It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation that I love The Prince of Egypt. I saw the film when it first came out in 1998 and it became one of my earliest cinematic obsessions, a film I couldn’t stop thinking about, a film I obsessed over and raved about to anyone who would listen. Retrospectively, I haven’t changed a whole lot since age 7, but I digress. The Prince of Egypt blew me away and when I found out it was based on a book I begged my parents to buy it for me. A little uncertain, they got me a Bible and I distinctly remember being confused by how boring the written version of the story was. Where were the characters I had fallen in love with? Where was Moses’ subtle, tender, supportive relationship with Tzipporah? Where was the complex, tangled mix of love and hate he shared with Rameses? Where was his pain and fear upon the moment he finally decided to return home to Egypt? I vaguely knew at the time that the book was always supposed to be better, but in this case…
Blasphemy aside, my love for The Prince of Egypt didn’t really abate into my teenage years and then adulthood. I often listened to the soundtrack in my boarding school room while the other guys blasted rap and techno and whatever else was big at the time. I had many a raucous night with friends in my first years of uni putting the movie on at some ungodly hour and singing along to every word. I’ve never been ashamed to be passionate about this cartoon.
During my first year at VCA one of our lecturers was teaching us about conflict in storytelling and what separates the good from the bad. He told us that, bar none, the best example of cinematic conflict he had ever seen was The Prince of Egypt. Now I had a tendency to zone out during these lectures but this had me sitting bolt upright as he explained over the incredulous chuckles that the story of two brothers who were raised together and care deeply about each other only to be set at odds by circumstances beyond their control made for some of the richest, most compelling conflict he had ever seen. And, thinking back to every time I watched the movie, I was struck by how right he was.
Unlike so many other children’s films, The Prince of Egypt refuses to talk down to its audience or dumb down the story, a fact which may account for its less than explosive box office take but almost certainly accounts for the passionate love so many people of my generation seem to have for it. The villain of the film, Rameses, is such a tragic figure because we completely understand his motivations, and what’s more, we like him. We feel for him when his father suggests that he could be the weak link that destroys the dynasty of Pharaohs and it hurts so much when he refuses to let the Hebrews go because we know why he can’t do it. To bend to Moses’ will would be to prove his father right about him. Rameses just doesn’t know any better and his fatal flaw is his terror that considering a different point of view will prove his weakness.
And on the other hand you have Moses. Raised in the palace as a prince, never once suspecting he was different, Moses’ journey is a painful one as he is forced to contend with the fact that he is not the person he thought he was, that the slaves he has grown up spitting on are his true people. During probably the best song in the film (The Plagues), Moses laments about how much this devastation tortures him inside and while the line may seem clunky and obvious, it works because it’s undoubtedly true. His home and family are being ripped apart because of a situation set in motion long before he was born. Moses must have the strength to stand against everything he has ever known and loved to do what is right. It’s a terrific internal conflict only compounded by the external one of his struggle against the brother he still loves so deeply.
It’s Moses’s plight that gives this film its universal strength. The filmmakers don’t rely on the Biblical roots of the story to give it its power; they ground it entirely in the characters, believable people stuck in unenviable circumstances and driven by rock solid motivations. We know why Moses runs away and we know how hard it is for him to come back. There is an immense, understated power to the scene when he rides back into Egypt after years away, unrecognisable as the pampered Prince who ran and yet still the same character we have grown to care for. Again, you don’t need to be religious to appreciate this arc and you certainly don’t need to believe in God to be swept up by the beautiful, powerful, heart wrenching moment when the Hebrews finally escape, albeit at the cost of every Egyptian firstborn child.
The emotions of Moses’ flight and subsequent return had a huge impact on me as a kid, and maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn to prodigal son stories. Give me a tale about somebody who runs away from their life due to terrible circumstances only to be forced to return years later, and I’m probably going to love it. It’s a trope that turns up in many of my all-time favourites (The Book of Joe, Breaking Bad) and one that tends to be the centre of a lot of my own stories. Windmills, The Commune, Chris Hawkins, Hometown and Boone Shepard all feature this in a big way.
In fact, Boone Shepard is very pointedly influenced by The Prince of Egypt, to the point where I would be worried about plagiarism if the Bible was in any way under copyright. Take away the absurdist, gothic trappings and the time travel elements and look at the central plot of the novel. Young man runs away from home after being responsible for a death, lives a carefree life in a whole different world until circumstances force him to return and confront his past in order to save an oppressed people from his megalomaniacal brother.
Yeah. Try unseeing that if you’re ever inclined to read it a second time.
The ways in which this film influenced me goes further than just plot, however. I’ve always tried to give my antagonists some humanity in the same way this film does for Rameses and in almost every case they tend to be characters who are closely linked to the protagonist, whether a family member or an old friend. Furthermore, I’ve always hated filler, to the extent that I’m often accused of rushing my stories. A friend once described my style of writing novels as ‘Matthew Reilly on crack’ and my Dad, who recently read the manuscript of Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, bemoaned the fact that every time he reached a bit he liked it was over and on to the next twist before he had the chance to absorb what was happening. It’s a fair concern, but I can only tell stories the way I like them to be, and I so much prefer a story that leaves you wanting more than one that outstays its welcome.
The Prince of Egypt boasts absolutely no filler. Nothing in that film doesn’t need to be there, and this makes it such an easy re-watch, one where you never want to leave the room for fear of missing another classic moment. Every scene serves a purpose, every moment either developing, establishing or progressing a character while advancing the plot and building to a wholly satisfying conclusion. I was struck while re-watching the film last night by just how fast it is, in a way that means you never once feel like the film is treading water. This has the effect of leaving you entirely satisfied at the end. The film hits its emotions hard and holds nothing back. It wears its heart on its sleeve and whether or not you’re a religious person (I am not) it’s very hard not to be swept up in the sheer passion that characterises every scene.
There’s more I could talk about. The beautiful visuals, the memorable songs. But I sort of feel like anyone who has seen The Prince of Egypt knows what I’m talking about and I hardly need to sell it to them. And if you haven’t seen it, well, you’re missing out.
It’s a film that does all the things I love stories to do, a film that taught me so much and shaped my sensibilities in a big way. If I can ever write a story that affects someone the way The Prince of Egypt affected me, I will have done my job.
So yeah. It’s pretty good. Now excuse me while I go watch it again.
Writing words about writing words.