When I speak of underrated movies, I don’t mean films that have necessarily done terribly at the box office. They can be films that did great, but are simply not talked about much anymore, and I’d like to bring some recognition to them again. Last time, I talked about what made “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” so spectacular, and today I want to take a look at “The Prince of Egypt” which was Dreamworks Animation’s second film.
Oftentimes when you tell someone about a Bible-based film, their first response is either a groan of annoyance or an eye-roll. I can understand; coming from a religious family, I too was sat down in front of the television to watch “The Ten Commandments”, “Ben-Hur”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, “The Miracle Maker”, “The Nativity Story”, and almost every episode of “Veggietales” ever. After a point, I knew most Bible stories by heart without ever cracking open the Bible (the unabridged versions at least). As I grew, my fascination for these biblical depictions diminished a little, and then I was taken to see “The Prince of Egypt.” Having been (for lack of a better word) ‘forced’ to watch Biblical films during my childhood, I didn’t think much of “The Prince of Egypt” at first. I was seven years old and thought the animation was pretty, but I already knew the story so I squirmed in my seat.
It wasn’t until I was older and had been exposed to more films, especially animated films for kids and adults, that I’ve developed a deep love for “The Prince of Egypt.” Even the most cynical people I know can see the beauty in the animation and be intrigued by the story of this underrated Biblical adaptation. What I’ve come to appreciate more may surprise some readers: I was glad that it wasn’t too preachy. Dreamworks was smart enough to not draw too much attention to the religious, preachy message, and instead focused on where the drama would be in the story. Let’s explore that drama in the next section.
The Two Brothers: The Story Left Out of the Bible
Most everyone knows the story of Moses: a Hebrew baby is saved from Pharaoh’s slaughter by being floated down the river in a basket. He’s picked up by the Queen and adopted as a son of the Pharaoh, growing up beside the prince Ramses. When he’s older he discovers his true heritage and flees into the desert, finding sanctuary in Midian. He joins the people, has a family, and is called back to Egypt by God in a burning bush, as the prophesied deliverer of his people the Hebrew slaves.
The Biblical story is very Moses-focused, but Dreamworks shifted that original focus to one thing – the love and tragedy between two brothers, Moses and Ramses. The film begins like a sitcom: Moses is everything you’d imagine a little brother to be: self-assured, cocky, and a troublemaker. Ramses is the older brother, more visionary and burdened by his father’s legacy.
It’s so clear that they’re close, as they share pranks and stick up for one another. But when Moses flees after learning about his heritage and accidentally killing someone, the last person he sees is Ramses pleading for his brother to stay. It was heart-wrenching, especially as Moses runs through the gates and the camera pans away, leaving just a silhouette of Ramses screaming his name. In the video below, you can forward to the 2 minute mark for the scene above.
While this scene above is my favorite in terms of the depiction of their relationship, I also feel that the scene when Moses returns and they conversate for the first time is also powerful. Ramses feels doubly betrayed; first when Moses left him all alone, and now when Moses returns as an enemy. You understand Ramses as an antagonist, and a comprehensive villain is what makes great story-telling.
You can watch this powerful scene in the video below:
When Dreamworks approached the film in this way, they connected with the audience on a level that other Moses retellings have not before. Long has the story been about Moses and his mission for God, but this film transforms it into a triangle between Moses’ devotion to his God and to his brother Ramses, whom he also loves. That’s where the essence of the drama stems from and it’s done brilliantly.
Yes, this movie is a musical. But bear with me here.
Much like how eyebrows were raised when “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was announced as a musical, so too did the eyebrows climb when “Prince of Egypt” turned out to be a musical. But Dreamworks had an innovative composer and lyricist in their corner, Stephen Schwartz. Ironically, Schwartz also did the music for Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Pocahontas”, and “Enchanted.” He surely is a master at taking a topic not typically suited for musicals and creating memorable, moving tunes for these films.
Schwartz understood that there were larger-than-life moments in this film, but that they also must be balanced by the intimate, quieter moments between two characters. The two songs that impressed me the most (and are fan favorites as well) are the film’s opening song “Deliver Us” and the climactic scene with the ten plagues, titled “The Plagues.” Both of these songs have that epic scale of impending doom that we’ve heard before in “Savages” from “Pocahontas” and “Hellfire” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” And the addition of Hebrew verse when Moses’ mother sings is very haunting.
Just watch the two songs below and prepare to have your mind blown and the chills crawl down your arms.
Breathtaking Animation and Dark Material
As you can see from the videos above, Dreamworks Animation went the extra mile to make sure their setting felt palpable. The scales of the Egyptian city and monuments are staggering, compared to the crawling ants of the slaves, such as when they hoisted up the statue of Horus. And the parting of the Red Sea scene….hoooo boy, I was floored.
Dreamworks was also not shy about the details of slavery: the whipping, the cries of the slaves, markings on their back. And while no babies were shown being killed, it was clear from a child’s view that the soldiers raiding the Hebrew slums were on a mission to kill the children. All of this was very jarring for my seven-year-old mind. I remember cringing at the sound of the whips, and urging Moses’ mother to hurry to the river faster.
The choice in scale and tone for the settings and circumstances of violence each had a purpose. It made the story feel grander than just about Moses. It was about generations of people being freed from slavery, and Moses was simply the voice and hand of God to make it happen. There was never a moment when Moses acted ‘holier-than-thou’, and was more of an every-man who was chosen for this purpose. Even the scene when he talks to God through the burning bush was like a scene between a child and a parent; Moses did not want this burden, but he understood why it had to be him. It all comes full circle to the focus of the story; it had to be him to speak to Ramses, because no one else knew him like Moses did.
Are You Ready to Watch Prince of Egypt?
So, have I convinced you that this beautiful film is worth a watch? If you want to see a film of Biblical proportions without feeling like you’re being preached to, this film is it. If you’re looking for a film about family and the circumstances that can bring them together or tear them apart, look no further than “The Prince of Egypt.” This film deserves so much more credit and love than it’s received.
I’ve heard some conflict lately that movie-goers are doubting the quality of Dreamworks’ most recent films, but I implore those people to go back in time to Dreamworks Animation’s roots and give this film a watch. I believe that if the studio can punch out gold like this, than I believe they will come up with some great ideas for the future.