The Prince of Egypt may have beautiful animation and music but in retelling the story of the Exodus, they get part of it wrong.
While working as Chairman of Walt Disney Studios Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to do an animated adaptation of the 1956 classic, The Ten Commandments. No matter how many times he mentioned this to then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the answer–like the many requests of Moses to Pharaoh–was always no. With a no-go at Disney, Katzenberg would soon see it happen but only after joining with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form DreamWorks. If you will it, it is no dream, right?
In terms of animation, the film is solid with beautiful visuals that paint a picture of the era. That’s one thing about animation, you have a larger canvas to do things that are next to impossible in live-action without a lot of visual effects or building a lot of sets. Take the splitting of the sea, for instance. It’s always fascinating to see how the different films split the Sea of Reeds/Red Sea. Everyone does it so differently. However, it was an all-night affair–per Exodus 14 but you would not realize this from watching any of the films. They make the sea splitting happen quickly.
Musically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this aspect of movie. It was never going to be a large-scale animated remake of The Ten Commandments. Stephen Schwartz pens the songs while Hans Zimmer provides the score. Both would earn Oscar nominations for Musical/Comedy Score with Schwartz winning for Original Song with “When You Believe.” When Miriam and Zipporah sing the song in the film, the bridge includes excerpts from the “Song of the Sea.”
My rewatch comes days before Jews across the globe will retell the story of the Exodus during Pesach/Passover. Some might prep for the holiday with the DeMille classic or they could turn to this film instead. Both have their many flaws when it comes to the storytelling itself. Once we get to this aspect of the film, it features too many flaws for my comfort. That’s the thing with movies that draw from the Torah: they never get it right. They even bring on religious consultants and still manage to not tell the story correctly! Oh, they get the basic gist correct but there are many details in which the film gets it so wrong. Why is this so hard when the text is sitting right there? I mean, seriously. Between the Torah and the Talmud, the text spells it out so clearly!
I’m an Orthodox Jew and so my approach to this film is informed by what I’ve learned about the Exodus from Egypt. Whether it’s via Chabad or the many texts and translations offered by Sefaria, it’s this knowledge that informs my review. Listen, I know that any adaptation will not be 100% accurate but when filmmakers bring on religious consultants, it seems inexcusable that they still manage to get things wrong about the Exodus.
Right off the bat, Tuya says she will take Moses to Pharaoh. That’s right, in this film, it is both Seti and Tuya that adopt Moses as their son. In 1 Chronicles 4:18, the name given to Pharaoh’s daughter is Bithiah. Her given name at birth is recorded as Thermutis but went by Bithiah after converting to Judaism. According to Exodus 2, the way this happens in the film is wrong (See Sefaria for additional commentary). What the text says is that Pharaoh’s daughter sends off for a wet nurse from the Hebrews, which turns out to be Jochebed. There has been much debate over the years about who was Pharaoh during the Exodus but the scholarly consensus is that Rameses II was leading Egypt when the Israelites were freed. Seti very well could be the Egyptian king that died while Moses dwelt in Midian.
Speaking of Midian, there are midrashic texts that tell us where Moses is in the time after he flees Egypt. Unlike every film, he does not immediately go to Midian. Instead, he has a layover in Ethiopia where he serves as king. But again, no film or miniseries ever depict this aspect of his life. He is always wandering through the desert!
Just about every film depicts a relationship between Moses and Rameses II. It’s highly possible that there was previous interaction but unlikely that they have a close relationship. Going off of the Torah, I find no reason to believe that they would be friendly when Moses returns to Egypt. The other thing is that it is a shock when Moses appears to learn that he’s Hebrew. When one reads Exodus 2:11, one can only assume that Moses was aware of his origins. It should not be such a shock for Moses to learn that he’s Hebrew. And yet, the film makes it appear this way. My guess is that it is for the dramatic effect. Speaking of Pharaoh, he’s seen as the sole survivor as the Egyptian army chases after the Israelites. Exodus 14:28 and Psalm 136:15 state otherwise.
Let’s move onto the Levites. The Levites were always destined for priesthood. Following the Exodus, they are the people who will be carrying the Ark of the Covenant. It is because of this that the Levites were never slaves. Why is it that you can see Aaron chiseling stone at one point? But before this, Egypt is holding Zipporah in the palace. Her first appearance in the Torah does not come until Moses arrives in Midian after killing an Egyptian slave driver. Is this one of those things where they force it into the story because of Moses eventually marrying her in Midian?
By the time that Moses returned to Egypt, he and Zipporah were the parents of two children. You would not know this from the movie because they have no children upon returning to Egypt. I’m getting to Aaron’s portrayal in a moment but it is Aaron who persuades Moses to not bring his wife and children into Egypt. Anyone reading Rashi would know that Zipporah and the two children never make it down to Egypt. Otherwise, the text and commentaries in Exodus 18:2-3 would make zero sense. That this film never even shows that Moses and Zipporah are the parents of Gershom and Eliezer is a disappointment, let alone the fact that Zipporah makes it to Egypt during the Exodus.
I’m not a fan of Aaron’s portrayal in the film. He’s one of the greatest leaders in Jewish history and was on board with the Exodus before Moses came back from Midian. All of this is in Exodus 4! In the film, Aaron blames Moses for the increased workload–reminder, Levites were never slaves in Egypt! Whenever Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go in the movie, Aaron is never at his side. Nor is Aaron the one who strikes the edge of the Nile when the first plague comes around. Exodus 7:19-20 makes this clear as day. These are major issues and the film should have done better. Where is Joshua in all of this? He’s nowhere to be seen in the film even as he was a major figure during the Exodus from Egypt.
The Prince of Egypt works fine as a film but when you come into it knowing the story of the Exodus, there are too many flaws for comfort.
DIRECTORS: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
SCREENWRITER: Philip LaZebnik
CAST: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short
DreamWorks released The Prince of Egypt in theaters on December 18, 1998. Grade: 3/5
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