Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Prince of Egypt

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Danny Glover

Rated PG for Intense Depiction of Thematic Material

Movies like "The Prince of Egypt" prove what dreck like "God's Not Dead" and "War Room" could not (and didn't even bother to try, it seems): it is entirely possible to make a religious-oriented film without resorting to preaching or evangelizing.  That's because it lets the story speak for itself.  While certain changes have been made to make it more cinematic, they're mostly cosmetic or filling in the blanks.  The filmmakers understand that the story of Exodus is powerful enough that preaching is unnecessary.

The film gets off to a haunting beginning.  Pharoah (Stewart) has ordered the deaths of every newborn son of the Hebrew people.  With the help of her children, a woman named Yocheved (Ofra Haza) puts her son in a basket and puts him in the Nile River, hoping that he will be spared.  The child ends up in the arms of the Queen (Mirren), who adopts him as Moses.

Cut to years later.  Moses (Kilmer) has grown up to be a pampered prince, delighting in mischief and causing no end of grief for his father.  His best friend is his brother Rameses (Fiennes), who is next in line for the throne, which Moses is perfectly happy with.  After sneaking out to spy on an escaping Hebrew woman named Tzipporah (Pfeiffer), he is confronted by his birth siblings, Miriam (Bullock) and Aaron (Goldblum).  Miriam informs him of his true heritage and purpose, and while initially he is offended at the insinuation, it doesn't take him long to realize the truth.  The turning point for him comes when he accidentally kills a man who is torturing a slave.  Horrified, he flees the city and ends up in the care of a group of free Hebrews, led by the kindly Jethro (Glover).  There he finds his place, marries Tzipporah, and is commanded by God to free the people of Egypt.  Although his reunion with Rameses is initially joyful, Moses's mission puts him at odds with the new Pharoah.

What is striking about "The Prince of Egypt" is that while it is very cinematic, it makes no concessions that could offend religious viewers.  The filmmakers consulted numerous religious experts (roughly 600, according to iMDb) to make sure they wouldn't offend anyone.  By the same token, it doesn't view the story with such reverence that it isn't afraid of having fun with the material.  The story is taken very seriously, but the filmmakers occasionally find time for comic relief.  This kind of balance is difficult to find, but it hits the sweet spot.

That they assembled such a strong cast certainly helps.  Val Kilmer may have gotten some flak over being difficult to work with, but he does a solid job as the central character.  He plays Moses as someone who is in over his head and knows it, but is determined to do what he is commanded.  Being the right hand of God may seem like a good deal (witness how Kim Davis milked it for all it was worth last year), but the weight of the things he has to do is horrible.  Not to mention the destruction of the relationship with his best friend.  For his part, Ralph Fiennes is also very good as Rameses, who has been under the thumb of his ambitious father his whole life.  The supporting roles are filled by stars, but most have minor roles.

There are also some musical numbers, which are nice and kind of catchy.  They weren't designed to sell soundtracks.  They're there because they fit and set the mood.  The late Ofra Haza lends pain and beauty to the film's opening number, and Brian Stokes Mitchell has impressive pipes in the jaunty "Through Heaven's Eyes."

Sadly, the film's look hasn't held up.  The merging of CGI and hand-drawn animation, as used here, was cutting edge then, but it hasn't held up well.  There is also some inconsistent coloring; I recall one scene where Moses's face had taken on a weird green-beige hue, and another where it seemed to change shades of super pale beige with each frame.  However, these are small blemishes and do little to detract from the film.

A word of caution: while the film was designed for family audiences, and it fills that function, it doesn't meant that it doesn't contain some disturbing themes.  There are moments in this film that may be upsetting to young viewers.  Tread carefully.

All in all, "The Prince of Egypt" is fine storytelling that works because it concentrates on that rather than preaching or merchandizing.

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