When one of Hollywood's major players, DreamWorks, announced plans to make an animated feature on the life of Moses, many Christians cringed, expecting a Disneyized, politically correct, New Age caricature of the Old Testament. When DreamWorks actually consulted conservative Christians about the project, some Christians saw The Prince of Egypt as an answer to prayer, an example of God breaking into the secular entertainment industry. Others, hearing accounts of product tie-ins that attempted to de-gender God (see WORLD, Nov. 7), remained skeptical.
But now that the much-hyped movie is out, the verdict is in: The Prince of Egypt is aesthetically, morally, and even theologically a good movie. The downside—liberties with the details of Moses' life—is compensated for by the beauty and power with which it presents what the Bible does say. And the best part of the film is its unflinching portrayal of God.
The Prince of Egypt, though suitable for most children, is no mere kiddie-flick. It is rated PG, for biblical violence: The slaughter of the Israelite babies (described by the Egyptians with chilling contemporary resonance in terms of population control) is clearly, though non-graphically, presented. So are the plagues, including the death of the firstborn. For all of its amusing musical production numbers, thrilling chariot races, and spectacular special effects, The Prince actually deals with issues of character, the transcendence of God, and faith.
Most striking is the film's visual impact. Combining fine art backgrounds and styles, traditional two-dimensional cartoons, and high-tech three-dimensional computer animation, The Prince sets new standards in the art of animation. Whereas the scale of a typical Disney cartoon is small, tending toward the diminutive and the cute, the scale of The Prince is vast, tending toward the sublime and the infinite. The awe-inspiring desert vistas, the gargantuan Egyptian monuments, and landscapes that dwarf the tiny human beings create a sense of infinity that—as Christian artists have long known—helps set a distinctly religious tone. The parting of the Red Sea—the opening up of an ocean, complete with tidal forces and glimpses of whales in the towering wall of water as the Hebrews pass through on dry ground—will take your breath away.
Fidelity to Scripture is vital. The Bible is mostly silent about Moses' life growing up in the courts of Pharaoh. But it does say that Moses came to the point of rejecting his Egyptian royal status, choosing rather "to be mistreated along with the people of God" (Hebrews 11: 25). The film zeroes in on this conflict, in the process humanizing Moses, presenting him as a young man struggling over his identity, his obligations to his two families, and his mission from God.
The film's biggest violation of Scripture is having baby Moses in a basket being drawn out by Pharaoh's wife, rather than by his daughter. Thus Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) is portrayed as the brother of pharaoh-to-be Rameses (Ralph Fiennes). The two race chariots, get each other into trouble, and share the brotherly bond—until Moses' real sister, the slave Miriam (Sandra Bullock) tells him who he really is, a survivor of Egyptian infanticide. Other extrabiblical details include having Moses meet his future bride Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) first as a Midianite slave.
And yet, when Moses meets God the biblical accuracy—and the film's power—ratchets up. The burning bush sequence is rendered with a sense of awe and mystery that evokes "holy ground." God's voice is not in the stentorian tones of a James Earl Jones, more a whispery "still small voice." But it is forceful and—in a blow against the feminist de-gendering of God—God is also referred to as "he." The words of God in calling, commissioning, and equipping Moses are straight from the Bible.
When Moses goes back to Egypt to demand the freedom of God's people, he finds that his "brother" Rameses has ascended the throne and is now, because of the hardening of his heart, his enemy. The plagues are somewhat run together in a montage (which might be confusing for those who do not already know the story), but they are literal, supernatural, and definitely miraculous.
For a Christian, the most moving part of the film will be the final plague, the death of the firstborn. In this sequence, the rich colors that make most of the movie so attractive to the eye fade to bleak grays and blacks. The only color is that of the lamb's blood painted on the doorways of God's people—a bright red, vivid against the darkness. The angel of death flows into the homes of the non-believers, wreaking a horrible judgment, but, in a powerful symbol of the gospel, passes over the homes marked by the blood of the Lamb.
DreamWorks took great care not to offend Christians, Jews, or Muslims, leading some to suspect that the movie might turn out to be so inoffensive that it would be bland, nullifying the Bible's edge. But today's trendy neo-pagans may well be offended. The God of Abraham and Isaac is presented as being in stark opposition to the Egyptian pantheon. The priests of Ra (Steve Martin and Martin Short) are portrayed as sinister but comical buffoons, who, in their attempts to duplicate the miracles of the true God, soon get in way over their heads. All spiritual roads do not, apparently, lead to the same goal, not according to the God of the burning bush.
But even more offended may be those who believe in today's domesticated, omni-tolerant god of niceness. Watch for many viewers to criticize the God in Prince of Egypt as being "too judgmental." They will sympathize with the human saga of Moses and Rameses struggling with their identities, but they will be disturbed by this mysterious and utterly transcendent God, who intervenes into his creation with mighty acts, a God of judgment and mercy who provides the Passover lamb.
Many people today are quite willing to believe in a nice god under their control, a projection of their own desires, but The Prince of Egypt—in following the text of the Bible—evokes a God who is "wholly other," set apart, whose righteousness and infinite power are dangerous to sinful mortals (unless they are covered by the sacrificial blood). The Prince of Egypt, of course, is only a Hollywood entertainment, but if it can inject into the popular culture the barest glimpse of holiness, it may play a providential role in bringing a biblical worldview into the public imagination.