The Prince of Egypt (1998)

The Prince of Egypt starts out innocuously enough, with a chariot race between the two brothers, Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) and Moses (Val Kilmer). It goes on, and on, and on, and it isn't even entertaining. After what seems like twenty minutes of watching these complete jerks mess up a big construction project, injure slaves, and start a sandslide of such proportions that you're genuinely frightened for the people in its path, cracking jokes all the way including one about how Moses can see Rameses's butt, you start to think: "This movie is only one hour and forty minutes long, and they've just wasted one fifth of it on an extremely lame setup. We still have to talk to God, endure the plagues, part the red sea, wander in the wilderness for forty years, and reveal the Ten Commandments!"

And so, the main problem with The Prince of Egypt: a completely out-of-whack sense of emphasis. It's like the filmmakers don't know the story they're supposed to be telling, so they don't know what's important and what's not. This lack of emphasis is extremely damaging to the flow and overall impact of the film.

Again, the film is innocuous enough, and well executed visually. Especially well done is the sequence of Moses's dream before he heads to the desert in which he is being chased by hieroglyphic soldiers through panels on the palace walls. The calculated jerkiness of the movement and the blocky shapes of the figures create a real feeling of menace, a menace which makes us understand this crucial moment for Moses, understanding that he is an outsider to the only life he has ever known.

But other important factors are glossed over or handled extremely poorly. For instance, when Moses meets the Jews who live in the wilderness outside of Egypt, led by the high priest Jethro (Danny Glover), there is one dance number to explain their religious outlook on life, and it's a pretty crappy new-age pile of nothing. There is no sense at all of the religious life of the Jewish people, either in the wilderness or among the slaves, who only mention praying a few times, and no other activity.

When Moses speaks with God (Val Kilmer again--huh?! "Where's Heston?" the reasonable man wonders, and "Why should it be the same voice? What's that supposed to say?") via the burning bush, it's more like the peyote sequence from The Doors than anything holy. "The colors!" Yeah, man.

Another very bad plot parallel is that between Seti (Patrick Stewart) and Rameses and God and Aaron (Jeff Goldblum). In essence, Moses abandons his old father and brother for a new father (God) and brother (Aaron). Yet the only sense of why this is happening is that Moses has "discovered his roots." He does yell once, "No kingdom should be built on the backs of slaves!" but this is an intellectual argument unadvanced by any other speech or symbolism in the film. The plagues God brings upon Egypt for holding the Jews captive are also specifically compared to the slaughter of the firstborns accomplished by Seti. So Moses abandons one mass-murderer father for another. Bully. (It could be argued that this is a problem with the Old Testament as well, but I won't get into that one.)

I must admit that I enjoyed the music more than most people seem to have. The melodies are haunting and well employed throughout the film, though the lyrics could use some serious fine-tuning. They're radio-friendly, but about an inch deep.

The Prince of Egypt is basically inoffensive, off-kilter, and unengaging, with a few bright spots. At the beginning of the movie, a disclaimer informs us that the real story of Exodus can be found in the Bible. There's even an audio Bible featuring Heston, so take their advice. (You can even hear the Book of Job, rumored to be the launching point for the new DreamWorks spectacular, The Wizard of Uz.)

Links for The Prince of Egypt

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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