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‘the Prince of Egypt’ Portrays Moses’ Life in Film for Whole Family

December 22, 1998
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After four years of intense preparation and months of drum-beating, “The Prince of Egypt” opened last week at theaters across the United States.

Based loosely on the first part of the Book of Exodus, the animated musical film depicts the life of Moses before his 40 years of wandering in the desert.

The 90-minute film starts with a prologue where Moses’ mother cradles the baby boy in a basket of bulrushes and floats him down the Nile to save him from Pharaoh’s decree mandating the death of all newborn Hebrew male children.

The epilogue shows Moses presenting the Ten Commandments at the foot of Mount Sinai to a vast multitude of followers. In the main body of the film, Moses grows from young manhood in the Pharaoh’s palace to the aged leader of his people, marshaling the exodus from Egypt and crossing the parted Red Sea, which closes over the pursuing Egyptians.

The film is a marvel of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation: 7 million locusts denude the countryside, the vaporous Angel of Death slays the Egyptian first-born, 16,000 Hebrews flee from Pharaoh, the Red Sea parts in a breathtaking four-minute sequence and 146,000 Israelites receive the Ten Commandments.

“The Prince of Egypt” may boggle purists for its depiction of a hip young Moses and his civil-libertarian declamations as he confronts Pharaoh, but many others will enjoy the film as an exciting adventure tale, respectful enough of the original sources to have passed advance muster by a phalanx of Jewish. Muslim and Christian clergy and lay leaders.

No fewer than 15 Los Angeles and New York rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — are listed as advisers to the filmmakers. According to selected interviews, all have pronounced the movie as fit for Jewish consumption.

Oscar-winning composer Stephen Schwartz wrote the score. Some songs are performed in Hebrew, including the fervent “Deliver Us,” rendered by Israeli vocalist Ofra Haza, and the rousing “Ashira L’Adonai” (I Will Sing Unto the Lord), as the waves of the Red Sea close over Pharaoh’s army.

Three Jewish principals — executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who founded the Dream Works studio with fellow moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, and youthful producers Penney Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins — played key roles in creating the film.

From the beginning of the four-year process, “We decided that we would be faithful to the biblical narrative, but in those areas where the text was silent, we could be creative,” explains Finkelman Cox. “It is somewhat like the Midrash and other commentary, which evolved to fill in the gaps in the formal text.”

Since Exodus reports nothing about Moses’ adolescence, the film posits that he and the reigning Pharaoh’s son, Ramses II, were raised in the palace as brothers — and rather mischievous brothers at that.

In one of the most spectacular sequences, the two young men compete in a breakneck chariot race, which puts the average Hollywood car chase to shame.

The filmmakers also wanted to make certain that the movie would not be perceived as either a “kiddie cartoon” or a preachy sermon. The Ten Plagues are depicted graphically, and the filmmakers are delighted that the movie received a “PG” rating, for parental guidance suggested.

As Rabins explains, “This is not a movie that parents can drop their kids off for the afternoon. Parents need to be prepared to answer some tough questions: Is God an angry God? Why does He allow slavery? Why does He kill? This is not a movie for toddlers.”

What role did the producers’ Jewish background play in their interpretation of the Moses story? In personal interviews, the question led to some intriguing answers.

“I am an entertainer and storyteller,” says Katzenberg. “There are certainly other parts of my background that helped me tell the story. But how each of us embraces the faith aspect of his life is a very personal matter. I don’t want people’s reaction to this movie to be influenced by my personal faith.”

In Hollywood, Katzenberg is known as a generous contributor to Jewish and other causes, and as a legendary workaholic.

His daily schedule, it is reported, includes two breakfasts, one lunch, and two dinners to meet with writers, agents and directors. A standing joke has it that he and his wife Marilyn, a Bronx-born former kindergarten teacher, had twins 15 years ago because that was more efficient than having one child at a time.

The film’s two other guiding lights, Rabins and Finkelman Cox, met 16 years ago on the set of the Oscar-winning “Terms of Endearment.”

They were shooting on the plains of Nebraska and when Passover time came, the two young women set up a huge table and invited the predominantly non-Jewish cast and crew to a real seder, led by the film’s director, James Brooks.

During the first year of filming the “The Prince of Egypt,” when the staff was still relatively small, “We had a seder for 60 people, including the three directors and the entire crew,” recalls Rabins. “Everybody came, though most had no idea about the meaning of the holiday.”

The themes of Passover — freedom and deliverance — obviously affected the two producers’ perception of how to shape “Prince of Egypt,” while their research on the film augmented their understanding of the biblical story.

“The study and the reading we did for the movie certainly informs the holiday as it comes into my personal life each year, but I was not motivated to do this project because I wanted to tell a great Jewish story,” says Finkelman Cox.

To the producers’ credit, they decided early on that any gimmicky merchandise tie-ins, which sometimes bring in more profits than the box office, would demean the film’s biblical roots and lofty themes.

Study guides and books for youngsters are accompanying the film. But, says Rabins, “There will be no burning bush night lights, no Red Sea shower curtains that split in the middle and no 40-days-in-the-desert water bottles.”

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