Updated: Jul 13, 2019
For today, two more Passover Movies (Joseph's narrative is also an important element in traditional Passover celebrations). Although they have less history than The Ten Commandments, my last post, in many ways these two films are more powerful communicators of the essential messages and themes embedded in the celebration. Tomorrow I will return back to the story of Jesus.
Directed by: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells [Prince of Egypt] Robert Ramirez and Rob LaDuca [Joseph King of Dreams]
Starring: Val Kilmer (Moses & God), Sandra Bullock (Miriam), Michelle Pfeiffer (Tzipporah), Ralph Fiennes (Rameses II) [Prince of Egypt]; Ben Affleck (Joseph), Mark Hamill (Judah), Jodi Benson (Asenath) [Joseph King of Dreams]
Adapting: Exodus 1-19 [Prince of Egypt]; Genesis 30, 37-45 [Joseph King of Dreams]
Synopsis [Prince of Egypt]
Amidst the massacre of the Hebrew boys, Moses is sent down the Nile and ends up adopted into Pharaoh’s household. He is raised as the privileged brother and friend of the royal heir, Rameses II, who strives to please their father and fears becoming the weak link in the dynastic chain. While allowing spunky Tzipporah to escape from sex trafficking, Moses runs into his biological sister, Miriam, who reveals who he is and how his adopted father slaughtered the Hebrew boys. Moses find himself unable to live the lie that he is an Egyptian and decides to leave, even though Rameses offers to cover up how he accidentally killed an Egyptian. Moses ends up in Midian, where he marries Tzipporah and is living a happy life until God appears and sends him to set the Hebrews free. Rameses, now on the throne, initially tries to repair his relationship with Moses but his fear of failing his father and being a weak link causes him to refuse to let the Hebrews go, creating a rift between the two that escalates to a tragic end.
Synopsis [Joseph King of Dreams]
After many years of not being able to, Rachel gives birth to a “miracle child,” Joseph. Initially, everyone gets excited at the news, but pretty soon Jacob’s blatant favoritism and Joseph’s sense of specialness causes Jacob’s other children to resent their younger brother. This culminates in their choice to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt. While in Egypt, Joseph is exposed to the hard labor that his father’s preferential treatment protected him from, but he works hard, trusting that God has a plan that he can’t understand. Eventually, through his miraculous ability to interpret dreams, he ascends to power in Egypt and must decide how to respond when he reencounters his traitorous brothers.
It’s worth noting briefly that Prince of Egypt is strongly influenced by The Ten Commandments, from the choice to pit Moses and Rameses as brothers in conflict with each other to more specific visual echoes, like how Rameses lays his dead firstborn down. Having said this, it should also be quite evident that Prince of Egypt is by no means aping its predecessor at every turn. Many of the places where it shines as an adaptation are precisely where The Ten Commandments fell short: giving Tzipporah something to do (other than being a foil to Nefretiri), conveying the tragedy of both the murder of the Hebrews children and the judgment of the Egyptians, and creating a real sense of danger to Moses and the Israelites.
Genre Limitations and Potential
As animated films, Prince of Egypt and Joseph King of Dreams aren’t free to luxuriate over all the spectacle in the same way that The Ten Commandments could. Fortunately they have a powerful tool in their belt that The Ten Commandments lacked – the musical montage. And in the end montaging through some of the bits that The Ten Commandments depicts more completely creates a more unified and intentional narrative flow. The musical songs also serve the important function of sermonizing the themes of the narrative, providing us with helpful interpretive hints and creating important connections between different events and ideas in the story (e.g. the idea of home/identity in Prince of Egypt and the idea of destiny and what it means to be chosen in Joseph). These songs are for the most part quite moving and beautiful at times and do a lot to elevate both films above other animated films that came out at the same time.
Ability of the Audience
Both films walk a fine line as they seek to be both accessible to children and interesting to adults. At times the accessibility concern causes the films to downplay certain elements that might tarnish or complicate how we would look at the heroes. Moses, for example, doesn’t murder the Egyptian task master but only kills him by accident, Abraham’s multiple wives are masked, and Joseph’s brothers don’t seem like they ever plan on actually killing him. That being said, the films don’t shy away from depicting difficult subjects. It’s strongly implied when Tzipporah is given to Moses in Egypt that it’s as his sex slave, the genocide of the Hebrews and the death of the Egyptian firstborn are quite horrifying, even though they aren’t depicted directly, and the attempted seduction of Joseph is there, even though kids might not totally understand what’s going on. In general, the film is able to hold on to the serious subject matter of the original account by subtly suggesting rather than directly depicting elements that might horrify children. In doing this it is quite effective.