Monday, December 28, 2015

Have you been a good boy or girl this year, and would you be mad if I told you that it matters a lot less than you think?


Happy holidays, Judeo-Christians!  This was supposed to go up Christmas Day, but you know how it is.  Well, if you're from the "Judeo" part of that association, you don't, and this one's more for you, anyhow.

Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells
Written by Philip LaZebnik and Nicholas Meyer
With Val Kilmer (Moses), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tziporrah), Sandra Bullock (Miriam), Jeff Goldblum (Aaron), Danny Glover (Jethro), Patrick Stewart (Pharaoh Seti I), Ralph Fiennes (Pharaoh Rameses II), and Val Kilmer (YHWH)

Spoiler alert: he lets his people go

Out of all the subjects that you could make appropriately family-oriented feature films about, the Bible should probably rank somewhere between "the Mongol conquests" and "the Holocaust."  There are so few Bible stories that are appropriate for children, at least under our usual guidelines for such things, that I cannot, offhand, name one that is.  Indeed, the more faithful you are to the text the worse it invariably gets.  Yet fidelity is hard to avoid: you can't just sandblast the offensive material out of a living religion as you might a dead one; and the tone and message of Judeo-Christian mythology is often too difficult to separate from its typically gnarly substance.  You know that if it's a Bible story, it's probably about pointless suffering.

Obviously, this hasn't stopped people from trying to turn our foundational legends into money through commercial cinema—and it certainly hasn't stopped them from succeeding.  Such is the privilege accruing to Christianity as our dominant religion; yet the most-often filmed story in the whole Bible (outside of the Gospels themselves) predates Christianity by many centuries—namely, the exodus of Israel from Egypt.

That Exodus is also one of the most terrifying stories in the Bible—and that its content is so morally complex that I'm not sure that you should expose kids to it—clearly doesn't matter.  Personally, I'm glad to see it doesn't, even when it means semi-duds such as Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings get made; because it also means that back in 1998, everybody at DreamWorks thought that making a faith-based cartoon about slavery and genocide was actually a good idea.  (Of course, as anyone familiar with DreamWorks' corporate history might guess, this idea was held all the dearer by Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, because during his tenure at Disney, his nemesis Michael Eisner had rejected it.)  Naturally, DreamWorks scheduled their heartwarming tale for Christmastime, when the whole family could gather at the theater to enjoy all the atrocities it depicts.

Sure, our loophole for Biblical fiction may be something of a farce, but I am always down for gorgeous cosmic horror and epic tales of more-or-less fictional genocide—on Christmas Day or any other day. The Prince of Egypt's got both.

So, let's go back to the 13th century Before Caviezel, where the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt.  The Pharaoh fears their growing numbers, and since the Pharaoh is evil, he has all the firstborn Hebrew infants killed.  But in the midst of this slaughter, one mother manages to send her baby son down the Nile in a basket.  She hopes against hope that he will somehow survive; and though she may not know it, her faith is rewarded.  The child, found by the Pharaoh's wife, is adopted into the royal family, and raised as a brother to the Pharaoh's heir, young Rameses.  The name he's given is Moses.

Not, as usually reported, "Clark."

Moses and Rameses become as close as brothers can be, and their youthful shenanigans trouble Pharaoh Seti at every turn—though it's clear that Moses, whatever his flaws, receives not half the disapproval that Rameses does from the king.  But this only matters later; presently, we're too busy watching Moses discover his true heritage—and subsequently discover that the enormous hieroglyphic stele in the palace, which he's surely seen a hundred times, and which depicts the Pharaoh's armies throwing slave babies into a crocodile-infested Nile, refers to an actual event that happened.  His world is understandably shaken, and while visiting one of Seti's impressively useless monuments during its construction, his disquiet erupts into violence.  Upon witnessing an overseer abuse one of the Hebrew slaves, Moses intervenes—and kills the overseer.  Rameses, rushing to his brother's side, reminds him that he's a prince of Egypt, and not about to be punished for a crime as trivial as murder.  Yet, somehow, this fails to comfort Moses, and he exiles himself to a metaphorically-overwrought desert of guilt, confusion and, seemingly, certain death.

