After serious alarm over whether I could find a copy of this to watch without infecting my laptop forever with sketchy maybe-porn and casino sites, the day was saved. (It’s on YouTube.) It’s not a Disney movie, but a Dreamworks one, which makes the inclusion of songs a little unusual. I can only imagine that, in 1998, they were making a bid to steal the animated-musical crown. On the basis of The Prince of Egypt (requested by witty, dedicated blogging buddy Rachel of paceamorelibri), it was a strong effort.
The movie opens with a disclaimer that acknowledges the filmmakers’ “liberties” with the Exodus story, but that hopes they have remained “true to the essence, values and integrity” of their biblical source material. I’m not Jewish, but I was raised Episcopalian, my grandpa was a vicar, and I spent my first fifteen years of Sundays in Sunday School (where, yes, I was an obnoxious question-asker), so I felt reasonably qualified to assess this claim. The most obvious difference, I think, is that the Pharaoh whom Moses has to face is his adopted brother, Rameses, whereas from Egyptian sources it seems most likely that the Pharaoh who served as his adopted father was Akhnaten, and the Pharaoh ruling at the time of the Exodus of the Hebrews was Tutankhamun (who was actually Akhnaten’s son-in-law, not his son). Presumably, however, Rameses the Great has almost equally strong name recognition, and claiming that King Tut (he was the famous one, the one whose tomb Howard Carter opened in the 20s) was Moses’s step-brother was considered off the table. (It’s worth noting that apparently no Egyptian records that survive mention the enslavement of the Israelites, or the Exodus. At all. Which is interesting, and doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. But that’s a historical curiosity for another day.)
Back to the movie! First of all: it has an absolute all-star cast, for apparently no reason. Val Kilmer plays Moses; Rameses is voiced by Ralph Fiennes, of all people, who also does his own (brief) singing. Sandra Bullock is Miriam, Moses’s devout sister; Tzipporah, his wife, is Michelle Pfeiffer. Pharoah Seti, the father of Rameses and adoptive father of Moses, is Patrick Stewart, and his queen is played by Helen Mirren! Neither of them have a great deal to do. In fact, given the state of the cast in general, most of them don’t have a lot to do, and some of the dialogue feels surprisingly wooden. (When Moses flees into the desert after having protected a slave by killing an Egyptian foreman, his farewells with Rameses seem to consist primarily of them repeating each other’s names, which, let’s be honest, no one does in real life with people that close to them.)
If the spoken words are average, though, they’re more than made up for the soundtrack and score, which start off intense and memorable and never become less so. The whole opening chunk of the movie isthe iconic “Deliver Us”, which starts as a (literal) chorus of the Hebrew slaves and becomes a wailing ballad delivered by Moses’s birth mother, Yocheved (played by Ofra Haza, known as the “Israeli Madonna”); it then turns into her lullaby, repeated by Miriam, as Moses floats down the river and is rescued by Pharaoh’s wife. We barely hear a person speak til the queen picks up the baby. And the rest of the songs are equally brilliant. My favourite is “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, delivered mostly by Brian Stokes Mitchell as the singing voice of Jethro, Moses’s future father-in-law; it’s probably the only really upbeat number in the film and it’s animated beautifully as a time-passing montage. It also provides a sense of warmth and belonging that’s curiously lacking in the rest of the film, which overall isn’t very good at engaging our emotions on a character level. It’s mesmerizing because it’s epic, not because we really have a strong sense of most of the human players within it, and in a sense that’s how it should be.
It does, however, mean that the female characters get very short shrift. They are, I think, a good example of where popular feminism was in the late ’90s: strong on girl power, weak on nuance or individualism. Miriam is a strong woman, in the sense that she never, ever doubts her brother’s calling or his ability, even when he does; she’s the psychological MVP of the Hebrews, the one who never stops hoping. Tzipporah is a strong woman, in the fairly limited sense that she’s suicidally defiant when presented as a prize at the Egyptian court and then a little mean to Moses before marrying him, but if Dreamworks were trying to whip up a challenger to, say, Meg from Hercules, they didn’t come close. Queen Tuya, meanwhile, is the biggest waste of Helen Mirren that has ever been perpetrated; there are whole scenes where the character is physically present–animators spent time on her!–but says nothing, and her biggest scene with Moses is a total washout during which she’s given the line “Please try to understand”, but then stops talking, as though Moses is meant to magically guess what her perspective might be.
The one misfire, musically speaking, is “Playing With the Big Boys”, which is so close to being a great song but is hobbled by its baffling slowness. It is clearly a song that’s meant to baffle and bamboozle; it’s sung by the two Egyptian priests Hotep and Huy (also, possibly, attempts to challenge Hercules, since they correspond to the tall and thin/short and fat body types of the latter film’s bumbling comic relief characters, Pain and Panic). Their rhetorical strategy is to throw the entire Egyptian pantheon into battle against Moses’s singular God, and if you want to overwhelm an opponent with quantity, that calls for speed. Instead they’re always a beat and a half behind where you expect them to be, and the effect is to make the song confusing and a little boring. (The words also aren’t very good; the title phrase is made far too much of.)
One final comment: the voice of God in this movie is portrayed, quite softly, by Val Kilmer, who also does Moses’s voice, and it’s one of the smartest, most theologically apt choices they could have made. I asked a lot of obnoxious questions at Sunday School, but I did absorb some things, and one of them was this passage:
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lordwas not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lordwas not in the earthquake;and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lordwas not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
That’s not from Exodus (it’s Kings 19:11-12, for the curious), but it really captures the sense in which the voice of God, or conscience, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it, is less to do with resounding trumpets and stentorian pronouncements, and much more to do with the quiet, persistent assertions of our own hearts.
(There will be no comments on “When You Believe” at this time, because its stature is immense and of course it is a ridiculous ballad and an absolute banger at the same time.)
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