To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, The Prince of Egypt is a 1998 animated musical drama film directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells (in Chapman and Hickner’s feature directorial debuts) from a screenplay written by Philip LaZebnik (Pocahontas, Mulan, The Road to El Dorado). Featuring Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, and Martin Short, the animated feature is an adaptation of the Book of Exodus. It follows the life of Moses from infancy, becoming a Prince of Egypt, fleeing to Midian, and ultimately returning to Egypt to free the Hebrews as a prophet of the Lord.
Opening in ancient Egypt, we see the enslaved Hebrews singing to the Lord to deliver them from their suffering to the Promised Land. A young mother, Yocheved (Ofra Haza), and her children Miriam and Aaron flee with a basket as Pharoah’s soldiers storm the village abducting the Hebrews’ newborn boys. At the banks of the Nile, Yocheved opens the basket to reveal a baby boy. Yocheved lulls the baby boy to sleep and places the basket in the river, praying to the Lord to keep him safe. After a tumultuous journey, the basket ends up in Pharoah’s Palace, where his wife, Queen Tuya (Helen Mirren), adopts the boy and names him Moses.
Cut to several years later, Moses (Val Kilmer) is now a Prince of Egypt who enjoys causing trouble with his older brother Rameses (Ralph Fiennes). Eventually, Moses runs into an adult Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and Aaron (Jeff Goldblum), who tell him of his true heritage as a Hebrew. Distraught by this information, Moses asks his father, Pharoah Seti (Patrick Stewart), to tell him the truth. After getting confirmation of his Hebrew lineage, a conflicted Moses accidentally kills an Egyptian slaver after witnessing him whip an elderly Hebrew man numerous times. Horrified by his actions, Moses flees Egypt, despite Rameses’ pleas for him to stay, as he feels he doesn’t belong with either group.
The Bible is filled with stories that have influenced modern works of literature and cinema. For example, the story of Moses growing up wealthy, leaving his city, and then returning to save its people is similar to Batman. Consider the fact that Moses and his brother, Rameses, are childhood best friends who become bitter enemies, similar to Magneto and Professor X in X-Men Now, of course, there are many other differences but, if you strip it down to the bones, the stories are similar.
When there are multiple directors it is somewhat hard to say who should be credited with making the film the way it is and even more so with an animated movie. But it should be easy to say that the synergy between these directors made the film work as well as it did. Brenda had worked as a story artist for Disney before making this film contributing to The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Hickner had worked as a producer on We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and Balto. Two films that Wells also directed. Everybody brought something important to the table, from artistry to previous directorial experience, to ensure the final product was what we got.
The beautiful hand-drawn animation is stunning, and while it is colorful and energetic, captures a certain amount of realism and authenticity reminiscent of a painting. Another great aspect about the character designs is how African or Middle Eastern they look. Throughout the ages, many biblical characters in animation or live-action were portrayed as white. This film, on the other hand, shows the characters as they should be, with appropriate skin tones and ethnic features. The Egyptians are dark brown with raven-colored hair and the Hebrews are tan with ruddy brown hair. Seeing The Prince of Egypt as a kid stuck with me because its characters reflect a world I know, one in which I see people of many colors on screen.
The Prince of Egypt is filled with beautifully written songs by Stephen Schwartz (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Enchanted) and a score composed by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight). All of the songs are biblical in nature and most even include the Hebrew language in the lyrics. The music, while also beautiful to listen to, can also be educational for anyone who wants to know what the language means. The standout song of course is “When You Believe”, sung by Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Miriam (Sally Dworsky) during the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. “When You Believe” ended up winning the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 71st Academy Awards ceremony. The score is just brilliant! Hans Zimmer creates a character of his own using a combination of drums, woodwinds, and string instruments to help move the story along. There are times when the score is as delicate as a whisper and then as bombastic as an explosion. The score conveys the plight of the Hebrew people in ways words cannot. It is the embodiment of not only their suffering but their victory over Pharoah Rameses and their liberation – a feast for the ears and the mind.”
No matter your religious beliefs, this film tells a wonderful story about love, sacrifice, and redemption that the entire family can enjoy. I give The Prince of Egypt a Perfect 10/10. The film also spawned a direct-to-video prequel entitled Joseph: King of Dreams and was supposed to be part of a full series of biblically adapted animated films for DreamWorks Animation. Unfortunately, only the two films were made, but with the boom of streaming services, hopefully this series can find new life on Peacock.