But such is not his fate: he falls in with an oasis tribe instead, and there he finds a new and better life, as a simple shepherd.  He marries; he procreates; he's happy.  So, obviously, this is when the Hebrew God decides to finally appear to him, and command him to lead his people out of bondage and into the promised land.

God's omnipotence is proven repeatedly by the Bible, especially if "timing" isn't one of your metrics.

Moses returns as a deliverer, and confronts his brother, who has ascended to the throne and whose heart is so infamously hard.  In the end, however, it is God Himself whose ten plagues at last compel Rameses to surrender.  But even now, the Pharaoh's fury revives.  At the head of his army, he pursues the Hebrews—and in the parted waters of the Red Sea he finds his ultimate desolation, when God shows him for an eleventh and final time just how powerless he has always been.

The story of Moses and Rameses is timeless—which is why it's probably a little surprising that it's not even remotely Biblical.  As far as I can tell, there is no reference at all to a boyhood friendship between Moses and Rameses that predates the script for De Mille's enormous super-epic, The Ten Commandments.  And thus I'm forced to conclude that this relationship, which Commandments made so vivid and so popular—and which virtually every subsequent adaptation of Exodus has borrowed—was only ever invented in the ancient year of 1956.  But since this is also the part of the Moses story with the most human-scale interest, it's also the best—and Prince of Egypt knows it, maybe even better than De Mille did.  Though Prince's hour and a half duration can hardly compete with the intimate bildungsroman wrought by Commandments' infinite runtime, it makes up for its brevity with broad, impressionistic strokes.  Prince turns Commandments' increasingly vicious competition between the men into something warmer in the process: this Exodus story is about two brothers who genuinely do care about each other.

The key scenes, as usual, involve the aftermath of the Tenth Plague—God's destruction of the firstborn of Egypt, including Rameses' own child.  There's several ways to play this, including not giving a shit (this is the Biblical way); but no modern adaptation of which I'm aware fails to engage with Exodus' unconcealed horror.  We can abstractly appreciate that Exodus is a good allegory about war—just to keep it in the family, it took an awful lot of dead children to free the Israelites from Nazi Germany.  But when you personalize this story, as any narrative retelling should, you've got to deal with it.  Ten Commandments opted for shocked detachment and a raving Charlton Heston.  Prince is far more tender: here, we see the two brothers at odds grieving together, and it's heartbreaking.

And through this, it turns Moses' unavoidable passivity—for the Lawgiver is probably the most inactive, useless protagonist of any story ever written—into a strength.  We see him touched by the horror alongside his brother; perhaps he even feels guilty about the being on the winning side.  There is very little in Prince's take on the Moses/Rameses conflict that isn't perfect—or at least as perfect as it can be made within the confines of a tale that rests, uneasily, upon the idea that Rameses can see a river turning into blood, and fire raining out of the Egyptian sky, and laugh it off as a parlor trick.  (The Biblically literal alternative, you know, is that God is forcing Rameses to resist, apparently simply so that He can continue killing Egyptians; Prince, fortunately, supplies its pharaoh with intrinsic motivations—and it might be a hubris bordering on insanity, but at least it's of Rameses' own making.)

I say "very little" isn't perfect about it, which of course means something must be, and it's kind of a doozy: while I might have nothing but good things to say about Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes' vocal performances individually—and I'd give Kilmer best in show, believe it or not—it's hard to imagine two voices more ill-cast as two men raised in the same household, their accents clashing into eternity.  It's something you never get totally used to.  (Incidentally, as good as he is as Moses, Kilmer's edge comes from his other role: God.  I probably think this is more fascinating, and more meaningful, than it actually is.  But it surely beats Christian Bale sulking in the direction of a petulant child.)

