I was raised a Christian. I don’t mean the ubiquitous I-went-to-church-on-Easter Christian or my-family-casually-believes-in-God Christian; I was raised in an earnest, read-your-Bible-pray-every-day home that valued Christian education, worshipped every evening and weekend, and catered their children’s media consumption to follow the fruits of the Spirit. “By beholding you become changed,” I was taught, and so I couldn’t celebrate Halloween, was forbidden from watching shows deemed satanic, and was rarely allowed in movie theaters.
As a young kid who, like most kids, wanted to be cool, it could be pretty isolating sometimes. I snuck and watched everything I could – which was a lot – yet full-length movies were more difficult to hide than most TV shows, and much of what was approved for my brother and me was woefully unentertaining by comparison to what I wanted.
Until my mom took me to see The Prince of Egypt.
A rare trip to the movie theater, I expected what we often knew to expect from “Christian entertainment”: blatant moral themes from long-memorized Bible stories with substandard Hanna Barbara animation. What I got instead with a movie in 1998 that I needed, that we all deserved, and that still is – surprisingly enough – an anomaly amongst representations of North Africa and the Middle East. The Prince of Egypt was ahead of its time, so much so that the time of regular dark-skinned Bible characters and non-white depictions of Egypt is still yet to come.
We were given Moses and Rameses, two brothers who were central to the larger web of relationships we saw throughout the movie. Heir to the throne, Rameses bore the pressure of the greatest dynasty known yet to the world while his little brother Moses took it as his job to get the two of them into trouble. A lighthearted prankster opposite an unnaturally serious demeanor, they were best friends who brought out the best and worst in one another. The strength of their bond would add weight to many years later when life would place them at odds, yet theirs was only one relationship in a movie with many. There was Moses and his father, the man who he learned killed an entire population of children, saying “they were only slaves.” There was Moses and Miriam, his blood sister who knew who he was since birth, prayerfully awaiting him to live up to his promise.
And then we met Tzipporah. With long black hair and dark skin – darker than Moses’, in fact – I saw Moses fall in love with a woman unlike most I’d ever seen onscreen. I remember a classmate of mine calling her ugly, saying she had a big face and – I don’t know what else he said, I had a stroke and blacked out. I wish I’d fought him, because Tzipporah, from willful survivor to supportive friend, was a wonderful character.
When Moses met her for the first time at the royal banquet and she demanded to be set free? “I’m giving you all the respect you deserve,” she said. “None.” Moses’ mother looked on with sadness and disappointment as Rameses and Moses embarrassed Tzipporah, adding one more layer to the diagram of relationships that made the characters so special. We met her family, and her large bear-like father who was warm and welcoming. We saw them fall in love over the course of his song. And when Moses told of the burning bush and his charge to deliver his people from slavery and Tzipporah said, “I’m coming with you” …It was mesmerizing.
The biggest detraction from the film’s animated representation was the all-white cast that hid behind its progress. The Prince of Egypt was hardly perfect in that regard, with the voices of Val Kilmer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Martin Short, Sandra Bullock, and Steve Martin behind animated dark-skinned faces. It fell worse into the common pitfall of denoting intelligence or royalty of any non-American character by assigning them a British accent, as Ralph Fiennes gave voice to Rameses. Yet despite its shortcomings I celebrate its progress for what it did right and what that meant to me, a little religious boy who knew the story by heart but was magically watching it as if it were the first time. The Prince of Egypt had black and brown faces, and was absolutely amazing storytelling.
It also had one of the most underrated soundtracks of any animated musical I’ve ever seen. From “Deliver Us” to “The Plagues,” the music held a darker tone than most animated features that balance in a relatively heavy mix of lighthearted songs. In a movie about slaves rebelling in a righteous faith-based campaign for their freedom, strong and emotional was what the musical score called for. Instead of upbeat songs that prioritized fun, the music replaced “fun” with an equally compelling and more powerful feeling of hope.
Every song was painful emotion reflexive of their lives as slaves, the faith the needed to have to risk lives against the Pharoah, and, in Moses’ case, the conflict of betraying his brother. To this day, few songs capture the spirit of a movie as well as when Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey – two of the best vocalists known to the planet – came together in honor of this film with the Academy Award-winning Best Original Song, “When You Believe.”
We take adaptations of Exodus for granted because they are based on a Bible story, but when we do we’re making a terrible mistake. Literal or not, this is one of the greatest stories ever told. The opening scenes are enough to melt viewers into puddles, watching Egypt built on the backs of slaves, as the chorus demands the deliverance they were promised.
In one scene, maybe three seconds long, an old man crumbles from the toil of the day, reaches up, and grasps the outstretched hand of a young man who helps him up, only for the both of them to be shoved back to work by an overseer. These weren’t even the main characters yet, the ones with whom we’d feel the deepest connection. Those connections began shortly thereafter with a desperate mother, Yocheved, and her two children, Aaron and Miriam, walking through the reeves to the Nile River.
Pretend you don’t know the story already – imagine it, if you can, with a fresh mind: a tyrannical dictator, to protect his throne, just ordered the murder of thousands of children. Here is a mother so broken in despair that she is willing to take a basket, line it with tar, and place her newborn inside of it to take its chances with the Nile.
Can you imagine the hopelessness? The thought that your child’s 1% chance of survival in a river is better than your child’s guaranteed death at the hands of a city guard with a dagger? From a desperate Yocheved laying her son in a basket, to the moment Moses raised his arms, closed his eyes, and drove his staff into the waters of the Red Sea, The Prince of Egypt was a powerful, emotional adventure that rivals any drama I’ve read, seen, or heard to this day.
More than anything, it exemplified the power of faith not only for Christians, but really for anyone who allowed themselves to be inspired. It’s a story of hope and triumph, of loss and grief and family. Moses, an outcast and vagabond, found redemption after feeling as lost as you or I could have ever felt in our lives. How tragic was it that his redemption was sparked by his birth sister but required the betrayal of his adoptive brother? How beautiful that he fulfilled his sister’s naïve wish when she sang to a baby in a basket,
“I have a prayer just for you. Grow, baby brother, come back some day… Come and deliver us too.”
When I think back on the movies that influenced me, The Prince of Egypt will always hold a special place in my heart for being perhaps the biggest surprise of my childhood. Here, for the first time, I was watching a Biblical movie that made an old story into something that felt entirely new. It had heart. It had fear and doubt and pain. It had a faith that triumphed over all. And it showed brown and black people at the forefront of it all.
Whether you’re Christian and believe the Bible as literal truth, or a person just looking for creative storytelling, The Prince of Egypt as an artistic interpretation of Exodus remains one of the most inspiring animated features of a generation. Moses is the reluctant leader I will always admire, and he and Rameses is a relationship that will always cause me heartbreak. Miriam and Tzipporah will remind me the power of hope, and their sisterhood will always remind me fondly of Mariah and Whitney. The Prince of Egypt premiered in 1998, but it’s as powerful now as if it were yesterday. It’s as powerful today as if it were coming tomorrow. It’s one of the greatest stories of all time that gave way to what remains one of the greatest animated musicals of all time. And it’s one I will never forget.