Friday, 19 December 2014

The Fresh Prince of Egypt

Now, this is an epic all about how
My life got flipped-turned upside down
I'd like to read the papyrus
If you'd just sit
I'll tell you how I became a prince of the land called Egypt

West of the great river Nile born and raised
By the pyramids was where I spent most of my days
Swappin' out gods' heads, Anubis for Nu
And all riding some chariots outside of the school
But when I was born, a pharaoh who was up to no good
Started killing the babies in my neighborhood
Got put in one little basket because my mom was scared
She said 'You're movin' with the river Nile to get out of here'

I was washed towards the palace and when it came near
The basket bumped the pharaoh's wife in the rear
If anything I could say that my luck was rare
Since she thought 'Nah, forget it' - 'Yo, Pharaoh another heir'

I grew up to manhood and learnt very late
I was a Hebrew, you know my people were slaves
I looked at the kingdom
I was finally equipped
To abandon my throne as a prince of Egypt

With the recent release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, many across the vast desert plains of the internet have asked a vital question in these difficult times of famine and ceaseless plague of cat videos: why are they making another Moses story when the best Moses story ever has already been made?

Those are valid points I suppose but I don't like getting into the "why are they rebooting this [movie/franchise/whatever], the original was so much better" argument, especially when the first movie in this instance is itself a retelling of a story thousands of years old. But also because the whole argument does seem to rest on a denial of any new reboot as unnecessary out-of-hand, which I don't really agree with.

Culture is based on the repurposing and retelling of older narratives again and again, making those tales reflect the times in some way or another. So even if the retelling doesn't capture the intent of the original narrative (or is terrible), it can often say something about the time in which that retelling took place. Like how now is the era of the gritty reboot which reflects a societal need for dark realism which filmmakers achieve by shooting everything in blue scale and making all their characters moody, since that's how you achieve realism apparently.

Also, I really don't want to talk about Exodus since I haven't seen it  and don't plan to, but rather am using that as a means to talk about Prince of Egypt because it actually is a superb retelling of the story of Moses. As an animated musical!

"I can show you the plagues,
Water becoming blood and frog filled.
Tell me, Rameses, when will
You let my people go?"

Which itself reflects the 1990s revival of animated musicals spearheaded by Disney and copied by other studios, like Dreamworks and Don Bluth. But we're not here to talk about Dob Bluth's attempts to copy the winning Disney formula in films such as Thumbelina. No, we gonna talk about Dreamworks' attempt to copy the winning Disney formula with Prince of Egypt.

But actually aside from the prevalence of Disney elements in the form of musical scenes and a couple of goofy moments, Prince of Egypt is a surprising mature film. Like really mature actually, for what is ostentatiously supposed to be a children's animated feature.

The film opens with slaves being whipped and worked to exhaustion before cutting to mass infanticide. We of course then see the protagonist's mother weeping as she has to give up her baby with only the thinnest of hopes he'll survive, singing one of the saddest lullabies in cinematic history as a single tear falls down her cheek and her hair is blown across her face.


Did I mention this goes on while babies are being slaughtered in the hundreds? Because that is literally happening in the background of this scene. It is the driving motivation for the reason she is putting her youngest child in a basket and putting him at the mercy of the current of one of the biggest rivers in the world because that is a safer bet than the horror behind them. Again, this is supposed to be a children's animated film.

Now, some people might read that and think I'm against violence or scenes of brutality in children's movies. I'm not, I'm just impressed at how far this movie goes for it. Like it really tries to go for the mature angle but doesn't just hint at some heavy stuff, it hits you right in the face and confronts you with it. Some of the scenes in this movie are legitimately terrifying, like the plagues.

Which is appropriate in an attempt to adapt one of the heaviest and most epic stories in history, one that forms that cornerstone of several belief systems. You know they took care in adapting it since they say so at the beginning of the film, although they admit some changes have been made to the source material.

And I have to say in all honesty, most of the changes they do make to the story are welcome additions to the Moses tale.

I for one quite enjoyed the introduction of a snowman as Moses' goofy sidekick.

