and the plot of the film starts off with the massacre of the babies of the Hebrew slaves as ordered by Pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart). Yocheved (Ofra Haza) sees this and decides to save her newborn baby by placing him in a basket in the river. The basket, which is followed by the baby’s sister, Miriam (Eden Riegel as a child, Sandra Bullock as an adult), flows to the Pharaoh’s palace and is found by the Queen (Helen Mirren). She takes the baby, named Moses now, and adopts him as the Hebrew slaves continue to suffer.

Several years later, Moses (Val Kilmer) and his adoptive brother Ramses (Ralph Fiennes) have bonded and spend the days having fun, racing chariots, which destroys a temple, much to Seti’s disdain. Ramses gets blamed, even though Moses takes responsibility. When Ramses is named the Prince Regent and Moses the Royal Chief Architect, a Midian girl, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), is given to Moses as a concubine/possible wife by the high priests Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short). Tzipporah runs away and Moses ensures of this, but he chases after her, only to run into Miriam and his brother, Aaron (Jeff Goldblum). When Miriam informs him that he is really a Hebrew and not the son of the Pharaoh, he panics and runs to the palace, only to discover the truth about the slaughter of the newborn Hebrew children years before. Feeling a bit of conflicted feelings and guilt, he goes to the recently destroyed temple, which Ramses wants to restore and make better than ever. While there, an Egyptian slave driver is whipping an old man. Moses commands him to stop and pushes him to his death. Ashamed, Moses runs away, to the desert and ends up in Midian, where he is reunited with Tzipporah, who realizes that he really isn’t a “spoiled palace brat.”

Jethro (Danny Glover) is delighted by the presence of Moses and marries him and Tzipporah, who is his daughter. While Moses is out tending the sheep one day, he encounters a burning bush, wherein the spirit of God tells him to go to Egypt and convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. Although this comes with the warning that Pharaoh will not listen to Moses, which must make Moses feel great. Moses and Tzipporah travel to Egypt, which is now ruled by Ramses. Moses turns his staff into a snake, but Hotep and Huy can do the same by invoking the Egyptian gods. Ramses refuses to let Moses’ people go and doubles the workload. Moses then goes and turns the water into blood, but Hotep and Huy can still do the same by invoking the Egyptian gods. Moses then sends The Plagues and warns Ramses that if he does not give up, he will lose what he holds dear.

Enter the death of the firstborn, which kills Ramses’ son. Distraught, Ramses lets the Hebrew slaves go, but not before chasing after them and catching up at the Red Sea. The Pillar of Fire holds them off, and the Red Sea is parted. The Hebrews cross and after the pillar goes away, the Egyptians start to catch up and the Red Sea goes back to its usual state, killing several Egyptians as Ramses yells for his adoptive brother. The film ends with Moses bringing down the Ten Commandments.

At the start of the film, there is a disclaimer about there being artistic liberties being taken with the story. These include the Queen rescuing Moses from the river as opposed to Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses not burying the body of the man he kills, and throughout the film, Moses being significantly younger when he returns to Egypt than he was in the Bible. But the disclaimer also states that they feel as though they stayed true to the spirit of the story. The film portrays the struggles of the Hebrews and the joy of them being set free after their prayers to God.

After watching the film, I wondered if Dreamworks would be as big of a movie studio if their second film and their first traditionally animated film wasn’t as good as The Prince of Egypt happens to be. There is really nothing better to say about The Prince of Egypt than that it is a good, no, great, film. It does not fill the film with anything to make it a “Children’s movie.” The film is an animated film that is family-friendly and can be watched by children, although it is dark. (But not as dark as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

The character designs are great, and every scene is richly detailed. And scenes that use special effects that are computer-generated end up looking awesome, rather than obviously computer-generated. From Moses being overtaken by a sandstorm to the Red Sea, the computer-generated images are simply breathtaking and amazing to see. You have to sit there and wonder if there were any details that the animators didn’t come up with since you can even see water being blown off of the Red Sea.

But the film isn’t just strong because of the amazing animation; the story also helps a lot. Philip LaZebnik and Nicholas Meyer’s screenplay for the film gives depth to the characters. In the film, it is well established how close Moses and Ramses are as brothers, which makes the struggle the two have later in the film—one having to do God’s bidding, the other having to deny the request of his brother—much more interesting. And while Ramses isn’t a terrifying villain, or even a villain, he’s one of the more interesting antagonists because of the internal struggle the audience is allowed to see. He’s not inherently evil like most of the other antagonists seen. He is simply causing the dramatic conflict to occur.

And where most animated films would maybe let Steve Martin and Martin Short be as goofy as possible with the voices of Hotep and Huy, they are really acting. It’s not until the credits, or if you look it up on IMDB during the film, do you realize that it’s them voicing sly, slightly creepy high priests. Sure, there are film and music stars voicing the characters, but they are acting when they are voicing the characters that is what helps elevate this film to be a film and not a “children’s movie.”

While the film is lacking a Cute Little Animal Character, a common element of the films examined in this series, the film has a magnificent score and music. With a score by Hans Zimmer that is very hummable and uses reedy sounds at various moments in the film and songs by Stephen Schwartz, the film is brought together. The songs, of which there is not a single weak one, help move the story along and make it even stronger. The opening number, “Deliver Us,” serves as exposition while setting up the story for us by showing the struggle of the Hebrew slaves as they sing:

Elohim, God on high, can you hear your people cry?
Help us now, this dark hour…
Deliver us, hear our call, deliver us, Lord of all!
Remember us, here in the burning sand!
Deliver us, there’s a land you promised us!
Deliver us to the promised land!

The Prince of Egypt has a “I Want” song with “All I Ever Wanted,” which Moses sings after being told that he’s really the son of a Hebrew slave. There’s the uplifting “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” which Jethro sings to inform Moses that he does fit into the grand scheme of things, the grandiose choral “The Plagues,” and the simple “Playing With the Big Boys.”

But the best known song from the film, the Academy Award-winning “When You Believe,” is uplifting, inspirational, and tear-inducing. It’s a beautifully written song that celebrates what has happened because the people that have been enslaved for so long believed in their god.

If anything, it’s hard to find a criticism of The Prince of Egypt, other than that it deviates from the source material and someone that is familiar with the Bible would be able to point it out. But the film proves that if you put a lot of effort into a film and don’t compromise it to appeal to a certain audience you can create an amazing work of art.

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