City Paper is not for tourists
Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells
The very last words of The Prince of Egypt are three quotationsone each from the Pentateuch, the New Testament, and the Koranthat all mention Moses. These appear on the screen at the end of the credits, when the theater is likely to be empty, but the motive for including the three excerpts underlies the entire project. Dreamworks means to announce that its animated biblical epic (and its many spin-off products) is for everybodyor at least all the residents of the more than 50 countries where the movie, in an unprecedented worldwide debut, opens this month.
This statement of universality is significant because Moses is generally portrayedby theologians, historians, and now Prince of Egypt executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and his teamas Jewish. (Yet not all biblical scholars favor this identification.) Although the movie’s hero is introduced as a brown-skinned, Americanized adolescent in the tradition of such recently animated legendary figures as Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hercules, and Mulan, Moses is also identified by such cultural signifiers as the singing of Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza. (The same voice affirmed Minnie Driver’s Jewishness in The Governess earlier this year.) Indeed, this telling of the story is in part a parable of the dangers of assimilation.
Katzenberg’s Moses (the voice of Val Kilmer) is hidden by his Hebrew birth mother, discovered by the pharaoh’s wife (Helen Mirren), and raised as an Egyptian prince. He is unaware of the evil of his adoptive father, the pharaoh Seti (Patrick Stewart), who has decreed that all Hebrew boys be killed at birth. Blithely racing chariots with his adoptive brother Ramses (Ralph Fiennes), Moses overlooks the suffering of the Hebrews, who toil as slaves to build temples in honor of Egypt’s many gods. Then one night he encounters his real sister and brother, Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and Aaron (Jeff Goldblum), who convince him that he’s actually a Jew. Newly sensitized, Moses tries to stop an Egyptian overseer from flogging a slave, only to see the former fall to his death. Moses flees Egypt, meets Jethro (Danny Glover), marries Jethro’s daughter, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), and becomes a contented shepherd. But then the one true God (Kilmer again, uncredited) appears in the form of a burning bush, commanding Moses to return to Egypt, confront new pharaoh Ramses, and lead the Hebrews to the Promised Land.
The tale should be familiar to much of the movie’s intended audience; a few details aside, this is how the Exodus legend is usually prettified for Jewish and Christian children. The narrative is inherently more violent than traditional cartoon fareamong God’s more assertive acts, after all, are killing all the first-born Egyptian sons and drowning the pharaoh’s armyyet Dreamworks’ version is much more congenial than the actual story. Among its evasions and omissions: that Moses killed the Egyptian overseer on purpose, that God later (inexplicably) tried to kill Moses, and that the prophet was 80 years old when he first confronted Pharaoh (who goes unnamed in the biblical account). Discreetly, The Prince of Egypt ends before all that unpleasantness with the golden calf (depicted so enthusiastically in Cecil B. DeMille’s daffy 1956 The Ten Commandments) and God’s final malice toward the man who led His people to the Promised Land.
Despite such bowdlerization, the movie is a credible retelling of the first 14 chapters of Exodus, notable for its deft parody of ancient Egyptian art, especially in a sequence in which Moses finds himself trapped in a one-dimensional Egyptian-style mural. (Continuing this visual motif, the Egyptians are flatter and pointier, the Hebrews rounder and softer.) Purists may be offended by the addition of a half- dozen show tunes (written by Pocahontas songsmith Stephen Schwartz), but the film’s treatment is quite respectful. While the movie does feature two dopey Egyptian priests with the voices of Steve Martin and Martin Short, it avoids talking animals and comic sidekicks like the Stephin Fetchit dragon who marred Mulan. Vetted by more than 60 scholars and religious leaders, The Prince of Egypt vows to be “true to the essence, values, and integrity” of the story.
Of course, such morals as “There can be miracles/If you believe” (from the triumphal last song and first single, “When You Believe”) come from the book of Hollywood, not Exodus. And the film can certainly be seen as the cartoon kicker to Schindler’s List, a reverse-Holocaust parable in which the oppressed, earthy innocents are delivered and the guilty, authoritarian oppressors are annihilated. It’s almost a nostalgic celebration of an era when it was still possible to believe that God can be crueler than man.
