Holy Moses! 

DreamWorks spins the Bible

Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. This is a tough one for any Mammon-driven Hollywood studio, especially one releasing a pricey kids' movie. Early on, though, DreamWorks decided to forego the usual tie-ins, which is why there are no Moses Happy Meals. There are instead a line of collectible figures, a Wal-Mart gift package, some dozen books and three CDs, including the original soundtrack and two featuring music "inspired" by the film -- an "Inspirational" soundtrack, with singers such as Brian McKnight and CeCe Winans, and the really inspired "Nashville" soundtrack, featuring country favorites from Wynonna to Alabama. The books include a coloring book and a collector's-edition storybook; younger children's books (Moses and the Burning Bush: A Story About Faith and Obedience and Moses Crosses the Red Sea: A Story of Faith and Courage, both from "The Prince of Egypt Values Series"); older children's books (Moses in Egypt: A Novel Inspired by The Prince of Egypt and The Book of Exodus); and, for the care-of-the-soul set, Destiny and Deliverance: Spiritual Insights From the Life of Moses.


2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. One of the biggest struggles for the filmmakers was trying to figure out what God sounds like. "It turns out to be really easy to produce the voice of the Devil," explained one of the directors. "Or HAL from 2001." The Prince of Egypt team solved the problem by having Moses hear God in his own voice. In other words, when Val Kilmer's Moses stands before the burning bush, he hears -- himself. Kilmer, an actor with a gift for idiosyncratic characterization (Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday), gives Moses a curiously deracinated, modulated voice with no urgency or fire. What Moses does have, however, is an American accent. In keeping with old-school epic Hollywood, the Egyptian royals are all voiced by British actors: Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren play Pharaoh Sr. and his Queen, while Ralph Fiennes keeps to evil type by voicing Pharaoh Jr.


3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. This isn't a problem for The Prince of Egypt, because the film's conception of God is so reduced there's no possibility of blasphemy. The God in the film is dreary, and more hectoring than terrifying; the burning bush is a shimmering shrub; and Kilmer's youthful quaver just doesn't have Charlton Heston's Old Testament razzmatazz. Or Samuel L. Jackson's.


4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. To cover its bases, DreamWorks consulted with some 500 religious leaders, including a contingent of Vatican cardinals, bishops and archbishops. Among those "educators, clergy, biblical scholars, Egyptologists, biblical archaeologists and religious leaders" thanked in the final credits are Dr. Jerry Falwell, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Reactions to the film have been enthusiastic, save for a dissident group that has posted a protest on the Internet: "All we ask is that theaters prevent young children from attending viewings of adult racist lies and that theaters warn audiences that The Prince of Egypt motion picture includes libel of the Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) religion, peoples, culture and history." This naively anti-Semitic dissent is available at www.teenwitch.com ("a Web site for serious teen witches").


5. Honor thy father and thy mother. Looking to flesh out Moses' wonder years, The Prince of Egypt pictures the future prophet as a strapping adolescent who adores his parents and likes to chariot-race his brother. When Moses learns that he's a "Hebrew" after bumping into sister Miriam (Sandra Bullock) and brother Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) on the wrong side of town, he runs to the palace and belts out one of Stephen Schwartz's awful songs, "All I Ever Wanted" ("Here among my trappings and belongings/I belong/And if anybody doubts it/They couldn't be more wrong"). Soon, Moses has taken to slouching around the palace and calling Pharaoh "the man I once called Father."


6. Thou shalt not kill. Except when it looks cool. One of the film's best scenes is the killing of the Egyptian first born. The Angel of Death, looking very much like the heavenly swirl in Raiders of the Lost Ark, curls out of the sky and snakes murderously through the city. At each door, a misty tendril reaches out as if smelling for blood, and either passes over or enters. There's no orchestration, no moaning choir, just a forcefully minimalist sound design punctuated by an occasional sigh of relief or final exhalation. But the last image in the scene, of Moses collapsing against a wall in obvious distress, is a New Testament cop out. Moses isn't Jesus -- he shouldn't agonize over the hard choices.


7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Much of the film's principal talent, from its three directors to its composer to -- most important -- executive producer and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, all worked at Disney. Which means that The Prince of Egypt is more like a modern Disney animation than not, from its color values to its tuneless soundtrack to its calculating multiculturalism -- a P.C. anxiousness that results in a rainbow of skin tones, and one exchange in which a black slave helps a Hebrew slave find his balance only to be roughly shoved aside by an Egyptian guard.


8. Thou shalt not steal. The filmmakers say their primary visual inspirations were David Lean, Gustave Doré and Claude Monet. But The Prince of Egypt is a pastiche of old and new techniques, computer wizardry and old-fashioned rotoscoping, and its shifts in tone -- the washed-out pastels of the desert, the expressionistic charcoal strokes of a city at night -- feel incoherent, not innovative. The single most original scene in the film actually owes nothing to Lawrence of Arabia, 19th-century engraving or Impressionism. Moses, having just found Miriam and Aaron, flees back to the palace, sings, promptly falls asleep and begins to dream. The film's three-dimensional sense of space, its fulsomeness, abruptly flattens into the hard lines and bright colors of hieroglyphic figures recounting Pharaoh's atrocities against the Hebrews, then shifts again as the figures begin sliding across the palace's mortared, pockmarked walls. What's surprising about the scene isn't its violence (a depiction of infanticide that helped earn the film its PG rating), but the tension between two-dimensional figures slipping over walls that look convincingly three-dimensional.


9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. "You can't deal with this like some trivial fairy tale," David Geffen reportedly told Katzenberg. Dream- Works should be so lucky to produce a fairy tale as trivial as Walt Disney's Snow White. Which leads to the last injunction:


10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's. Of course DreamWorks wants to be Disney. But it doesn't just want to be Disney, it wants to be better than Disney. Given the power-brokers who started the company, it's not surprising that there's something distinctly self-serving about this desire, a righteousness that informs everything from the new company's decision to build its headquarters on endangered wetlands to its choice of movie subject matter -- two of its eight releases, after all, are about slavery, four if you count Antz and Paulie -- to the marketing strategies for those films. DreamWorks doesn't just make movies about history, it makes history, one sanctioned by the Vatican and Stephen Ambrose both. Last May, when the studio screened its Prince of Egypt promotional reel for exhibitors, the voice-over announced: "In a world of power and mystery, they were the sons of a king." The narrator meant Moses and Ramses, but it's hard not to wonder if he wasn't also referring to David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg.

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