Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Are You Ready for the Plagues?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Are You Ready for the Plagues?

Article excerpt

With The Prince of Egypt showing that the story of Moses can be molded into an animated feature, kids will surely walk away from the film entertained. Adults, however, may leave theaters wondering what this Old Testament God might do next, and to whom.

Like everybody else I know, I go to movies to be entertained. Occasionally I'm educated or edified by something I see in a film, but that's not why I bought the ticket. I go to the library or church for those things. If I'm sitting in one of those cushy stadium seats at the local cineplex, then I came for a great story, one that will engage, distract, perhaps even enchant me for a couple of hours.

By those standards DreamWorks' new animated feature, The Prince of Egypt--a rendition of the Moses story--is a great success. For most of its 90 minutes the narrative moved with the grace and speed of a chariot race, while the animated vistas of Egypt made me feel like a wide-eyed tourist agog in some ancient wonderland. Even in the computerized and cynical wake of Titanic, DreamWorks' animators managed to draw a couple of major "wows" for their special effects. In the theater where I saw the film, it wasn't just Moses who was dazzled by the Burning Bush. And as for the parting of the Red Sea, well, eat your heart out Cecil B. DeMille.

Still, Jeffrey Katzenberg's film is more than just entertainment. Or at least it seeks to be, attempting as it does to retell a biblical story important to three major faiths. Spinning a yarn about Moses isn't the same as refashioning fairy tales or even bringing The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Anastasia to the big screen.

Botch the job with Snow White or Cinderella, and you might get an unfriendly letter from Mother Goose's attorney. Make a mess of the Moses story, and synagogues, mosques, and congregations around the country could be crying sacrilege--and perhaps boycott. Maybe that's why DreamWorks decided to make this particular animated movie without the comic relief of talking camels and singing locusts or merchandising tie-ins like Pharaoh Burgers and Burning Bush night-lights. It's certainly why the studio consulted more than 500 religious experts and previewed the movie at last November's meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Katzenberg and his staff understood that regardless of any disclaimers about artistic license, most of their audience would be comparing the film's story to the biblical narrative.

Moses on the couch

That was my experience. In the days and weeks after seeing The Prince of Egypt, I found myself contrasting this highly entertaining film with the story told in the first 15 chapters of Exodus. I'm not sure if the conversation between these two narratives was edifying or educational, but it did raise a couple of questions for me, some of them pretty unsettling.

To heighten dramatic interest the folks at DreamWorks decided to tell the Moses story as a tale of sibling rivalry, with Moses and Rameses acting out the sort of fraternal competition gone bad that boomers like myself remember seeing Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston do in Ben Hur so many years ago. (Moses, born a Hebrew but raised as a prince of Egypt, believed Rameses, heir to Egypt's throne, was his older brother.) In The Prince of Egypt, the story of Yahweh sending Moses to set the Hebrews free of their Egyptian taskmasters forms the backdrop of a more personal, psychological tale about two brothers who grow up to be deadly foes.

Moses learns that he is not the Pharaoh Seti's son and is crushed and then liberated by this knowledge. Firstborn Rameses, however, is ultimately destroyed by his own fears of disappointing the father who had expected so much of him.

On the one hand it's hard to fault this sort of storytelling as unbiblical, given that both Hebrew and Christian scripture are rife with tales of fraternal conflict: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, not to mention the prodigal son and his righteous older sibling. …

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