Other than to enhance Dreamworks’ profit and self-importance, though, it’s hard to see why this greatest story had to be retold. The filmmakers have chosen blandness over blasphemy, myth over history. As those final quotations remind us, many people have made use of the Exodus myth in the (perhaps) 3,000 years since it was written. The cautious Prince of Egypt, however, is more a visualization than an interpretation.
That’s understandable but unambitious, especially at a time when the whole notion of the Exodus is being re-evaluated by biblical scholars. Perhaps Dreamworks hasn’t heard, but there’s no historical evidence that Moses existed or that a large group of Jews was ever enslaved in Egypt. As Jonathan Kirsch notes in his new Moses: A Life, Moses functions as a “narrative device” in the Pentateuch (which he is traditionally if impossibly credited with having written). Revisionists (including Freud 60 years ago) have suggested that Moses was Egyptian or part-Egyptian, and perhaps received the radical notion of monotheism not from God but from Akhenaten, the 14th-century B.C.E. pharaoh who was written out of Egyptian history for the outrage of (temporarily) replacing the old gods with a single, abstract deity. (Egypto-British scholar Ahmed Osman ties this all together by suggesting that Akhenaten was the grandson of Hebrew patriarch Joseph.)
One possibility is that Exodus conflates the history of the Hyksos, a Semitic people who conquered Egypt circa 18th century B.C.E., with a record of the displaced Israelites’ tenure in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E. (Kirsch notes, for example, that Exodus says the Hebrew slaves made bricks, a building material in Babylon but not in Egypt.) Well before Hollywood first adapted the tale, myth-builders realized that slaves escaping brutal oppression had more appeal than people conquering their Promised Land and massacring its inhabitants. (That’s what happens in the post-Moses books, which are unlikely ever to be animated.) At this late date, though, merely retelling the Sunday-school version of Exodus seems superfluous. If the goal of The Prince of Egypt is to claim bold new subjects for animation, the result is ideologically far dowdier than Disney animators’ recent forays into multiculturalism.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart, here switching sides) plays Moses to the Ba’ku people in Star Trek: Insurrection, the third of the Star Trek flicks to feature the Next Generation cast. Unlike the Hebrewswho supposedly numbered 600,000 men plus uncounted lesser beingsthere are only 600 Ba’ku, which means they can all fit in one epic shot of Picard and his cohorts leading the refugees up a mountain. One other difference: The Promised Land, as it so often is in Star Trek features, is Northern California.
Officially, the movie is set on a planet in the problematic “Briar Patch” region of the universe, but the Ba’ku landscape and lifestyle are easily recognizable as Ecotopian. A scientifically advanced race of attractive Euro-Americans who have abandoned hyperdrive for Hacky Sak, the Ba’ku are upscale back-to-the-landers of the sort who occupy the pricier regions of the Sierra Nevada. (How do the Ba’ku support themselves with their limited agrarian economy? Michael Piller’s script doesn’t say, but my guess is that they grow pot.) Star Trek’s next generation may be intergalactically multi-“ethnic,” but it’s still a safe bet that the people who look like Volvo drivers will be noble and the ones who resemble lizards will be nefarious.
Unknown to Picard, Data (Brent Spiner), Riker (Jonathan Frakes, who also directed), and the other regulars, the Federation brass have made a deal with the sinisterly unattractive Son’a to relocate the Ba’ku. The latter’s planet has miraculous anti-aging properties coveted by Ru’afo (F. Murray Abraham) and the other Son’a, and the Federation has deemed that exiling a mere 600 peoplein violation, of course, of the sacred Prime Directiveis a reasonable course. The “insurrection” of the title, then, is that of Picard and his crew against Star Fleet command, embodied by dislikable Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe), in defense of the Ba’ku, embodied by Anij (Donna Murphy), a Zen-like philosopher and Picard’s love interest.
As is typical of the Star Trek features, the movie’s premise is mostly an excuse for in-jokes about the familiar characters’ quirks. Drama is hardly an issue, since there’s no possibility that Picard and company will fail, or even face unpleasant consequences for their actions. Some viewers may be surprised by the plot twist, and FX fans may thrill to shots of fake-looking things consumed in fake-looking explosions. The true measure for potential Star Trek: Insurrection viewers, though, is whether they’d like to hear Picard and Data duet on a tune from H.M.S. Pinafore. CP