The Prince of Egypt (1998) is an animated version of the Exodus story, slightly tilted to focus on the relationship between Moses and Pharaoh. The film follows the story of Moses (Val Kilmer) as he is saved from murder by his mother (Ofra Haza) and sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and put into the Nile, to be found later by the Egyptian queen (Helen Mirren). He is apparently adopted by the Pharaoh Seti I (Patrick Stewart) and raised as the younger brother of Ramses (Ralph Fiennes.) When Moses discovers his true identity, he is shocked, gets into trouble, and flees Egypt for Midian, where he finds the family of Yitro (Danny Glover) and marries Yitro’s daughter, Zipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer).
There is a note in the first few frames that the film is based on the story in Exodus, with some changes in the story. In the Biblical account, Moses is adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, and his childhood is left to midrash and imagination. In this version, Moses is adopted by Pharaoh’s queen and raised as the brother of the next Pharaoh, raising the stakes on that relationship.
The film asks the viewer to consider the personal price Moses pays when he comes into conflict with the people who raised him and turns instead to the people from whom he came. It also raises the profile of the women in the Moses story, especially the prophetess Miriam, his sister, and Zipporah, his wife. It does this in ways that do not so much contradict the Biblical tale as they add to it in the spirit of midrash. Miriam sees what her brother will be. Zipporah is portrayed as a fierce and independent woman, which is congruent with the story later in the Biblical text in which she circumcised her own sons when Moses neglected to do so.
The animation is beautiful, and the writers wisely did not create the “cute” characters that plague too many animated films. This is a serious film that happens to be made in animation. The figures are beautifully drawn, and the computer-generated animation that powers miraculous events in this story does so in ways that convey the power and mystery of those events in the text. The handling of the death of the firstborns of Egypt is gentle enough for children to see: we see only the hand of a child who has dropped dead out of our sight, and then the body of the Pharaoh’s son. The handling of the other plagues is similarly restrained.
The Prince of Egypt won an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song for “When You Believe.” The enormous team who brought this film into being have given us a gift to enjoy every Passover, or every time a child asks, “Who was Moses, anyway?”
In every generation, the haggadah admonishes us to experience Yitziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) as if we had personally been present. Before I saw The Prince of Egypt, I was skeptical about the power of an animated film to move me towards that experience. This is an extraordinarily powerful film and would make an excellent addition to any household’s Passover activities.
That said, the script differs in some important ways from both the Biblical text and the text of the Haggadah. It also differs from the tale as told in the oft-televised The Ten Commandments (1956.) Rabbi David Debow offers a template for a compare-and-contrast exercise for those inclined to parse it all out. While there is no harm in learning stories from movies, just keep in mind that this film is a version of the story. It fills in many of the gaps in the Exodus text, and it is worth remembering that this is not the only way (and certainly not the definitive way!) to tell the tale.
Moses is vivid in this film in a way he is not in most other depictions. His character looms so large in religious tradition and the popular imagination that he often seems distant or wooden. The Prince of Egypt demands that we think about what it might have been like to be Moses. What might it have been like to grow up a prince in Pharaoh’s court? Was it hard to realize his true birth? What had to happen for him to become the Moses who would go to Pharaoh and insist, “Let my people go”? How could a man go from pampered princeling to a true leader? What price did he pay?
The film also gives us a Miriam who is a true prophetess. Some commentators have suggested that there are Miriam stories missing from the text; was she such a strong female figure that some redactor in the past snipped out parts of her story? There is a strong feminist angle to this version of the story, in which Miriam is a prophetess from early in her life (a depiction consistent with traditional midrash). She is Moses’ protector and provocateur, insisting that he live up to the promise she saw in him.
Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) is initially played for comedy and his role in the story is much diminished. It is one of the few faults I find in this film. He does not speak for Moses, and is not his partner until the very end.
More than anything else, I was moved by the way in which the miracles of the burning bush, the plagues, and the Red Sea were portrayed. The computer-generated animation achieved the wonders that deMille pointed to in his 1956 version without falling into cliche. All through the film, in fact, there are echoes of deMille’s vision, and that of the directors of other Biblical epics, but here instead of costumes and pageantry, the animators approached true majesty.
The Biblical text tells us that God hardened the heart of Pharoah. What hardens his heart in this film? Why is he so unbending?
How is this Moses like the Moses of your imagination? Is your Moses older? Younger? Angrier? Sadder? More idealistic?
What does this story mean to you?
The Prince of Egypt covers the same Biblical ground as The Ten Commandments. It has been said that Charlton Heston will forever be “Moses” in the eyes of many filmgoers, and certainly his Moses is different from this one. Which Moses would you choose? Why?