The Prince of Egypt: Throwback 20

Looking back two decades on at DreamWorks Animation’s first masterpiece.

Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

Christian movies have received a bad rep in recent years, albeit not an unearned one.  From the God’s Not Dead trilogy, to PureFlix’s Asylum-quality works, to cynical brand-pushing carny hucksterism like Heaven is for Real, and aggressively Hallmark-level pablum like The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, plus umpteen revisitations of the Nativity and the passion of Jesus Christ, the second that the words “faith-based” or “Christian” enter the picture is usually the time that anyone searching for properly entertaining movies should turn the other cheek and flee like crazy.  But The Bible itself, when looked at on a narrative level, makes for some excellent and often timeless stories.  I mean, of course it does, it’s a compendium of some of history’s first literary stories translated into enough languages to make them a bedrock for fictional storytelling the world over.  They’re grand morality plays encompassing temptations, injustice, betrayal, forgiveness, doing the right thing, and in the Old Testament had all that complicated by the fact that – again, narratively, I am not going to wade into critiques of religion or sacred texts here for that is not my lane and I am woefully ill-equipped – God is kind of an impulsive dick which makes for fascinating stories.

Nowadays, when we do get Christian movies, they come in the form of those listed up top rather than anything that’s actually, you know, narratively, thematically and emotionally interesting to watch.  The few times we do get earnest attempts to tell Biblical stories such as Darren Aronofsky’s unsparing 2014 telling of Noah, they’re ran out of town by the very markets they’re supposed to appeal to, often because they tell Old Testament stories shorn of the sanitised Sunday School versions most are familiar with.  So, we instead get Sony Pictures Animation’s The Star from 2017 which decided what the Nativity was missing were talking animals and every trace of threat or edge being surreptitiously removed.  That toothlessness is especially evident when compared to works like The Ten Commandments and Samson & Delilah which operated on grand operatic scales and balanced preaching the faith with spectacle and narratives that made the films work in their own right rather than feeling like particularly boring/hysterical Sunday services.

But arguably standing head and shoulders above them all, released 20 years ago today, was an animated version of Exodus.  One that put the work in to create something which was equally respectful to the many religious faiths whose foundations were built upon or informed by the story of Moses and The Ten Plagues as it was committed to producing a dramatically satisfying narrative filled with spectacle, characters, and tragedy.  One made from an upstart animation studio with only one other film to their name beforehand.  One partly born from Steven Spielberg looking studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg in the eye and stating “you should do The Ten Commandments.”  The result was The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks Animation’s first unassailable masterpiece.

The Prince of Egypt was Katzenberg’s pet project for years.  During his time as Chairman of Walt Disney Animation Studios, he repeatedly tried to pitch his idea of doing a musical version of The Ten Commandments to then-CEO Michael Eisner but was shot down each and every time.  Katzenberg remained undeterred in his vision, though, and when he acrimoniously split from Disney in 1994 to form their biggest rival, DreamWorks Animation SKG, Egypt was his first production.  It wouldn’t be DreamWorks’ first released animated feature – that would be Antz which celebrated its own 20th anniversary a few months ago; you can read about the circumstances surrounding that switcheroo in that throwback – but you can absolutely tell that it was intended to be.  Katzenberg poached Story veteran Brenda Chapman (of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast) from Disney to direct alongside Amblimation veterans Steve Hickner and Simon Wells.  He called in religious scholars, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Arab-American leaders for feedback and advice from the very start of the production process in order to create the most faithful version possible.  Songs were penned by Steven Schwartz, then of Hunchback of Notre Dame and soon to be of Wicked fame.  350 artists from all over the industry and the world put their everything into this movie.

And all of it is immediately apparent from the off.  The vast detailed landscapes, the hundreds of individually animated extras, the tangible sweltering heat of the Egyptian sun, the operatic overture that sounds practically apocalyptic even before we follow Pharaoh Seti’s soldiers down into the Hebrew village as they slaughter their way through the newborns, an act which is only barely hidden from direct depiction.  Egypt makes absolutely no bones about wanting to be a Big Film, an Event Film, maybe even an Important Film like those marquee uber-expensive period epics from the waning days of the Hollywood studio system – think the ‘59 Ben-Hur and the notorious Cleopatra.  There’s a deliberate grandness to it that, on paper, should come off as self-conscious or even obnoxious but in practice works.  Partly this is because there’s legitimate ambition here which, especially compared to today’s gruel passing itself off as ‘entertainment’ for the Christian subset, is refreshing to see.  Partly this is because the craft is so strong that one cannot help but admire it.  Partly this is because it genuinely feels different to the sorts of films that Disney were pumping out at the time.

By the time the 90s were winding down, so too was Disney’s second renaissance, the studio having wobbled through a few divisive misfires like Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the realisation slowly setting in that they were coasting on a formula they were uninterested in changing – which is what would lead to the experimental and financially-disastrous early-00s Disney when they tried to break out of that straightjacket.  Much of the non-Disney game in town were deliberately trying to ape that formula, musical dramedies for all the family based around princesses and classical mythology, right down to the art-style, and almost none of them were any good for exactly the reasons you might expect.

