My son Jacob recently chose “The Prince of Egypt” when it was his turn in our revolving “family movie night”. He intends to run through all the Dreamworks animated pictures — a project that should take us about four years, at our current pace — and “Prince of Egypt”, released in 1998, was Dreamworks’ second.
The movie was not completely new to any of us; Jacob and I have seen it many times, alone and together; Dess and Ava have seen small parts of it. Dess said she appreciated best the brothers’ relationship between Ramses and Moses. That happened to be what I was most appreciating on this viewing, too. It’s an aspect of the movie that I didn’t welcome years ago but which makes more sense to me as I grow older; Dess spoke of a complexity in the situation, and I think the brother relationship speaks to that.
It is also one way of coming to grips with – albeit indirectly, and only as a beginning – the troubling aspects of the Exodus that always must be dealt with. Yes, the text of Exodus was radical by saying that gods, or rather the only God, cared about slaves; the Israelites struggled, as all people do, with failure and suffering, and with the presumption that God must consequently not care for them, but in the end they concluded otherwise. This is how slaves in coming centuries, notably African-Americans of the American South, read Exodus: as a testament that God willed their freedom. But Exodus tells also of the destruction of great numbers of Egyptians, both guilty slaveholders and innocent newborns; and if there is one God who is father/mother of all peoples and all creation, this is an obvious problem. Slave and master were bound up in the same “house of bondage” (Exodus 13:3); the brother story in this movie reminds viewers of the human reality and intimacy; the terror of the Angel of Death, and the grief; only as a beginning, but it’s something.
Jacob asked me during our usual mid-movie break whether there was any proof of these events, whether the Egyptians mentioned it. I said that the Egyptians, like all empires of the time (and quite unlike the Israelites), did not record their defeats and failures. This immediately settled him in one way, at least as far as the question of Egyptian records. I forgot to mention the Merneptah stele (which records one early Egyptian victory over a people named Israel, not long after the presumptive time of the Exodus), but I did say there were other clues in the Bible about the event and its timing. I mentioned Moses’ Egyptian name, and the Hyksos, and Joseph. We talked a little about Ramses. I said the event was just too far back to get anything like proof, but that the Israelites were almost surely in Egypt and they recalled not only that they departed in great numbers but that God helped them in some extraordinary way; and they always recalled, in every subsequent trial, how God brought them out of the land of Egypt. So I said to J that I had a hard time believing that this story could be entirely made up.
To begin with, the Hebrews represent themselves as slaves; and though they then depict themselves as victors in the land of Canaan, they credit themselves almost not at all for their escape; instead their story is filled with their own personal failings (Moses is not even a good speaker!), so you get the sense that if they have a God at their backs, they hardly deserve it, and that they escape despite themselves. I didn’t go that much into detail in our short conversation, but for me, such a story implies powerfully that something happened in Egypt to these people that they could not figure out as their own doing, or even as a purely human doing.
Watching the movie full-through, as I haven’t done in years, I noticed a couple of new things. For example, Moses prefigures the plagues in an early conversation with Ramses, who had been fretting about being the weak link in the imperial dynasty: “Yeah, I can see it now. There go the pyramids; statues cracking and toppling over, the Nile drying up. Single-handedly, you will manage to bring the greatest kingdom on earth to ruin.” Ouch. I always thought that the “weak link” part of the script was a sop for audiences to sympathize with Ramses, but really, that’s an indictment right there. And it’s fully Biblical, not created wholecloth from a screenwriter’s imagination.
I also noticed that Moses waking up involved him waking up to what his country is doing. That aspect of spiritual awakening is not emphasized in the movie – not as a spiritual lesson, anyway – but it’s there.
The campfire at the base of Mount Sinai in Midian, when “Through Heaven’s Eyes” is sung, is quite prominent, and it prefigures the fire and light of the burning bush.
The kids were shocked to learn that Ramses was Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
I asked the kids why Pharaoh was so stubborn, and J replied with a musical question we’ve been chanting the last few days, from the Once-ler’s song in a recent adaptation of “The Lorax”:
How ba-a-a-ad can I be?
I’m just doing what comes naturally
How ba-a-a-ad can I be?
I’m just following my destiny.
I noticed, too, just how fast-paced this movie is, how economical, compared to the previous Dreamworks feature, “Antz.”
We really didn’t get the full-blown post-movie discussion that I had hoped for, but I said oh well, the Exodus is not something we can discuss in one night, and we’ll be talking about it the rest of our lives.