Volume > Issue > The Cartoon Saga of Unholy Moses

The Cartoon Saga of Unholy Moses


By Mark T. Lickona | September 1999
Mark T. Lickona holds a master's degree in theology, is trained as a cinematographer, and is currently teaching religion at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Pontiac, Michigan. He has recently been seeking a producer for a radio show on film and culture, and is looking forward to making his first film.

On September 14, 1999, The Prince of Egypt, the animated re-telling of the story of Exodus, will be released on video. And because of the rave reviews this movie received from the Christian press after its theatrical release, Christian parents and educators will likely be lining up outside their local video store early that morning to secure a copy for their families or their classrooms. But should they?

At first glance, it would seem that the answer is clearly “Yes!” First, it’s an animated film — and we all know how animated films engage kids. Second, it’s an animated film based on the Bible, and could therefore be a way to introduce children or students to the drama of the Book of Exodus. Third, this film put out by DreamWorks was lauded in Christian publications for its respectful treatment of Moses (“Hollywood Gets One Right” said the headline in Focus on the Family Newsletter; “DreamWorks Does Moses Right” was the headline in the National Catholic Register; “Hollywood Does Right by the Bible; Thumbs Up for The Prince of Egypt” said the headline in Our Sunday Visitor). Furthermore, Christian reviewers agreed that DreamWorks’s state-of-the-art animation portrayed the power of God superbly, and far more effectively than any live-action adaptation of the Book of Exodus ever has (or perhaps ever could); the most applauded “advance” of DreamWorks’s animation over Cecil B. DeMille’s blue-screen and reverse-motion special effects was, of course, the computer-generated parting of the Red Sea (which took DreamWorks’s computer graphics team over three months to render). But the Red Sea was not the only visual powerhouse of this film; from the Burning Bush to the Plagues to the Pillar of Fire, The Prince of Egypt delivers one eye-popping and breathtaking portrayal of divine power after another.

From the very beginning of the film, we see God “working wonders” for Moses’ sake, as Moses’ basket “miraculously” avoids being overturned again and again on its way down the river. As Moses’ sister Miriam later tells him, “God saved you from the river, He saved you in all of your wanderings, and even now, He saves you from the wrath of Pharaoh” —so that the Hebrews can be delivered from bondage. The plagues are sent to overcome Pharaoh’s resistance to Moses, so that he will capitulate to Moses’ demand to release the Hebrews. And the Red Sea is parted and then closed upon the Egyptians, leaving the Hebrews free to enter the Promised Land.

It short, it is remarkable that “Hollywood” has produced a film that takes note of the will of God — a film that not only shows God as a powerful presence (which is extraordinary enough), but that also shows the unfolding of history as proceeding according to the divine Will. So with all these things going for The Prince of Egypt, why would anyone hesitate to show it to children?

One reason for caution is the power animation has over children. Because the world of animation is a world of imagination, and children live so much closer to the world of imagination than adults do, children enter much more deeply into the world of animation than do adults. As Michael O’Brien has observed in his book A Landscape With Dragons, “The cartoon, by its very nature, says ‘primarily for children.'” Children are therefore much more open to being influenced and formed by animated films. For example, the antics and adventures of Disney characters can form the entire substance of a child’s play, and an animated version of a traditional children’s story can completely form a child’s appreciation of that story — so much so that if the animated version is different from the original, the child’s imagination can be “hijacked” by the animated version, causing the original to lose its appeal, and even making the original harder for the child to grasp in its true form. And if the animated version embodies anything evil, the film could very well prove a more insidious and pernicious influence than any film peopled with flesh-and-blood actors and actresses.

I recently had a personal experience of just this sort of “hijacking” in connection with my daughter Monica. The original story of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen is a deeply moving tale of a mermaid who endures tremendous suffering to be near the prince she loves, even though she cannot tell him of her love and even though he never comes to love her. The story ends with her heavenly reward for her perfectly selfless love. But when I read this story to my daughter Monica (who is blessed with a deep gratitude for the gift of Heaven), I could tell from her eyes that she was completely unengaged, and I knew why: She had already watched the Disney version of the story, wherein the sassy little teenage mermaid, far from selflessly enduring the denial of her desires, ends up snaring the hunky young prince.

