Friday, May 29, 2015

Film Review #107: The Prince of Egypt

If you guys know me well, then you know that I am not a deeply devout person.  I haven't had much of a religious side to me since my Grandmother died in 2009 and I've been very cynical and blackhearted to the subject since.  Several years passed and I found a movie that I hadn't seen since I was a very little kid: The Prince of Egypt.  Figuring I held the film to some religious standard, I decided to buy a copy and take a gander at what I was sure was going to be a film that pandered to me about the Old Testament.

What I got from the movie was quite possibly the greatest animated film in the history of the medium.  I'm not even joking.  This film is a magnificent, bold and epic retelling of a story millions of people hold to their hearts from a more worldly prospective and it pays off for the film wickedly.  It takes full advantage of the animation medium and excels at it to the point where I thought this was a Disney Film for the longest time.  It is a film that does not sugarcoat the epic story of the Exodus and even adds more layers to the story that even Cecille B. DeMille failed to add in his magnum opus, The Ten Commandments.  It's a beautiful film that, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Lion King before it, added an epic tone to the animated medium which had been sorely missing since the 1940's.  Animtion was definitely alive and active if even DreamWorks could outdo Disney and Pixar in a year.

Plot: Fearing the rising population of Hebrews in his empire, Pharaoh Seti sends his men into the Hebrew villages to slay the newborns and stop the overpopulation in the kingdom of Egypt.  But one woman manages to elude the guards and sends her infant son adrift on the Nile, praying that he will be kept safe from the wrath of the Pharaoh.  The basket drifts all the way to the private waterway of the Queen, who takes the young baby in as her son, naming him Moses.

Many years later, Moses (Val Kilmer) and his older brother Ramses (Ray Fiennes) are reckless teenagers having fun at the expense of the High Priests Hotep and Hoi and to the dismay of Seti (Patrick Stewart), who demands that Ramses follow in his footsteps and rule their dynasty with an iron fist.  After some prodding from Moses, Seti agrees to give Ramses some more responsibility and ultimately names him Prince Regent.  The priests present Ramses with a gift: a slave girl.  But when she acts hostile towards him, Moses is awarded the girl.  But she manages to escape her captives and flees towards the Hebrew village.  Moses follows her, hoping to meet her, but is discovered by his actual brother and sister.  While his sister (Sandra Bullock) desperately tries to reach Moses, he refuses to believe her of his true heritage, until he comes across the hieroglyphics depicting Seti's ruthless slaughtering of the Hebrew babies.

 Moses ultimately stands up for an elderly slave being whipped and accidentally murders the guard.  Fleeing into exile, Moses officially denounces his ties to the Egyptian monarchy and travels the desert for many days until he encounters the village of the slave girl he had allowed to escape in Egypt, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer).  The villagers take him in and he ultimately wins the girl's heart.  But Moses eventually comes across the Burning Bush and the God of the Hebrew's, who tells Moses that he is to be sent to bring freedom to the Hebrews and bring them to a land of milk and honey.  Moses and his wife return to Egypt, only to find that Ramses has succeeded his father on the throne.  Despite the two's mutual desire for them to return to their brotherly past, both dig their lines in the sand as liberator and conqueror and their love for each other is put to the ultimate test when God unleashes the Plagues on the kingdom Moses once called home.

What's Bad?: Again, like in Antz, the overuse of star power in the voiceover cast can be distracting in this film.  While many of the voices fit in almost perfectly in the world the animators create, I would be lying if the combo of Steve Martin and Martin Short didn't distract me on a few occasions.  But the moments are very minute.

What's Good?: When working on an adaptation, you often want to take a different perspective from other famous retellings of such classic stories.  The Ten Commandments brought the Bible to Hollywood and made a more entertaining version of the Exodus story.  Meaning, it made Moses the good guy and Ramses an arrogant villain who is ultimately broken by the Plagues.  Why do I bring this up?  Simple.  The Prince of Egypt reminds us as an audience that Moses and Ramses were raised together as brothers.  Instead of being rivals, it's more likely that these two were once inseparable friends.  And this film spends a vast amount of time setting up their friendship and we have to witness this strong bond between hero and villain fall apart as they find themselves on opposite sides of a war neither truly wants to win.  This relationship is quite possibly the strongest in any animated film, even though it ends tragically.

Ralph Fiennes is extremely powerful as Ramses, playing him both as the brash and irresponsible Prince and the strict and arrogant Pharaoh.  He gives it his all in this movie and really makes the relationship mentioned above that much stronger.  Ramses is a tormented prince, who without a positive person in his life in his brother, takes up the role his father demanded he follow and ultimately becomes the villain who we're actually sad fails in his own ambitions because we love this character.

The animation style is also really interesting.  Unlike following the "Barbie/Ken" stereotypes in many other animated films around the same time (Quest for Camelot, Mulan, Hercules, Anastasia), it takes the Pocahontas approach and decides to make the people in this film look more like realistic and less like the stereotypes people were getting sick of by this time.

There is also a scene I have to talk about.  It is what I call a perfect scene.  After Ramses refuses to free the Hebrews one final time, Moses explains to his family about God's decision to take the first-born males in every household.  From his final declaration about the Plagu to the next major musical number, there are only two spoken lines and they are both spoken by Ramses to Moses as he lays his son to burial:

"You...and your people...have my permission to go."
"Leave me!"  

And the two expressions each man makes in their next two scenes are the most powerful in the movie.  As Ramses cradles the body of his dead son, he looks back towards Moses with a look of absolute derision and hatred, one that very few animators can master.  And upon getting the answer he'd been praying for, Moses collapses and sobs outside the palace, finally understanding just how much he had to lose in order to follow his faith.  He knew that at this moment, there was nothing he could go back to in Egypt.  Any hope or prayer he had of bringing his family back together, was gone.

Lastly, the music in this film is as good as most of the musicals Disney was making during their renaissance.  Disney veterans Stephen Schwartz (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Hans Zimmer (The Lion King) took over the music of this epic story and brought the power and raw emotions from those movies and thrust them into the limelight for this moving story that everyone needs to know.  The songs are miracles in themselves, as it proved that Disney did not have the monopoly on animated musicals and that DreamWorks could actually succeed in this medium.  Too bad no more animated films the studio would make would outdo this one's, but that's for another time.

Overall: An animated version of the miracle of many religions all around the world is also a miracle of a film.  In an era where even the slightest misspoken religious word or phrase could bring about a terror attack, this film is a bold and theatrical interpretation of one of the most famous moments in religious history.  But it will not hesitate to cover the darker more graphic moments and ultimately makes you turn off the movie feeling both happy and empty on the inside.  You cheer for the Hebrew's escape, but you question "what could have been" between Moses and Ramses.  In an era where 2-D animation was fading faster than it ever had before, DreamWorks proclaimed that he medium still had a few bullets left and they most certainly saved one of their best for last.

Final Grade: 97 or A+

Next Review: The Road to El Dorado
Then: Chicken Run
Later: Joseph: King of Dreams
Finally: Shrek

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