Monday, August 14, 2006

Movies

Though the medium of film is uniquely suited to perversion - demanding as it does very little discernment to approach, very little intellect to understand, and very little effort to enjoy - there is also much in it that can be turned to goodness and truth. It is my intent to showcase a number of films in the coming times that are absolutely worth your time, and stand as examples of what can be accomplished when the story or the message become the focus, rather than the incident, of production.

The first such film I will address is The Prince of Egypt, if you can believe it.

Released in 1998, The Prince of Egypt was the first animated film produced by Dreamworks SKG, the studio founded by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. The film has a number of distinctions that are worth noting. First, it is a Hollywood rarity in that it is, so far as a 99-minute children's film will allow, essentially orthodox. We are all too aware of the gleam that appears in the Hollywood eye when the opportunity to produce "a different take" on a matter of religious import to millions, and the often disastrous consequences of such action.

The Prince of Egypt, then, is a breath of fresh and invigorating air. The film tells the story of Moses from the day of his placement in the reeds to the parting of the Red Sea, with a small epilogue at the end showing him bringing down the tablets of the Law. Much is necessarily omitted from the story, due to constraints of both time and interest, but what remains is virtually untarnished gold. I will provide a brief rundown of the things that the film could have done without, and which assailed its otherwise unimpeachable dignity. You will do well to note how brief the list is.
  • Typical "comic relief" characters in the form of the two high priests of Ra (voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short, to give you an idea of the sort of humour you can expect).
  • Somewhat feminist bent to the film's characters. Miriam's significance in Moses' actions is perhaps overstated, and Tzipporah has a little too much of the "independent woman" vibe about her. Only Moses' mother, Yocheved, seemed to be spot-on. She is only in the movie for about four minutes, and all of her lines are sung. None of this diminishes Moses in any way, however, and, what's more, nor does it diminish God.
  • Yes, there are songs. It was an animated film in the 90's, after all. Some of them are distracting, but others certainly add to the film. We shall discuss that in time.
  • Aaron is cast as a skeptic rather than a wholehearted supporter, and he changes his mind after Moses brings down the plague of blood, which of course is quite a bit different from what really happened vis-a-vis Aaron bringing it down himself.
So, that's really it. Seriously. Everything else is just wonderful. Pharaoh (Seti, that is) is as cruel and heartless as he ought to be. The initial slaughter of the Hebrew children is not softened or glossed over, and is rather returned to repeatedly as a frame for all sorts of things. The comic relief element of the two priests manages to underscore nicely just how insignificant the Egyptian "gods" were compared to God Himself. They are shown to be nothing but cunning tricksters who work their magic through artifice and minor conjuring. Their staffs certainly turn into snakes, of course, but they are dispatched promptly, as they ought to be.

The songs, a sometimes necessary evil in a children's film of this nature, are almost to a man unoffensive and delightful. The only exception is a comic piece near the middle of the film featuring - no surprise, here - the high priests of Ra. Everything else is either majestic ("Deliver Us;" "When You Believe"), pleasant ("Through Heaven's Eyes"), or simply awesome ("The Plagues").

This latter piece is awesome because God Himself, thank goodness, is awesome. He is not diminished or softened in any way in The Prince of Egypt. The Burning Bush is indeed a burning bush, though the fire is ethereal rather than earthly. His voice is deep and mighty, and He is not inclusive, or tolerant, or small. When Moses objects to being God's voice to the Pharaoh, God's response ("WHO MADE MEN'S MOUTHS? Etc.") is delievered like a sledge hammer blow to the cowering, terrified Moses. This is not a pleasant, modern God.

Neither, indeed, are his other manifestations in any restrained. The plagues, though "rushed" through over the course of a three minute montage, are nonetheless shown in all of their terrible power. The blood is real blood. The boils are real boils. The clouds of locusts swell like the approaching doom that they are. And when the avenging angel takes the firstborn of Egypt, it's a scene both chilling and alarming. A sweeping, silent death from which there is no escape. The song that accompanies the Plague sequence is comprised of lyrics one could scarcely hope to hear uttered in film without it being mocking or ironic:

I send a pestilence and plague
Into your house, into your bed
Into your streams, into your streets
Into your drink, into your bread
Upon your cattle, on your sheep
Upon your oxen in your field
Into your dreams, into your sleep
Until you break, until you yield
I send the swarm, I send the horde
Thus saith the Lord

The parting of the Red Sea is nothing less than astonishing. It's a pity I can't show it to you. What I can show you, however, are the first ten minutes of the film, as uploaded to YouTube. The magical nature of "fair use" laws apparently allows ten minutes of a film to be distributed freely to anybody, and as such the gentleman in question is slowly uploading the entire movie in ten-minute increments. If this taxes you ethically, so be it, but in the mean time there's no harm in watching this sample.



I would recommend The Prince of Egypt to anybody with an interest in such things, and especially to those with young children for whom it is increasingly difficult to find movies that are just as good aesthetically as they are morally. Check this one out. You'll be glad you did.

Further reading:

The IMDB Entry
The Wikipedia Entry
The DecentFilms Review

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Having seen this film probably around 6 or 7 times, I have to agree with you - it was pretty awesome. Also, as a kid, the Red Sea Crossing scene was literally the coolest thing ever - you saw a freaking whale in the water. Man, that was cool.

Nick Milne said...

A whale indeed. In any other film it would have felt contrived or tacked on, but, to see it happen after the mind-bending spectacle of the parting itself, it almost seems bashful and restrained by comparison.

And the pillar of fire - how cool was that?

Love2Learn Mom said...

We love Prince of Egypt too. The scene in which Moses confronts Ramses in front of the hieroglyphics of the babies being thrown into the river and says "You have to let go of your contempt for life before it destroys everything you hold dear" blows me away every time I see it.

Have you seen the sequel, Joseph King of Dreams? It was released straight to video, but is quite good too (I'm still amazed at some of the neat little details that they actually got right!) and has quite good music as well. Both are favorites in our house.

Nick Milne said...

I've never seen it, unfortunately, but I'm looking for a copy as we speak. You're not the first person to recommend it to me!

I can't wait to see it. In fact, I've been reacquainting myself with animated films in general in the last few weeks on account of being so impressed with Prince of Egypt, and I'm glad to have returned to my understanding of just how amazing the medium can be.

The next movie I "review" won't be an animated one, but I do have a few on deck to look at. If I can get myself worked up enough about it all I could put out more than one of these a week, in any event. We'll see.

Love2Learn Mom said...

Excellent!

I also forgot to mention how much I loved the dream sequence that took place in a two-dimensional Egyptian wall painting (there probably is a better term for that). It was particularly stunning when we saw it in the theater.

It's funny because I'm not a very big fan of animation, although I enjoy some that really take advantage of the medium - these two and The Incredibles really stand out in my mind. I also understand that I need to take another look at the animated Phantom Tollbooth movie. Haven't seen it since I was a kid.