But that is not the worst part of this cautionary tale. After having watched Disney’s version of the story, Monica remembered just one line from the entire film: “My father’s going to kill me!” — a line that represents what is arguably the film’s worst theme (a theme which Monica readily absorbed): the Little Mermaid’s disobeying her father. In fact, the whole “Disneyfied” storyline of the film — including its new, romantic ending — depends upon the Little Mermaid’s disobeying her father’s prohibition against going up to the “world of men.” And so the noble story of selfless love is transformed into a coming-of-age story designed to please modern audiences — but which is the “moral reverse” of the original story. You can always get what you want, even if — indeed, perhaps only if — you are disobedient.

Now we have before us an animated version of the story of the Book of Exodus. Given what has been said above, the wisdom of a close examination of such a film may now be apparent. For if the animated version of the Book of Exodus is in some way lacking or even corrupt, a child who has his imagination hijacked by such a film might not only be uninterested afterward in the true story of Exodus, but even when he reads it the child might find there only what he has brought to it — namely, the version of Exodus which the film has already imprinted upon his imagination.

To bring into focus what’s at stake here, let’s review the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus. Exodus is one chapter in the ongoing story of the Old Testament, which is the unfolding drama of God’s loving plan for Israel. God first began to carry out this plan through the covenant He established with Abraham, in which He promised to bring from Abraham’s seed a mighty nation. In Exodus, God takes His plan to its next stage by calling His servant Moses to lead Abraham’s children out of Egypt. The election of Moses is manifest from his infancy. He is saved from slaughter at the hands of Pharaoh by finding his way into the royal palace through the interventions of his mother; she sets him afloat in the basket, and he is retrieved and cared for by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who sends the baby to be nursed (and most likely raised through his early years) by a Hebrew woman who is, in fact, the boy’s own mother. One day, when he is grown, Moses comes upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. He kills the Egyptian and hides him in the sand. Next day, he comes upon two Hebrews fighting and he intervenes. But the one striking his fellow says, “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses is afraid his crime is known; indeed, when Pharaoh hears of it he seeks Moses’ life. Moses flees to the land of Midian, and there he marries Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian, and becomes a shepherd. It is during this time that Moses first hears the voice of God coming from the Burning Bush. God tells Moses that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He tells Moses that He has seen the affliction of His people, and that He has come to deliver them “out of the hand of the Egyptians” and to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey — a land which God swore to give to Moses’ ancestors, a land in which Israel would remember the Lord’s name for all generations, a land in which they shall be His people and He shall be their God — in other words, a land in which Israel will be free to live according to God’s covenant with her. Moses returns to Egypt and tells Pharaoh the command of the Lord: “Thus saith the Lord: ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness for three days.'” But Pharaoh, filled with pride, resists the prophet of the Lord, exalting himself over the Lord and His people. So the Lord chastises Pharaoh with the plagues, instructing Moses on the occasion of each plague to remind Pharaoh that they are punishment for his hardhearted refusal to obey the Lord. Finally, the Lord sends the plague of death on all the first-born in the land, from which Israel is protected by following the Lord’s commands concerning the Passover Meal (which, the Lord says, will be held ever after as a memorial of what the Lord has done for His people). This last devastation breaks Pharaoh’s will, and he tells Moses to take Israel out of Egypt to serve the Lord. But Pharaoh then changes his mind and pursues Israel through the Red Sea to Egypt’s destruction, as the waters that the Lord parted for Israel close upon the Egyptians.

The story of The Prince of Egypt is based on the story of the Book of Exodus — but there are many important differences between the two. Most of these differences proceed from the film’s central and fictional dramatic device: the relationship between Moses and his “brother” Rameses. At the beginning of the film, as in the beginning of Exodus, Moses’ mother sets Moses in the basket and sends it down the river. But in the film it is the Pharaoh’s wife (not his daughter) who finds the basket, and she takes Moses as her own son. In this way Moses is “adopted” into the royal family and becomes the “brother” of Rameses, who is Pharaoh’s son and heir to the throne.

We then jump ahead in time to see the playful “sibling rivalry” that has developed between Moses and Rameses: Moses, while often getting Rameses into trouble, loves his “brother” and always tries to put things right again for him. A strange turn of events reunites Moses with his long-lost sister Miriam at a well outside the palace, and she reveals to him that he is a Hebrew. Dazed and confused, he runs back home, desperate to flee from this revelation and cling to his past. But a visionary dream (in which he “sees” how he escaped being slaughtered by Pharaoh as a Hebrew infant) and a conversation with his royal “father” (in which Pharaoh defends that policy of genocide) drag him back to the horrifying realization that the place he once called home is anything but that. The next day, overcome with outrage at the sight of an overlord severely whipping a Hebrew slave, Moses causes the overlord to fall to his death. Moses then flees, turning his back on his “brother,” who entreats him to stay, but to no avail.