It's also easy to nitpick Prince's early, not-quite-there imposition of CGI models into the hand-animated cels—almost too easy, really, given how obviously proud the DreamWorks team was of their technology, frontloading it into the very first shots.  This gives us Moses' uncanny basket, which appears to be floating above the screen, rather than upon the Nile.  Yet for all of its reach occasionally exceeding its grasp, Prince remains damned masterful animation.  Virtually everything on the screen winds up interesting.  The angular character design is wonderfully humane (and uniquely brown!) without sacrificing a lovely stylization; the actual acting the animators put into characters is uniformly superb.  Meanwhile, the lateral staging of so many scenes, and the tininess of the characters within them, is a deliberate attempt to evoke hieroglyphic art; it's marvelously effective.

This, of course, is before we get to Prince's outrightly transcendent visuals: a nightmare sequence, which places a flattened-down Moses in the middle of the hieroglyphic retelling of Seti's massacre of the Hebrew children; the unassuming simplicity of Moses' encounter with the Burning Bush; and the standout setpiece, the formless angel of death that kills with a whisper, immediately turning Prince into the darkest, grimmest cartoon to ever be made in the West for an audience presumably composed largely of children.  Indeed, if you ever needed to justify the Exodus story as a animated film—I don't see why you would, but let's say you did—Prince's rendition of the Ten Plagues alone is your answer.  Commandments, for all its pomp, is almost pitiful when it comes to the Plagues.  Prince's version might still be too brief to give you the full serving of destruction porn that—let's face it—we as audience members want (Roland Emmerich's Exodus is just begging to be made); yet its terrible grandeur is unmistakable.

Finally, there's my personal favorite moment—a grace note almost too perfect, and which does more than even Moses' own ambivalence to defuse our natural instincts toward moral repugnance.  I refer to the parting of the Red Sea; more specifically I refer to the whale, dimly seen (and hauntingly lit) inside the wall of water.  It's awesome—in the literal sense of the word—and it's enough to remind you that, as far as this story is concerned, we aren't really equipped to judge our creator.

Now, I've so far described an essentially flawless film (accents notwithstanding), but Prince is not without one huge, defining flaw: as it was consciously patterned upon the popular films of the Disney Renaissance—Katzenberg was ever-keen to beat Disney at its own game—Prince was required to be a musical, too.

On paper, this isn't even a bad idea; the problem is that Stephen Schwartz' music largely sucks.  Too many numbers do almost nothing but fill space, while relying upon impossibly inane lyrics like (seriously) "here among my trappings and belongings, I belong."  And another import from the Disney model—psychotically shitty comic relief—collides headfirst with Schwartz' very worst song.  This one's a number by Steve Martin and Martin Short's duo of goofy Egyptian priests, and it's called "You're Playing With the Big Boys Now."  Here, you'll find that terrible title repeated, over and over, and its toneless repetition constitutes roughly 30% of the song.  (And, to add just a little more insult to our injury, the sequence is just as strikingly animated as it is aurally unendurable.)  But at least Prince has the decency to open and close with strong numbers: "Deliver Us" sets the scene as adeptly as any Howard Ashman joint; and the final song, "When You Believe," although beginning shakily, nails it right home when the children's choir overlays a rendition of the shabbat song, "Mi Chamocha," in Hebrew.

At this point, we arrive at Moses delivering the Ten Commandments to God's Chosen People, whereupon everyone lived happily ever after, at least to be the best of my recollection.

So let's deliver this review from the Egypt of endless editing: I love this movie an awful lot.  If Aladdin didn't exist, it'd be an easy thing to call it the best American animated film of its decade (no, I didn't forget Toy Story or Hercules, the only other ones operating on this level; and, yes, I also remember Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, they're just movies that I've cooled upon considerably since my childhood).  But what really recommends Prince is its difference: is there any other American cartoon quite like this one, that combines the savagery of ancient myth with this kind of budget, artistry, and instant appeal?  Somehow, I doubt it.

Score:  9/10

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