Movie #253 2020: The Prince of Egypt (1998)

1998. That sweet spot when big names realised there was actually some merit to lending their voices to animated movies. Sure, there were a few others before then (of course there was Toy Story and 1994’s The Lion King, which starred Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones and Whoopi Goldberg, to name but a few), but 1998 feels exactly like when voice acting started to become more important.

The Prince of Egypt is set – you’d never guess – in biblical Ancient Egypt, and tells the story (or a version of) of Moses. Beginning with Moses’ birth and his mother’s desperate bid to give him a better life by shipping him down The Nile in a wicker basket, the movie follows him through his life as the (unknowingly) adopted son of a Pharaoh. Shenanigans kick off the movie when Moses and his brother, Rameses, race their chariots through sand dunes and get up to all kinds of trouble. It is only when Moses witnesses the Hebrew slaves that his father is forcing to build his kingdom that he has a crisis – he accidentally causes the death of an elderly slave, which jolts him back to reality. As a result, Moses flees in horror, and exiles himself to the desert where the burning bush and the parting of the Red Sea take place, just as the Bible story says.

Let’s get one thing right to start off: this is how animation should be done. It has a kind of Studio Ghibli feel to it with its watercolour backgrounds and hand drawn characters, and the Egyptian hieroglyphics sequences are particularly brilliant. Truly beautiful to look at, and something we are missing in today’s animated climate.

What I failed to mention in the above synopsis is that this is an all-out musical. It’s more than likely that this choice was made because there’s a lot of dark stuff that happens here – good old Bible – and a little bit of sing-song would dilute that just a tad for the younger audience. Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer do some of their best work on the musical numbers and the score composition respectively here. And yes, I know that they are behind works such as Wicked and Pocahontas and The Lion King, but I stand by it. The Prince of Egypt entails some of the best classical soundtrack that Zimmer has ever written, and that’s that on that.

It’s nice that they didn’t whitewash these characters but it would have been nice if there was at least one POC within the voice cast. However, this was 1998 and at that time, simply refraining from lightening anyone’s skin was pretty progressive back then. Indeed, there are some MAGA nuts who’d probably refuse to watch this movie to this day because they still insist that everyone on the Bible was white, so does that technically mean that 1998 was more progressive than 2020? I mean, probably not, but you catch my drift.

A pretty stand up job is done here to condense the narrative of quite a complex story without over-simplifying it, and that’s a difficult thing to do with biblical stories. Just think about how many Bible-based epics there are (The Last Temptation of Christ is probably brilliant, but good God it’s almost three hours long), yet they manage to filter this down to 1 hour and 40 minutes. Really well done. 

In a personal sense, I’m not religious at all, so it’s not exactly the topic of choice for me. Despite that, the fact that this film comes bound together with Ancient Egypt makes it a really fun, interesting watch for me, and I’m pretty sure anyone interested in ancient history would feel the same way. Is it completely accurate? Doubtful. Regardless, it makes for a different kind of family film that should be seen by all no matter what your religious background.

Plus it has that astronomical anthem by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey as part of the soundtrack!

The Prince of Egypt is available to stream on Sky Cinema, Now TV and Amazon Prime Video in the UK.

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