Wandering in the desert

Culture | The Prince of Egypt was a box-office bust, but will the film have a longer-term cultural impact?

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

As The Prince of Egypt begins its exodus from the movie theaters, it is time to assess its impact. Although its box-office numbers were decent-staying in the top 10 since before Christmas-it was not really a hit. So far, the animated story of Moses has earned some $85 million. But it cost over $100 million to make. America's immoral majority was just not that interested in going to a movie about God's lawgiver. While many Christians complained about deviations from the Bible, some reviewers criticized it for being too reverent with the story. Some critics blamed DreamWorks for consulting with evangelical leaders throughout the project (see WORLD, Nov. 7). Many Christians did appreciate the movie, but it appears that many more churchgoers watched Titanic than saw The Prince of Egypt. Part of the problem with the reception of The Prince of Egypt may have been that cartoons are traditionally children's fare. Adults may have stayed away from the animated feature, expecting kid stuff. Kids, on the other hand, might have missed the cute fuzzies they are used to in Disney cartoons. Instead, they are treated to renditions of the slaughter of the Israelite babies, the plagues, and the death of the firstborn. Whether the movie's lukewarm performance will cause Hollywood to write off the Christian market, or whether the movie will gain new life as a video classic, remains to be seen. Maybe the problem was a lack of merchandising. DreamWorks took the high road in forswearing the kind of product tie-ins that have become the norm for every other cartoon project. There would be no Israelite action figures, no Burning Bush fast food packaging. Because of the sacredness of the subject, the studio announced, the only tie-ins would be books and music, no tasteless toys and knickknacks. Obviously, the filmmakers had never set foot in Christian bookstores that run with tacky merchandising of sacred subjects. The movie has left many theaters, but the CDs and books remain. How well do they measure up? The music
The soundtrack album, with songs by veteran stage lyricist Stephen Schwartz and score by Hans Zimmer, preserves the catchy songs that worked well in the movie, but perhaps not so well by themselves. The story of the music reveals a great deal about the making of the movie. The showcase tune, "When You Believe," performed by pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston-and getting considerable radio play-has the chorus, "There can be miracles/When you believe." Originally, the words were, "You can do miracles/When you believe." The theological consultants unanimously objected, DreamWorks spokesmen told WORLD, insisting that only God can do miracles. As they did for much of the project, the filmmakers deferred to the theologians and changed the words. (The theologians might have held out for lyrics that would not imply that belief causes miracles.) One song is on the soundtrack that is not in the movie at all. "Humanity," performed as a massed celebrity sing-a-long for charity, has as one of its lines "One people one planet," and celebrates how all nations are part of one global humanity. Strange lyrics to go with a movie about God electing one nation and blasting the rest. But, thankfully, it was cut out of the film. The DreamWorks music division released two other CDs that were "inspired" by the movie. In the case of the "Nashville" album, the film was shown to a large group of songwriters and country music performers. Those who felt moved to do a song could offer it for the CD. Nashville responded enthusiastically to the subject, producer James Stroud told WORLD, and many top stars (including Reba McIntire, Randy Travis, and Vince Gill) appear on the listenable album. Album highlights include a lovely meditation on the mother of Moses entrusting her baby to God's care by Alison Krauss ("I Give You To His Heart"); a lively collaboration between Pam Tillis and Marty Stuart ("Milk and Honey"), and an earnest and almost Egyptian-sounding tune on Moses' reluctance to follow his calling by Charlie Daniels ("Could It Be Me"). The "Inspirational" album features mostly black gospel artists, such as Kirk Franklin and Shirley Caesar, and secular R&B performers, such as Boyz II Men. It also includes some of the harder-edged contemporary Christian music groups, Jars of Clay and DC Talk. (Softer CCM stars-specifically, the various Chapmans: Steven Curtis, Gary, and Amy Grant writing a song for Faith Hill-were on the Nashville album. Ms. Grant is also on the soundtrack as the performer of Moses' mother's song, "River Lullaby.") On this album, the styles range from the smooth harmonies of "Destiny" by Take 6 to the raucous preachifying of Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ. Kirk Franklin's "Let My People Go" is a curious synthesis of the rhythms of rap with the rhythms of hot gospel preaching concerning "the modern-day Pharaohs" of racism. Many of the songs on both the Nashville and the Inspirational CD zero in on slavery. In "My Deliverer," DC Talk is one of the few artists and writers in any of the spinoffs to stress the way in which Moses points ahead to Christ: "Moses heard the whole world cry/For the healing that would flow/from God's own scars." The books
Last fall a mini-controversy emerged when author Eric Metaxas objected to toning down his references to God-particularly masculine references-in a children's book, illustrated by scenes from the movie, being put out by Tommy Nelson (the children's division of Christian publishing giant Thomas Nelson). And yet, the final product, The Prince of Egypt A to Z, is plenty solid for the 2- to 6-year-olds for whom it is written. In an alphabet book with large and bright pictures from the movie, Mr. Metaxas writes loose rhymes that are sometimes funny (telling the baby in a basket to avoid the hippo), sometimes didactic ("C is for courage"), and sometimes reverent ("T is for the Ten Commandments,/searing words from Heaven's Throne"). For children aged 4-8, Tommy Nelson has "The Prince of Egypt Values Series," designed to use the story of Moses to teach specific virtues to children. This could easily have been an exercise in moralism, but veteran author Mary Manz Simon does portray virtues as the fruits of faith. After telling the story (using masculine pronouns for God), the books end with a section "To Think About," clearly spelling out the lessons and the applications. This is followed with a section "To Talk About," giving questions that parents can discuss with their child ("When have you seen another person do what was right, even though it was hard or scary?"). Ages 8 and up are given the first 14 chapters of Exodus, from the International Children's Bible, New Century Version, a gender-inclusive paraphrase. God is referred to as "he," however, and notes from Charles Swindoll point out discrepancies between the movie and what the Bible actually says, along with various facts and biblical principles for Christian living. Though his insights are often useful, there is not much of the gospel in them. In explicating the Passover as "a picture of obedience," for instance, Mr. Swindoll misses the chance to focus on the Blood of the Lamb. The same problem is evident in the movie-connected book for adults, Destiny and Deliverance: Spiritual Insights from the Life of Moses, an anthology of reflections by bestselling Christian Booksellers Association authors, such as leadership guru John Maxwell, who discovers in the life of Moses not Ten Commandments but Ten Leadership Principles. The book is more about self-created destiny than deliverance, with precious little about how Moses, the people's intermediary before the holy God, points to Jesus Christ. Most writers make little connection between the children of Israel's slavery and our slavery to sin, and how, in both cases, deliverance comes through God's miraculous action, not our own.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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