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Despite lush imagery, 'Prince of Egypt' has real-life resonance

December 30, 1998

Review By Jason Myers

"Diamonds, roses

I need Moses

To cross this sea

of lonelines

To part this red

river of pain"

- "Moses," Patty Griffin

I did not think I needed Moses, and certainly not in the sugared hues of Disneyfied animation. Dreamworks, however, has parted the waters of cute and colorful children's stories, and led weary filmgoers into a triumphant realm of magic.

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"The Prince of Egypt" is a religious experience. Every few weeks I'll read an advertisement for a film which one critic or another has promised "restores faith in film." While the power of belief applies to film as greatly does the power of disbelief, these words begin to provide false hope. Critics are evangelists offering salvation at a cheap price.

From what I could see, no expense was spared in the making of "The Prince of Egypt." Michelangelo himself could not have depicted the story of Moses with any more vividness. Indeed, watching this film, I felt the same awe as when I visited the Sistine Chapel. Only better, the tableau now moves. I see not isolated instances of creation, but the motion - the evolution - of religion.

I see Moses, swaddled and placed upon a tempestuous sea that whirls about the precious cargo until the basket is lifted up into the arms of royalty. The way in which Moses is taken without question into power's security does not have to make sense - events much less sensible but all the more convincing are to follow. So I see Moses embraced by Pharaoh (the inimitable voice of Patrick Stewart) and family. I see his luxurious and exuberant childhood, of chariot races with brother Ramses (voiced by the very regal Ralph Fiennes), of crumbling Sphinx sculptures, of lazy Egyptian afternoons and exotic Arabian evenings.

What I see is richly and carefully drawn. Not only does it look good, it looks real, which is so unexpected by eyes accustomed to Disney's ersatz estimation of reality. The problem with "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is that its palette and pacing cater too eagerly to a child with limited attention and imagination. Everything is formulaic. The hero rises from despair to defeat villains and win the love of a good woman. It's odd that a story from the Bible, a book older than most texts being adapted for screen, should be more representative of modern reality than fables only a century told.

Only because the illustration has the utter texture of the Sahara and the Nile do the emotions of the film cast such power. When Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) transforms from an arrogant boy of pampered ignorance into a man of quest and gravity, the viewer changes as well. We no longer marvel at the grandeur of an empire, we disdain it. Moses spurns the life of a regent for, as the opening song of The Prince of Egypt" says, "the crack of the whip."

The common assessment is that money and privilege do not cultivate the most admirable character - often the very opposite. Pharaoh's callous enmity toward the Hebrew slaves of the empire is adopted by Moses until one evening, as he has wanders outside the palace, when he encounters two Hebrews, Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) and Miriam (Sandra Bullock). These are, of course, his brother and sister. And while at first he spits invective at them when Miriam tells him so, they are the catalysts of his conversion.

Moses is embraced by a group of jolly Hebrews - I always suspected "Fiddler on the Roof" had Biblical underpinnings - and it is with them that he begins to respect each moment of life - but also yearn for the freedom of his people.

Moses does see a bush, but it seems more to glow than to burn with divinity; the spectral vision still has overwhelming impact. Soon his staff has become a James Bond gadget, turning seas red with blood, and parting seas for his people.

When God speaks to him, it is in his own voice. I thought this was a beautiful design - God is in each of us, we only need to find the words for conversant faith. "The Prince of Egypt" may or may not restore your faith in film - perhaps you've always been a doubter in that area - but it has enough hope and incandescent imagery to make you want to believe.




Jason Myers, a Hagerstown native, is a freshman at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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