The Prince of Egypt (1998) — The forgotten masterpiece

“Believe, for we will see God’s wonders.”

Justin’s rating: Delivering us from bad Bible adaptations since 1998

Justin’s review: Before the computer animated age fully cemented, the 1990s saw the last — and very possibly, greatest — output of traditionally animated films. It was not only the age of the Disney renaissance but also the period where films like Princess Mononoke, The Iron Giant, Anastasia, and (of course) Beavis and Butthead Do America gave us visually and narratively sumptuous feasts. Among these many great titles was perhaps one greater than the rest: Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt.

I am indeed pitting this against the likes of Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, because Prince of Egypt is an absolute masterpiece in every respect, even if it doesn’t seem to be as highly remembered or regarded today. The retelling of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt far eclipses the old standard of Charlton Heston’s 10 Commandments and is chock-full of amazing music, powerhouse actors, clever themes, and tremendous sights.

As the film breaks with the pleading tune of “Deliver Us,” enslaved Hebrews cry out as they endure back-breaking labor and state-sponsored infant genocide in the land of Egypt. One Hebrew mother makes a bold move to save the life of her young son by sending him into the arms of an Egyptian princess, who then adopts the child. This Moses (Val Kilmer) grows up to be a brother to Prince Ramses (Ralph Fiennes), having all sorts of good times… that is, until Moses learns more about his heritage and sees what Egypt is doing to the people its crushing.

After fleeing into the desert, Moses is called by God to go back to Pharaoh and demand that Egypt let the Hebrews leave. This pits brother against brother, human king against divine king, and the power of the state against the power of heaven. A series of plagues convinces Ramses to allow the Hebrews to leave — at least for a while. He changes his mind and chases after his former slaves with an army, ending at the banks of the Red Sea.

When a movie is so good that you don’t know what to talk about first, that’s probably a good sign. Right? So I guess I’ll start with the music. Not only does Prince of Egypt have a captivating score by some up-and-comer called Hans Zimmer, but there are also several incredible musical numbers that I love to listen to on repeat. “Deliver Us” is a powerhouse opening, “All I Ever Wanted” is a heart-felt plea, “Through Heaven’s Eyes” is a peppy inspirational track, “When You Believe” is about as close as Hollywood will ever get to endorsing faith, and “The Plagues” is downright haunting.

Beyond the music, I just love the look of this movie. It’s colorful and uses its visuals in service of the struggle between the two worlds of Egypt and Israel. The plague sequence, in particular, is mesmerizing with the shadows, falling fire, the uprising of nature, and Moses standing amid the ruin. And everyone who’s seen this movie knows exactly what I mean when I say, “How about that whale in the water!”

I can certainly find faults with how it portrays Moses as conflicted in his role as prophet and some other deviations from the Bible, but you know what? For a Hollywood flick, this is way more faithful and true to the source text than we ever get. It’s not merely good entertainment — it’s great cinema.

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