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The power of the word

Culture | How The Prince of Egypt was made

Issue: "The tolerance police," Dec. 19, 1998

in Hollywood - When Steven Spielberg, ex-Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music producer David Geffen first planned their new company, DreamWorks, in 1994, the conversation turned to Moses. "Steven asked what the criteria would be for a great animated film," Mr. Katzenberg recalls, "and I launched into a 20-minute dissertation about what you look for: a powerful allegory that we can relate to in our own time; extraordinary situations to motivate strong emotional journeys; something wonderful about the human spirit; good triumphing over evil.... Steven leaned forward and said, 'You mean like The Ten Commandments?' and I said, 'Exactly.'" Then David Geffen said, "What a great idea. Why don't we make that our first animated movie?" But Mr. Geffen went on to offer some advice. As Mr. Katzenberg related to WORLD, Mr. Geffen warned his colleagues, "At Disney, you could slap a happily-ever-after ending on Little Mermaid," fundamentally changing Hans Christian Andersen's original meaning, "but you can't do that" to the Bible: "You have to do it faithfully. You have to do it accurately." The three resolved to follow Mr. Geffen's advice. They would work to create an entertaining film that pushed the artistic and technological envelope of animation, but they would resist liberal theology's tendency to allegorize, and instead emphasize accuracy in biblical detail and theology. There is a major biblical inaccuracy in the movie-having the baby Moses taken out of the Nile by Pharaoh's wife, rather than his daughter-that is largely a concession to Muslims; that's how the Koran says it happened. DreamWorks asked for input from Ted Baehr, whose Christian Film and Television Commission is trying to establish a positive Christian presence in Hollywood, and from James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Kennedy, and others who have often criticized Hollywood values. They, in turn, gave the filmmakers the names of scholars and educators whom they trusted. The film's producer, Penney Finkelman Cox, told WORLD that these conservative Bible scholars proved the most helpful in helping them understand the text. Director Simon Wells confessed to an initial fear about having a religious agenda interfering with artistic freedom-but the opposite happened, he told WORLD: "We wouldn't have worked so hard" to account for the complexity of the characters and the meaning of their actions if religion had not been involved. The Bible scholars gave the filmmakers insight into the true significance of the events. The artists found themselves grappling with details-such as the "hardening of Pharaoh's heart"-that they normally would have skimmed over or even thrown out. The result of taking the Bible seriously was a story "more in depth than it would have been." For production designer Darek Gogol, working with a Bible story was artistically liberating. Up until this time, he told WORLD, animated features were nearly always mere fairy tales for children. Disney, where he had worked for years, always depicted "small worlds." Animators yearned for the chance to work on a story with depth and meaning and a vast scale. Kathy Altieri, the film's art director, also spoke of how "the Bible is so rich" that those attempting to express the biblical themes in a visual way were fully challenged. DreamWorks artists drew the Hebrew world to be organic: The plants, animals, and evocations of life express God's creation. They showed the world of the Egyptians, on the other hand, as man's creation: stone, lifeless monuments, geometric shapes, regimented organization. The result: a film design expressing the emphatically unhumanistic but definitely biblical notion that there is a conflict between God and man. Following an advance screening for the religious press, representatives of liberal denominations expressed surprise that The Prince of Egypt presents a literal interpretation of Scripture. Here is no small band of escaped slaves scampering through "The Reed Sea," a swamp at low tide, which is what liberal Bible scholars think must have happened. No, here 600,000 individually computer-animated Hebrews walk through a parted ocean, following a pillar of fire. Clearly, the liberal "demythologized" interpretation of the Bible could hardly make for an interesting movie, and that's no surprise: There is nothing in liberal theology that has ever inspired any kind of significant artistic expression. The unwatered-down faith and the hard-edged teachings of the Bible, on the other hand, have always proven to be great material. Traditional art forms-from a painting to a novel-are the work of one individual, whose worldview is reflected in the artistic creation. Movies are collaborations of hundreds of different artists. The Prince of Egypt is the work of 450 artists over the course of four years-some believers, and many more, no doubt, not. Mr. Katzenberg refused to comment on his own religious beliefs, calling them in the postmodern way strictly private and personal-and in making this type of film, perhaps they are not relevant. The DreamWorks filmmakers were simply trying to make an entertaining, stimulating, commercially successful motion picture, using a Bible story that, unless they messed up, would bring a built-in audience to the theaters. Their treatment is not without inaccuracies and imaginary interpolations, but the power of the movie, when it does have power, comes not so much from the overt intentions of the filmmakers, but from the Word of God.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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