Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells’ The Prince of Egypt
By Gwendolyn Humphreys
Let’s talk about why The Prince of Egypt (1998, Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells) is just an all around phenomenal movie. There are a few reasons, of course. The music by Stephan Schwartz and Hans Zimmer is phenomenal and has melodies reminiscent of many different Jewish communities, lending authenticity to the biblical tale. Of course, it also was an animated movie produced in the late ‘90s, a time when animated movies were consistently stellar works of cinema—I dare anyone to watch Road to El Dorado, Anastasia, or Tarzan and not be shocked by the quality of the film. The reason I personally especially geek-out about TPE, though, is the way they represented God during the burning bush scene.
The Prince of Egypt tells the familiar story of the biblical exodus from Egypt, led by Moses. The film opens with the Israelites praying for salvation from their bondage. We then meet Yocheved (Ofra Haza), an Israelite mother, and her three children. In a heartbreaking moment, Yocheved places her baby in a basket and releases him into the chaos of the Nile, praying that the river will carry the boy to somewhere he can be safe. His basket is found by the Pharaoh’s wife (Helen Mirren) in the first of very few major changes from the source text (in Ex. 2:5-6 Pharaoh’s daughter, not wife, finds the baby in the basket). Moses (Val Kilmer) grows up as the younger brother of the crown prince, never knowing he was adopted or that he is one of the Hebrews. When he eventually finds out, he has a crisis. His parents—newly acknowledged as adopted—make clear that they love him and he is their true son, but now he knows that his people are oppressed, that he was found by his mother only because his biological mother was saving him from his adoptive father. Now he knows that “the man he calls father” (Patrick Stewart) ordered the death of all the Israelite baby boys. He accidentally kills an overseer to stop the man from beating a slave and, in horror at what he has done, he flees. Moses has a bit of an adjustment period living away from the palace, but in the desert he meets Jethro (Danny Glover), the Midian High Priest, and is taken in and learns to be a shepherd. He marries Jethro’s daughter, Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), and lives happily. One day, he comes across a burning bush with the voice of God and is instructed to go back to Egypt and free his people. He follows these commands and, as in the Bible story, ten plagues are necessary before his people can go free.
Writing this film must have hit a common snag: how can you represent something that can only be imagined? The entire idea of God as worshipped by the Israelites (not to mention the many religions which hold this story as holy) is something that cannot be fully understood, drawn, or shown. The description in the third chapter of Exodus is that of a bush on fire that is never consumed and the voice of God speaking to Moses. God tells Moses to remove his sandals, as this place is holy ground. But—how do you cast an actor to play the voice of God? How do you demonstrate with animation that a bush is burning but never burned and the ground is holy?
The visuals were done with flames that feel representative rather than real, as if the animators could only draw the idea of them, not the flames themselves. Gravity seems to work differently in this space, the flames grow and shrink, Moses experiments with his staff and hand in the fire and is not harmed.
The truly remarkable piece, however, is the voice of God. Rather than cast one actor to play God, the whole cast voiced God. In the end, most of the cast whispered the lines and the voice heard the most clearly is Val Kilmer’s—ie Moses’s voice.
With this method, not only did the filmmakers avoid the inevitable controversy of “is an actor playing God blasphemy?” but they made the moment more believable than anything else they could have done. God’s voice being a sound palette for the world of the film underscores concepts from earlier in the Bible than this story—namely, that humans were created in God’s image. Moses hears that all the voices he knows are directly in God’s image. The effect of using Val Kilmer’s voice above the rest gives the impression that whomever God spoke to might hear their own voice above the rest. Perhaps God has no one voice and is represented by whomever is listening. Perhaps there was no actual sound and God’s voice was only echoing in Moses’s head.
In John Keats’s poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” he says “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter,” meaning that music is nice, but we can imagine a song more glorious than any that can truly exist. This is the philosophy that The Prince of Egypt managed to capture in its portrayal of God. It isn’t clear whether the audience hears Moses’s voice because that is what Moses hears or because there is no way to demonstrate what Moses truly hears. Either way, God has a divinity in the film that is separate from what any other character has.