From here, the events of the movie follow Exodus fairly closely: Moses meets Jethro in Midian, marries Zipporah, encounters God in the Burning Bush, returns to Egypt, and confronts Pharaoh; Pharaoh refuses to set the Hebrews free, Egypt suffers the plagues, culminating in the death of the first-born; the Hebrews are released, then pursued, but then pass through the Red Sea, escaping the Egyptians, who are destroyed when the sea closes up again.

The dramatic character of this action, however, is remarkably different from the dramatic character of the same action in Exodus. In Exodus (as in the whole of the Old Testament) the drama is clearly one of obedience versus disobedience — in this case, Moses’ obedience to God and Pharaoh’s self-exalting resistance to God. But in the film the most salient drama is the conflict between Moses and his “brother,” now the Pharaoh. Indeed, a good indication that God is effectively absent from the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh is that, unlike the Pharaoh of Scripture, the Rameses of the film gives no indication that he recognizes God rather than Moses to be his true adversary.

The conflict between Moses and his “brother” is also the conflict between Moses and his own past. Thus the film plays like a typical coming-of-age story, in which Moses goes from being an adopted member of the royal family of Egypt and a co-oppressor of the Hebrews to discovering who he really is (a Hebrew), at which point he leaves his “family” behind and comes to champion the cause of his oppressed people against that “family” — i.e., against his tyrannical “brother” Rameses. In short, the personal and political conflict between the Hebrew Moses and his royal Egyptian “brother” positively fills the screen — so much so that it is this drama that is the focus of the film, rather than the biblical drama of Moses’ obedience to God and Pharaoh’s resistance to Him.

Why has this happened? Why have the makers of The Prince of Egypt moved away from the theological drama of Exodus toward a merely human drama? As with the revision of “The Little Mermaid,” it has to do with the way movies are made — to please modern audiences. Filmmakers want to get as many people to go and see their movie as they can, and they don’t think most people today would want to sit through a two-hour movie whose dramatic theme is the choice between obedience and disobedience to God.

The truth is that most moviegoers would much rather watch a film about a person’s self-discovery and moral awakening, a film about a person who comes to hold secular values such as personal and political autonomy — in other words, a story which confirms rather than challenges modern sensibilities. So that is just what the makers of The Prince of Egypt have given them: the story of Moses’ self-discovery and moral awakening, which starts him on the journey toward becoming the man who will deliver his people from political oppression — in other words, a human, secular drama.

At the beginning of the film, the audience is presented with a disclaimer that tells them that The Prince of Egypt is an “adaptation” of the Exodus story and reassures the audience that “although artistic and historical license has been taken in presenting such an adaptation, the filmmakers believe that The Prince of Egypt is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is the cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.” The fact is, however, that The Prince of Egypt is not “true to the essence” of the story of Moses found in the Book of Exodus. The story of Exodus is the story of Israel’s almighty and ever-faithful God, his obedient servant Moses, and the deliverance of Israel so that they might be free to give worship pleasing to Him. But The Prince of Egypt makes a number of departures from the biblical narrative which, though sometimes subtle, are highly significant — for they change the story of Exodus into a story in which the liberation of Israel not only has an entirely political purpose, but is ultimately the work of Moses himself — which means that, in “essence,” The Prince of Egypt bears no resemblance to the biblical story. This is a telling of the story of Exodus in which God is decreased and Moses is increased — which is precisely why Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, in his review of The Prince of Egypt, lamented: “I’m afraid that the Big Guy’s presence is rather muted here.”

In Exodus God wants His people to worship His name and obey His commandments, that they may be His people and He may be their God. God instructs Moses from the Burning Bush to tell Pharaoh to let His people “go a three days’ journey into the wilderness” in order “to sacrifice to the Lord our God.” But in the film’s version of this same scene, God makes no mention whatsoever of His desire for Israel’s worship. Following this deviation from the biblical narrative, the purpose of Moses’ mission and the Hebrews’ liberation is expressed in exclusively political terms, rather than in terms of the relationship — the covenant — between God and Israel. Indeed, the most famous sign of the covenant between God and man in the Old Testament, namely, the Passover Meal, is barely alluded to in the film’s depiction of the Exodus of Israel — which almost completely mutes the profoundly theological meaning of this event.

