Moses. Pharoah. Egypt. Let my people go.
It feels extremely weird having to summarise the Exodus story, but here goes...
In ancient Egypt, Pharoah has declared that all Hebrew baby boys be killed. Moses, being a Hebrew baby boy, looks to have a short future, but he is saved when his mum puts him in a basket and sets him on the river Nile. He is discovered by Pharoah's wife*, who adopts him. Moses grows up as a Prince of Egypt alongside the actual royal prince, Ramses. The brothers live a pretty cool life until Moses discovers that he's Hebrew, and it call comes tumbling down.
*I know that in the Bible it's Pharoah's daughter, but go with it.
Moses flees to Midian, and all is fine and dandy, until God appears to him in the form of a burning bush, commanding him to go back to Egypt and ask Pharoah to "let his people go". Moses does as commanded, putting him in direct conflict with his adopted brother, who is now Pharoah of Egypt.
I have to confess that I have a soft spot for mainstream religious-type stories (I don't mean only those Biblical in origin), but I'm only interested in the ones that are made for a wide audience. When a studio makes a movie for a specific audience (whether Christian, Jew or whathaveyou), they assume that only that particular audience is watching so they don't have to be sensitive to people outside that group. That's fine, but I personally love watching mainstream religious movie because they have the huge challenge of trying to please a lot of different people at the same time, but because not everyone can be made happy, they have to make difficult storytelling choices.
I remember being totally excited when the movie's trailer first came out. I don't remember what I was watching in the cinema, but the teaser trailer came on, and at first I didn't know it was a story about Moses. It was a gorgeous teaser trailer, showing glimpses of a mysterious animated film, ending with the film's money shot -- you know what I'm talking about -- the Red Sea, parted like a CGI masterpiece. I was thrilled, because if you're gonna use animation, you better use it to show stuff that would not look as cool in live-action. That teaser gave me goosebumps.
Then months later the film had its international release, but it got banned in my country. I shook my fist at the censorship board, and then laughed when not too long after, the film was openly released on DVD in stores here... Because apparently cinema-goers are sensitive, while DVD-buyers aren't. Right.
Anyway, The Prince of Egypt as an adaptation of the Moses story has chosen the angle of focusing on the brotherly relationship between Moses and Ramses. It's always interesting (and yes, controversial) to try a unique point of view in a famous story, because while people can be comfortable with black-and-white, it's the shades of grey that make people stop a moment to ponder. This version paints Ramses in a more sympathetic light and suggests that Moses was put in a difficult emotional position when commanded by God to do His work.
Even so, it's still a simplified adaptation, what with it being family-friendly and all, so it brushes over some of the more heavier stuff and omits The Golden Calf Incident. Watching it again, it does feel a little short, and I felt a bit sad that we didn't get to see more of the more interesting characters, like Pharoah's wife (Helen Mirren!), Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer!), Moses' siblings (Sandra Bullock & Jeff Goldblum!) and even Moses' mum, who sadly only gets to be in the opening scene. What we get instead are musical sequences and special effects.
That said, what this movie really has going for it is that it's gorgeous. Like I said before, if you're going to use the animation medium, use it to the best of its potential, and they really pushed it in this case. I actually bought a few of the film's picture books because I fell in love with the art, and the plagues sequence is my favourite bit of the whole film. It's hard to imagine what it was like back in Moses' time to see God's wonders (err, assuming that you believe it to be historical) and this film manages to trigger that sense of wonder by giving a new look to an old story.
I bought the film's soundtrack long before I watched the movie (what with it being banned in cinemas here and all), and boy, the music is epic as well. From the very first song, Ofra Haza's vocals as Yocheved gave me chills in Deliver Us -- which is another reason why I'm sad we don't get to see Yocheved after that scene. There's some amazing vocals in there, and a delightful surprise for me was to get to hear Ralph Fiennes sing* as Ramses. There's also the by now "classic" duet between Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, two powerhouse divas that rocked the roof with their singles version of "When You Believe".
*For a given value of "sing".
I'll end on the note that six years after Val Kilmer voiced Moses in this movie, he played Moses live on stage in Ten Commandments: The Musical. This amuses me. I'm not sure why.