Movie Review: The Prince of Egypt (May-Jun 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
May – June, 1998

I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that room. Three titans of the entertainment world, Steven Spielberg (film), Jeffrey Katzenberg (animation), and David Geffen (music), were in the process of forming DreamWorks, the first new major motion picture studio in Hollywood in over half a century.

Spielberg leaned forward in his chair and asked Katzenberg, who was leaving his position as president of Disney, what makes a great story. After Katzenberg told him what “Walt” (yes, THE Walt) used to say, he eased back and replied, “You mean like the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments?”

“Let’s make that our first movie,” Geffen said.

Since that conversation, 200 of the world’s top animators have spent four years preparing for the December release of The Prince of Egypt. The 88-minute animated special consists of about one million individual drawings which together powerfully tell the story of Moses.

DreamWorks broke new ground in the conflict between leaders of Hollywood and leaders of religious groups as the film was being prepared. They brought in scores of religious leaders over the past two years, showing the work in progress and asking for feedback.

The group I was in was made up of about twenty leaders of Evangelical churches and parachurch organizations. At our first meeting in March, 1997, we were given a tour of the crowded DreamWorks studio. Then, after viewing as much of the movie as was ready, we met for over an hour with Katzenberg. When this group returned early in 1998, we saw a much more advanced version of the film.

Why would the execs at DreamWorks go to this trouble? One reason is that they wanted to get the story right. They’re not dealing in fiction here. And they’re not just adding embellishment to some character of history. They are telling the story of Moses and the Exodus – a critical story to Christians, Jews, and Moslems. People tend to fight wars over the mistelling of stories like that!

In both our meetings, Katzenberg showed a keen interest in getting the story right. Issues of biblical accuracy and ethnic sensitivity were paramount.

He also discussed the dicey matter of marketing. The studios make tons of money off of merchandising tie-ins. But the DreamWorks people don’t want to belittle the sacred text by selling “Burning Bush Night Lights” or by having people pull up to a drive-through at McDonald’s and order a “Moses Burger in a Basket.” (They have decided to allow stores to sell dolls that look like the animated characters.)

But let’s be honest, though: there’s another reason they wanted so many religious leaders to view the film. They undoubtedly wanted to cut back on the whiplash that might occur if the expensive movie was met by resounding condemnation. Call it detente – an effort to downscale the culture wars between Hollywood and religion. Or call it savvy – getting the most powerful potential critics inside the animated tent.

But however one views DreamWorks’ move, it was refreshing to experience the open dialogue between Katzenberg and Evangelical leaders. The impression that he was serious about the value of the meeting was confirmed during our second visit. Then we learned of changes that had been made in the film as a result of suggestions from the first gathering.

Though missing some of the zing of songs that kids love to sing again and again from other animated films like The Lion King…(Remember “Hakuna Matata?”) and The Little Mermaid (“Under the Sea”) and some of the zip of humor as in Mulan or Aladdin, this is nevertheless a compelling film that children and adults should see and will ENJOY seeing.

I emphasize ENJOY because the executives at DreamWorks learned from the relatively poor public response to Amistad that when people hear that they should see a film rather than that they would enjoy seeing a film, most won’t go. (What does that say about us?)

The biblical story of deliverance is developed by focusing on the relationship between Moses and Rameses. Though Scripture doesn’t illuminate us about any such relationship, these two surely must have known each other before Moses came marching back in from the desert. Moses was brought into Pharaoh’s palace (almost certainly Pharaoh Seti) by his daughter. There he would have known Seti’s son, Rameses II, who was (in all likelihood) the pharaoh of the exodus.

The epic drama has wonderful vocal talent – important to any animation – with Val Kilmer (Moses; couldn’t they get Charlton Heston?), Ralph Fiennes (Rameses), Patrick Stewart (Seti), Jeff Goldblum (Aaron), Sandra Bullock (Miriam), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), Steve Martin (Hotep), and Martin Short (Huy). In addition, many of the top artists from country, pop, R & B, and gospel music participated in the music for The Prince of Egypt and for two “inspired by” albums that have been released.

Viewers who know the Exodus text well will recognize a couple minor departures in the film – liberties the producers took to help develop their story line. But rather than get torqued by these minor items (Think about the “liberties” preachers and teachers routinely take in developing a biblical story!), Christian viewers should marvel that out of Hollywood in the 1990s comes a major animated film that tells part of their story.

Len Sweet, one of the Evangelical leaders in our group, got it right:

The old stories are still the best. They continue to engage and enthrall us because they embody truths about life that remain constant throughout the ages. “Storytellers” – whether they are Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Tom Clancy, Toni Morrison or John Lennon – provide us with tale-hooks upon which to hang up our own life experiences. We identify their stories – filmed, written or sung – with our own lives.

Our prayer should be that somehow God will use the talent and money of some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters to draw people to Moses, the prince who led his people away from an angry king in Egypt and ultimately to Jesus, the Prince of Princes, who had to be taken to Egypt to escape an angry king.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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