An example of the film’s “politicizing” of Moses’ mission of liberation occurs in the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh at the Nile. While Pharaoh is lounging on his royal barge, Moses calls to him from the shore, saying, “Let my people go!” But unlike the Moses of Exodus, the film’s Moses does not preface this command with the phrase “Thus saith the Lord….” The effect is to make it sound as if this Moses is telling Pharaoh to let Moses’ people go. He then yells something which reinforces this impression, something we do not find in the biblical text: “You cannot keep ignoring us [i.e., us Hebrews]!” Moses’ cause appears for all the world to be an ethnic one — the political cause of the oppressed Hebrews against their Egyptian oppressors, with Moses as the “head Hebrew” — and this is why Rameses’s reply to Moses is “Enough! I will hear no more of this Hebrew nonsense.”

Another political recasting of the purpose of the Hebrews’ liberation can be found in Moses’ explanation of his new mission to his wife Zipporah: “Look at your family: they are free; they have a future; they have hopes and dreams and the promise of a life with dignity…. This is why I must do the task the Lord has given me.” Thus the film makes clear for us exactly what the purpose of Moses’ mission is: Moses wants to give the Hebrews freedom from physical and political oppression (“life with dignity”) and the freedom to pursue their “dreams.” It appears, then, that the Hebrews’ new freedom will not be a freedom for God, but rather for themselves.

But the most striking political reduction of Moses’ mission and the Hebrews’ liberation is found in the answer Moses gives Pharaoh when Pharaoh asks him why Egypt must suffer the plagues. To this question Moses does not respond with something like, “Because you are preventing God’s people from sacrificing to Him” (see Exodus 8:8-10, 25-32; 9:27-35; etc.) but instead responds with a purely political platitude: “Because no kingdom should be built on the backs of slaves.”

And then there is the last line of the film (spoken by Zipporah to Moses), which serves to identify the triumph to be celebrated at the film’s close: “Look…look at your people, Moses…they are free.”

Now let us consider the film’s crowning achievement, the moment in the film which drew the greatest number of positive comments from Christian reviewers: the parting of the Red Sea. In the Book of Exodus, after Israel’s passage through the Red Sea and the vanquishing of mighty Egypt, Moses’ sister Miriam leads all Israel in a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for the wonders He has accomplished for His people. But in the film, “Miriam’s song” — the Academy-Award-winning song “When You Believe” — is not a song praising the wonders of God, but a ballad which tells of the “miracles” of which man is capable.

After first lauding her people by singing, “We were moving mountains long before we knew we could,” Miriam introduces the song’s chorus:

There can be miracles when you believe

Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill

Who knows what miracles you can achieve

Somehow, you will…

You will when you believe.

The message here is clear: “Miracles” are the wonders we can “achieve” when we draw on that power deep inside of us — a power which is sometimes hidden from us (and which we may sometimes doubt we have). In other words, Miriam is telling us that we can do “miracles” — that, like Moses, we can pull ourselves up out of the mud, confront all our Pharaohs, part all our Red Seas, and vanquish all our Egypts — when we “believe” in…ourselves.

What happens on the other side of the Red Sea is the final and perhaps most telling indication that, in the film, it is man who deserves the glory for Israel’s liberation. Here, instead of showing Israel falling to its knees and singing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God, the film shows the Hebrews giving one another hugs and congratulations for having made it through — a bizarre and flabbergasting display of self-praise which culminates in Miriam’s approving look to Moses, a look which says “I knew you could do it, Moses.” This final departure from the biblical narrative is the last step in The Prince of Egypt‘s secularization of the story of Moses found in the Book of Exodus.

At the beginning of this article, I posed the question: Should parents and educators buy The Prince of Egypt for their children and students? The answer is “No.” For as I have made clear, The Prince of Egypt will give our children the strong impression that the story of Moses is “essentially” the story of a man who decided to free his people from slavery so they could do what they wanted with their lives — the story of a man who would not give up, who had “faith” (in himself) and was therefore able to defeat his enemies, able even to do “miracles.” We should not allow our children’s biblical imaginations to be so profoundly misinformed and distorted. Curiously, the National Catholic Register called The Prince of Egypt “religiously orthodox.” Clearly, it is not.

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