Possibly the biggest change was making Moses and Rameses brothers. That is brilliant. In the original biblical text, Moses is just raised in the palace and is actually found by the pharaoh's daughter, not his wife like in the movie. Also, his biological mother manages to end up being his nanny for the first few years of his life.

That is fine and all, but making it the pharaoh's wife who finds Moses' basket and having the pharaoh adopt him as a second son adds a Shakespearean level of drama to the already heavy tale. Because this means that later when Moses is trying to get the pharaoh to let his people go, the pharaoh isn't just the stubborn ruler of Egypt, he is Moses' brother.

Like with Loki and Thor, this estranged brotherly dynamic creates more tension and drama than if the pharaoh had been some ruler that had no real connections to Moses. Especially since the film spends a lot of time building up the relationship between the two and you can see the affection each has for the other.

So, when the two brothers are pitted against each other in the second half of the film, there are levels of betrayal and anguish which wouldn't have been possible if Moses was just some dude that lived in the palace.

Pictured: Brotherly betrayal and anger.

Another thing that I noticed when I watched Prince of Egypt again for this post, is that there is no moment to breathe in the narrative. Each scene rushes into the next with no real moments of quiet to chill for a second and absorb the intensity of the scene before. There isn't a lull in the whole film.

It starts with slaves building gigantic statues, then pans to mass infanticide, before showing us the heartbreak of a mother giving up her child, then that child being swept across a raging river narrowly escaping being crushed or eaten by boats, crocodiles or hippopotamuses, then cut to slight drop in pace as Moses is discover by the pharaoh's wife... cut directly to a high speed chariot race between Moses and Rameses all grown up. And that's just within the first five minutes or so.

The film's pacing is relentless. One heavy scene leads directly into the next, the plot progressing at a breakneck speed with no reprise. Which really moves the film along and adds to the intensity and drama of the story.

But one of the real reasons I wanted to talk about Prince of Egypt is because it is gorgeous.


Seriously, this is a beautiful film. The visuals and designs are just stunning, while the mix of traditional hand drawn animation with touches of CGI are at times breathtaking.

I was tempted to just put up a bunch of screenshots from the movie with captions saying, "Look at that, no really, look at that!" and "I'm telling you, look at that!" for this post and be done with it, the pictures saying more than I ever could.

Look at that!!!

The framing in that image is perfect. And using the statue behind the pharaoh to symbolise his authority and the weight of tradition and power he holds? Fantastic. And the side profiles make for a more sharp and compelling contrast to the wide expanse of the background. It's a gorgeous shot in a film fill of gorgeous shots.

And the visuals often strikingly enhance the drama unfolding onscreen in clever and majestic ways. Couple this with some effective and suitably epic music, you end up with a scene like The Plagues, which is just amazing from beginning to end.

Like I said, amazing from beginning to end. It just encapsulates the entire movie within one scene. The plagues themselves are depicted with awe-inspiring devastation and some of the imagery is unbelievably evocative and striking. And the animation snaps with such pace and sense of movement. The cuts between the two brothers and

All of this to mirror the song, which is extremely powerful. I love the way it builds with the choir near whispering as it begins before belting up to the heavens. Also, while the choir are singing about the plagues and the devastation God has wrought on the Egyptians, Moses and Rameses instead sing about their relationship. And this is where making them brothers really shines.

Moses sings about his extreme guilt and anguish at having being chosen by God to be his prophet, knowing the hurt it is causing Rameses but resolute in freeing his people. And Rameses sings about the bitter sense of betrayal and anger at the little brother whom he loved and can't understand why the joking happy-go-lucky kid he grew up with would be doing this to his kingdom and him.

Placing their brotherly rivalry over the backdrop of the terror of the plagues just pushes the drama into another playing field entirely, which perfectly matches the intensity of the music and the really powerful imagery in the scene.

Oh, and Ralph "I am Lord Voldemort" Fiennes voices Rameses and sings his part in the song. I have nothing more to say, I am content.

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This introduction is supposed to let you know that you have found the correct Caleb. 

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