Theoretically, Egypt doesn’t stray too far from that formula.  Its song order even goes Overture, “I Want” song, Falling in Love song, Villain song, Duet song (of varying emotional despondency), and finally The Eleventh Hour Showstopper which also gets a Reprise just before the credits, credits which themselves have a 90s R&B Ballad Cover That’ll Slot Fine Into Radio.  But in practice, one could never mistake Egypt for a mid-90s Disney feature.  Most obviously, there’s no comic relief to lighten proceedings, something which had been a staple of Disney films going all the way back to Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and Disney was still using as a crutch in 1998 – Mulan would be better without Mushu, fight me.  One would assume that the characters voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short, high priests of Seti and later Rameses, filled such a role but they instead get played completely straight and their big song is genuinely menacing and joke-free.

And that fact goes hand-in-hand with the overall feel of Egypt.  This is not an animated film that is in any way concerned with keeping the kids on-side at all times and is resultantly all the better for it.  Nobody on the film’s creative team tried to second-guess their audience, never felt the need to coddle them, and so Egypt skews itself much older in tone by leaning in to the tragedy of the story.  DreamWorks’ version follows the interpretation of the Exodus story that posits Moses and Rameses were brothers, the babe in the basket desperately sent away from the Egyptian hordes washing up in the arms of Queen Tuya who takes Moses in as her own, adding melodramatic familial weight to the story as Moses becomes woke to his own privilege and true lineage, ending up at odds with the brother whose father emotionally browbeat any weakness out of him and a stubborn pridefulness that ultimately leads to a borderline genocide from the divine figure upon high.

It’s simple storytelling, but it worked for centuries before and still does today for a reason.  Wells, Hickner and Chapman – who, fun fact, would become the first woman to direct a major studio animated feature thanks to this and, less fun fact, wouldn’t get to do so again for 14 years when she very acrimoniously directed (and was later booted off of) Pixar’s Brave – make every scene count.  They embrace the limitless possibilities and ephemerality of animation to render the kinds of epic spectacle live-action versions of this tale would kill for whilst always keeping that forward momentum going by not belabouring certain developments.  Moses, Rameses, even Tzipporah (Moses’ wife) display engaging personalities and arcs that feel natural and perfectly paced; the montage of Moses’ time in self-imposed exile is a masterclass in non-verbal character development.  Or compare the depiction of The Ten Plagues in this to the ones featured in Ridley Scott’s pompous and dreary Exodus: Gods and Kings from 2014 and see which is the more thrilling, the more artfully staged, and doesn’t drown itself in the spectacle.

Nowhere are Egypt’s strengths and sure-hands better showcased than with the Angel of Death sequence.  The impeccable boarding of every single shot – at times, Egypt feels like it was boarded in a manner that would secure it residency on Every Frame a Painting someday, this is a better shot film than most live-action features.  The seamless integration of the CG’d spirit that also, in its design, feels somehow off which only adds to its creepiness.  The complete silencing of Hans Zimmer’s score, leaving only the truly haunting sound design of the wind and the exhales of life leaving bodies.  The beat after the spirit returns from whence it came where everything just sits in silence and what fades back in is not the score but the anguished sobs of parents waking up to discover what’s happened.  How that solemn mood is kept when Moses returns one last time to Rameses, laying his own son to rest, and how the directors insist on leaving us and Moses in the moment, contemplating the severity of what God has done and the senseless loss of innocent life rather than immediately jumping to the celebratory sight of the Hebrew slaves being allowed to go as free men and women.  You’re forced to bear witness to the awesome horror of the power of God, trembling before the Old Testament’s ruthless and unsentimental Creator.

Sure, cathartic release does soon follow in the form of “When You Believe” and it is extremely jarring, but that decision to linger in the wrath and the destruction, to keep drawing one’s attention to the innocent cost of Rameses’ pig-headed nature is typical of Egypt’s prizing of what makes a good story as being of equal or even greater importance than slavishly repeating the already devoted’s faith back at them.  (Side bar: whilst Egypt is certainly not a flawless movie and even arguably straddles the border of “problematic,” I find many of its issues in tone and sympathy etc. to be inherent to the source material which, as mentioned, I am not equipped to tackle in any way so let’s leave those critiques to better people than I.)  I’d argue that it’s not just the gold standard in DreamWorks Animation (or at least would be for 13 years) or in adaptations of Exodus, but in Christian entertainment period.  Because it’s had tangible effort put in, because it doesn’t sanitise the story out of fear of offending those who’ve blotted out the less savoury parts of the holy text yet still feels incredibly respectful towards the religions it depicts, because it tells a proper story with stakes and arcs and characters and payoffs that are executed with aplomb.

Even today, The Prince of Egypt still stands up as one of the best animated films of the 90s.  In fact, thanks to the current state of faith-based media, its standing may have even increased.  The next time you’re being forced to sit through another God’s Not Dead or whatever, chase it down with this reminder that Christian film can have it so much better.

Callum Petch, yes and yes, is problematic too.

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