‘The Prince of Egypt’: how to repackage an ancient tale for a modern world

Retelling a story as well-known as that of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom is always a path fraught with danger. But, if done right, it also allows for new dimensions of these stories to be unraveled before our very eyes.

This is one of The Prince of Egypt’s unique gifts. Nowhere is this more evident than in the depiction of women in the film. They are portrayed as exemplars of strength, courage, and dignity. Moses’ mother is the one who makes the audacious decision to try to save him in the face of the horrific slaughter perpetrated by the Egyptians. Zipporah refuses to buckle under the shackles placed upon her and defies her captors even in the face of death. Miriam is, in my view, the true hero of the story. For while Moses is the Deliverer, he enters the story as little more than a dissolute wastrel. Miriam is the only one who truly believes in Moses’ capability, despite all those around her  – including her brother Aaron  –  having clearly lost hope and accepted their plight. She suffered an arduous upbringing as a slave but retains her optimism and hope. Another point about retellings is that though the tales are ancient, they are nonetheless important. This is eminently true in this case. For who would disagree that the story of Israel has a great impact on our modern world?

Upon rewatching, one is struck by how nearly every line of the first part of the movie … can be seen as a terrifying portent of the sheer devastation that is to come

Practically all of the relationships are well developed, but the bond between Moses and Rameses is the nucleus of the film. The clue is in the title – the subtle genius of it is that it could easily refer to either Moses or Rameses. Both are Princes of Egypt, burdened by the inordinate weight of the expectations of a people. The genuine compassion and affection between the two is what make Moses’ discovery by the Queen at once a tremendous blessing and a terrible curse. For while he grew up a cosseted, pampered younger child in the most luxurious of palaces, his destiny meant that his greatest foe was to be his own brother, whom he had to watch suffer unduly at the hands of the very God in whose name he sought to free his people. This tragedy suffuses the entire story. Upon rewatching, one is struck by how nearly every line of the first part of the movie, especially those delivered in a seemingly light-hearted manner, can be seen as a terrifying portent of the sheer devastation that is to come. Rameses, despite being the nominal villain, retains much of the viewer’s sympathy throughout the film. One can see in his character how his father’s tirades have been drummed into his head such that he is propelled, above all, by a desperate desire to live up to an idealised version of what a pharaoh should be. Even though he ordered the merciless killing of innumerable helpless babies, even Seti does not stand out as a totem of pure evil. In his own twisted way, he loves his sons (even Moses, who is not actually of his bloodline), as much as Moses’ mother loved him.

Such a weighty movie must be lightened somehow, and here, the comedic brunt of the film largely falls upon a duo of conniving court magicians, Hotep and Hoy, played by Martin Short and Steve Martin respectively. Generally, the cast list glitters as much as any of the resplendent statues erected by the Egyptians. Helen Mirren, Ralph Fiennes, Val Kilmer, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart, and Michelle Pfieffer all handle their respective roles with aplomb, displaying the necessary emotions with prodigious skill. They prove that the greatest actors can rely on nothing but their voice to infuse a character with life and portray a cornucopia of emotions.

Such power thrums in almost every beat that you are continually swept away like the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea

Then, there is the music. One would be remiss if they continued without mentioning Hans Zimmer’s majestic score. Such power thrums in almost every beat that you are continually swept away like the Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea. Each song has its own special appeal. ‘Deliver Us’ is a thunderous rendition of the cry for freedom that has been uttered innumerable times throughout the ages, culminating in a heart-rending paean to a mother’s love that leads her to make the ultimate sacrifice. (Indeed, Ofra Haza was so brilliant that she was asked to do practically every single version of the song in no less than 18 translated versions.) The lyrics are poignant and memorable. In ‘When You Believe’the final triumphant anthem, we are told that “Hope is frail, but its hard to kill”: a noble sentiment entirely worth remembering in this day and age. One of the particular joys to be experienced after watching the movie is using Spotify to discover the wider repertoire of the eminently capable cast. Ofra Haza’s voice is nothing short of angelic and mixes surprisingly well with typical club genres. Throughout the film, there is a mix of Western-style lyrics and structures with traditional Hebrew songs to potent effect, thus displaying the universal ability of good music to touch our hearts and transcend our foolishly-drawn boundaries.

The movie also has a unique place in the history of film. This was only the second movie Dreamworks had ever worked on. Jeffrey Katzenberger had wanted to do a biblical story since working at Disney and so leapt on the opportunity at Dreamworks. He consulted several theologians while working on it, to ensure the story was as accurate as it could be. Within the realm of animation, this film sought to marry computer-generated graphics with hand-drawn animation, the result being a lively, almost interactive experience that still betrays a quintessentially human touch.

Above all, this movie serves as an irrefutable rebuke to any heathens who would say that animated movies ought to be looked down upon as an art form. Moreover, it shows that these tales that have passed through the ages have survived for a reason, and we do ourselves a disservice if we allow them to gather dust and decay like so many ancient ruins. We must learn from our forebears if we are to avoid making the same mistake.


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