When you’re a kid in a devout Christian household, your parents tend to drag you to the movies whenever Hollywood decides to cash in on your faith. This was the case in 1998 when DreamWorks released The Prince of Egypt, an animated feature about the Exodus that was intended to compete with the Empire of the Mouse.
I was a high school freshman back then, and I remember seeing the flick over Christmas Break. It was fine–nothing life-altering, as I had already read the book and I knew how the story ended. It was cool to hear Captain Picard’s voice as Pharaoh and it gave the whole ‘killing Hebrew babies’ episode some extra weight when he said “They were only slaves.” Movies of classic stories can bring things to life in a way that the written word can’t.
Still, it wasn’t the kind of thing you ran out to tell your friends about. “Oh BROOOO did you see the part where Moses was like ‘let them go!’ but Rameses was like ‘NAH’ and then…yeah!” But that had more to do with the value I placed on peer opinion, and less to do with the quality of the product on screen.
Which, now that I’ve seen it recently, is pretty damn good. The animation style, while divergent from the expectation that Disney had conditioned into audiences, was consistent and realistic. The soundtrack has aged very well. And while the story of Moses’ progression from prince to prophet leaves you with no surprises, the clarity of Rameses’ motivations gave me a lot to chew on for days.
(Since we’re reading Exodus this week at church, the wife and I watched the movie with our kids, which prompted all of this.)
On that note, I wanted to address one of the most important parts of all this, and that’s the “foreword” that comes up before the movie starts playing. Basically the creators say that this is an adaptation, they made some changes for the purposes of the format, but it’s true to the spirit of the story, and y’all should just go read the Bible for the details.
Perfectly fine. Shoot, it’s downright humble compared to the full-court press gaslighting that you get from Amazon and Disney when you point out that their versions of Middle-Earth and Marvel run completely counter to their source material. Remember when studios respected their audiences, instead of acting entitled to them? Dude.
Anyway, between reading the book and watching the cartoon, I’ve been thinking a lot about Moses and Rameses. There’s a lot I don’t know about them. Was Moses really surprised to find out he was a Hebrew? Not sure. Was Rameses really the Pharaoh during these events? Also not sure. There’s a lot of historical reading in my future.
But the lessons of both these mens’ lives as shown in the movie are very relevant to me. Moses had to go against his upbringing, against everything he was comfortable with, to serve a higher, righteous cause. Even after meeting God in the burning bush he still had to do the hard work of confronting the brother that he loved, and asking him to do the one thing he feared: dismantle the empire he was supposed to guard.
And Rameses! I have a new appreciation for this character. From act 1 we get a clear motivation for this guy: live up to his responsibility. Protect the dynasty that will one day be his. Don’t be the weak link in the chain throughout history. There has to be immense pressure on him.
In a sense these are two men who are both utterly devoted to their deities, one of whom serves an imperial pantheon and the other of which answers to the one true God of all creation. Moses doesn’t want Egypt to suffer but Israel is already suffering and that has to end. Rameses is more loyal to his father than to his brother, and when his gods go up against the Hebrew god, he doubles and triples down in a contest of wills that can only have one outcome.
There are so many lessons in this, and when you can fit so much into a tight piece of writing, man…that’s just good storytelling. Even at the end, in the Red Sea, when the waters close in on Rameses and he throws his hands out like he can stop it…that is an excellent character right there. A villain who sticks to his goals despite every chance and every reason not to. His motivation and his values are clear, they’re just wrong.
I’m gonna keep chewing on this. You should too. Go rewatch Prince of Egypt. Let me know what you think.
Get back to work.