Why “The Prince of Egypt” Is the Bible Movie Viewers Deserve
Most “Bible movies” fall into two categories. On the one hand are saccharine, unchallenging films that cater to audiences’ predetermined tastes (anyone who’s ever browsed a megachurch library will immediately recognize the type). On the other are more daring secular takes that inevitably end up sparking some controversy or another (I’m reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”).
But every year or so, I revisit DreamWorks’ 1998 animated masterpiece “The Prince of Egypt,” and it reminds me that this binary doesn’t have to exist. It’s a powerful, evocative dramatization of the Exodus that somehow finds the sweet spot between faithful and fresh retellings. Even more impressively, it maintains an all-ages appeal without ever pandering to childish tastes or slipping into self-referential irony.
Why does “Prince” still hold up twenty years later? There are plenty of reasons.
First, it’s indisputably well-made. The film is technically magnificent, blending 2D and 3D animation techniques against the backdrop of a hauntingly beautiful score. Second, the film seems entirely devoid of narrow agendas beyond its own narrative. It’s neither an exhortation to faith nor a deconstruction of myth, but instead takes its source material at face value. As a result, it’s abundantly clear that this version of the Exodus story would be palatable to Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and nonreligious viewers alike.
But most importantly, this is a film that’s unafraid to genuinely own its sense of transcendence. Few stories have had the lasting power of the Exodus narrative, and through modern eyes it’s easy to read the ancient account as a parable about the liberatory power of the human spirit. “Prince,” however, channels a much older sentiment: entire dependency upon an anchoring God.
Cinematic renderings of God’s presence—theophanies, to use the technical term—are very difficult to execute well (the depiction of the burning bush in 1956’s “The Ten Commandments” was…not good). And depictions of God’s implicit intervention are even more troublesome. Just consider how the overwhelming majority of “faith-based” films reduce the Creator and Sustainer of the universe to a kind of Santa Claus figure, who dispenses curses and blessings according to “who’s naughty or nice.” The results range from absurd (the cloyingly sentimental finale of “Facing the Giants”) to horrifyingly ugly (the summary execution of the atheist antagonist at the end of “God’s Not Dead”)
For their part, “mainstream” films often collapse the divine into an immanence barely distinguishable from pure “warm fuzzies.” A scene in Danny Boyle’s “Millions,” in which Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is described as an object lesson through which “everyone learned to share the food they’d brought,” is a particularly egregious example. And though I’ll be the first to defend Aronofsky’s “Noah” against its hyperconservative critics, I won’t deny that in Aronofsky’s take, God’s intentions are—at the very least—awfully opaque.
“Prince” manages to capture the fragility of human power before God by taking an altogether different tack. Here, God manifests as a voice, a coruscating blue flame, a wreath of swirling energy, a lashing pillar of fire—not an anthropomorphized mentor figure who’s content to let humans do His work for Him, or a mere “experience of the sacred.” This God is at once both “wholly Other” and wholly involved with His creations. (The classic 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” preserves the mystery of God in a similar way—viewers never actually see Jesus’ face, and the film’s most striking miracle occurs amid gloom and darkness.)
In the presence of God, one ought to experience a distinct sense of “holy dread”—a sense of reverential awe, of stupefying wonder, of one’s own utter impotence to direct the course of the universe. (Given that today’s mainstream Christian music is willing to describe the Incarnation as a “sloppy wet kiss,” this sentiment may fall on deaf ears, but it’s worth saying anyway.) Far less “comfortable” than our inspirational images is the God who speaks from the whirlwind, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.” (Job 4:7) “Prince” embraces that God, and accordingly reflects the breathtaking power of any encounter between God and man.
That’s a rare feat for a Hollywood film—or indeed, any media whatsoever—to pull off. But when it happens, it’s certainly worth celebrating.