Released in 1998, The Prince of Egypt is somewhat of a landmark title, being the first film released by Dreamwork’s studios, the first studio to throw the animated-gauntlet against the juggernaut that was Disney at the height of its ‘renaissance’ days.
First pitched by then-Disney-chairman, Jeff Katzenberg as an animated version of The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, then soundly refused by the animation giant. Undeterred, Jeff took his idea to David Geffen and Steven Speilberg, the founding members of Dreamworks SKG, where they convinced him to begin the project himself.
Boasting a huge amount of talented writers and artists, The Prince of Egypt is almost a forgotten masterclass in animation, easily rivalling any feature by the ‘House of Mouse’ in its heyday in terms of art direction, music and storytelling. While retelling the famous story from the Book of Exodus, it centres on Moses, adopted by Pharoah Seti, and his relationship with his son, Rameses II, and of his kin, the Hebrew people enslaved by the Egyptians.
There are numerous, objectively magnificent scenes and musical numbers; from the epic choral opening song of ‘Deliver Us‘, the infinitely catchy ‘Through Heaven’s Eyes‘, and the hauntingly beautiful walk through the parted Red Sea.
However, one scene proves to be consistently the most memorable and thematically resolute, not withstanding how breathtakingly beautiful it is and how stunning the accompanying song is. The ‘Ten Plagues’ scene is truly the heart of the film, cementing everything we knew about the two central characters just as they come to their own realisation of who they are, and what they both must do in the latter half of the film.
(Hey here’s a random link to the potential scientific causes of the Ten Plagues that I couldn’t shoe-horn in, but I’m including anyway because it’s a fascinating read!)
By this point in the film, for those who haven’t seen it in a while, Moses has already undergone his own personal exile after learning the truth of his lineage; he was adopted by the pharaoh and queen, and truthfully is a Hebrew, who toil as the Egyptian slaves. After marrying the Libyan woman Tzipporah and finding a peaceful existence within her community as a shepherd, before the very voice of God charges him with freeing the other Hebrews from slavery. The voice of Yhaweh bestows the staff of Moses with fantastical powers, and upon his return to Egypt, it turns into a great pale cobra. Rameses and his high-priests retaliate with a menacing song, and two smaller snakes, who are in turn devoured by the serpent.
By now, Moses is a different man. Humbled by his time away from the decadence of Thebes and the pharaoh, installed with a new righteous mission to free those who are enslaved. Initially, when he meets his brother, Rameses, the two embrace, overjoyed to be reunited after so many years gone, but so too has Rameses changed. Now the Pharaoh, with a wife of his own and a son and heir to his throne, and bearing the weight of their legacy that his father passed onto him.
When Moses demands clearly his mission; Let his people go, the pharaoh laughs and scoffs at him. He is confused at his brothers actions after his self-imposed exile, bewildered by why his brother won’t re-join his family after years of absence. As the High-Priests sing their song, it is clear that it is their gods against the one the Hebrews believe is the one-true god, and in this story, the only one capable of casting devastation amongst the Egyptians.
After the initial confrontation, Rameses and Moses speak privately, brothers reunited. Rameses still maintains the two constants of his character; his love for his brother, and his desire to create an even greater dynasty than even his father before him could create. There is still a light in his eyes when talking to his brother, still hoping some part of his old relationship still exists. However, Moses has seen the suffering of his people, he has seen how the stones of this kingdom have been mortared with the blood of slaves. When he returns his ring, it is clear he has made his decision, drawn his line in the sand, and Rameses realises this. His eyes turn to stone, and he is forced to make a decision; become everything his father feared he would as the potential ‘weak-link’ in their line, or re-forge his iron-grasp amongst the people of Thebes.
Rameses doubles the work-load of the Hebrew slaves as repercussion for Moses’ defiance, and in doing so, the slaves now blame Moses for their increased suffering. Confronted by his biological brother, Aaron (Voiced by Jeff Goldblum, who knew?), Moses is forced to realise that he forced himself not to notice the suffering of slaves before, because he knew he could not stand to witness it if he accepted it for the truth.
He strives to ask Rameses one last time, Let my people go. After his plea is once more rejected, he casts his staff into the river Nile, and there the first plague is unleashed; turning the river to blood. Although Rameses is quickly indulged by the High priests that it is no miracle, only a parlour trick, Moses tells Aaron that it isn’t over yet, for the arrival of God’s ‘Wonder’s have only begun.
(Hey, here’s a random link to the potential scientific causes of the Ten Plagues that I couldn’t shoe-horn in, but I’m including anyway because it’s a fascinating read!)
Immediately zooming into the palace, the song begins almost quietly, choral echoing of what could be scripture, despite not being taken directly from the Book of Exodus. Beginning with an ominous cloud of darkness, an influx of frogs, flies, gnats and locusts, disease, fire and boils. The music increases in tempo as the people of Egypt begin to suffer from the consequences of these plagues.
Moses begins to recant his regrets that it indeed has come to this. His love for his brother is still prevalent and present, but his need to end the suffering of his people must now take precedence. Perhaps if it were not for the almighty word of God, Moses might never have returned to Egypt, let alone become his brother’s enemy, and now he stands amongst his former home, a harbinger of death and destruction.
Although the pestilence and destruction brings misery to Moses, Rameses refuses to budge, intending to endure the storm, knowing that whatever he can withstand, so too can his people. Throughout we see his anger and frustration, taken out upon his subordinates, particularly the High-Priests who cannot find suitable preventive measures to defend their land from the wrath of the plagues. Despite being afflicted with the same boils and troubles, he is defiant against the wrath of this new God, propping up his guards, becoming the sole sentinel to protect his lineage.
Rameses throughout this scene is always in shadow, a cold blue cast from both the darkened skies and the shadow of his ancestors immortalised in stone, but Moses gains strength from the light of ‘The Burning Bush’, standing in polarising crimsons and oranges as the fires of devastation swirl around him. In a brilliant call-back channelling his former song about his new loss of identity, he wanders the streets of Thebes, a much different man in a much more turbulent time.
Rameses takes the wonders of God as a personal attack from Moses, realising to himself now that not only has his brother changed, but he know threatens the dynasty that Rameses has sworn to protect and continue. Although not quite fully committed to the execution, he has realised that to save what he has determined is most important to him, he must treat his brother as a foe, and here, as their voices meld together in righteous indignation, we see the heart of Prince of Egypt, and why the conflict between the two brothers matters so much.
Relationships are everything in good writing, and The Prince of Egypt succeeds greatly in this regard. While centring on Moses, it channels his relationships with his adoptive parents, his biological siblings, the city of Thebes, the Hebrew people, but none are more important than that of his brother.
The central driving force of the entirety of the film, our introduction to the two characters are when they are together, causing mischief and chaos, and we are seen that they are both troublemakers at heart, but only one has the burden of responsibility on his shoulders. Even up to Moses’ exile, Rameses still relies on his bond with his brother. They may be Egyptian and Hebrew, poor and prince by birth, but through nurture, the brothers are almost as one.
It is this dynamic that burdens Moses so. Although the loss of live and devastation chills him to his core, it is the realisation that he must choose between his love of his brother and the lives of thousands of slaves that haunts him the most.
The film carefully takes its time to build up the relationship between the brothers in the first act of the film, and in the second act, brings them to either sides of the line in the desert. We know that these two are brothers because we have seen their relationship first hand. This isn’t Revenge of the Sith where the two characters seem to have a relationship only built in between films. We’ve seen Moses do his best to keep Rameses’ spirits up in the face of scolding and disappointing his father, and we’ve seen Rameses do his best to protect his brother. For all of their lives, they were there to support and maintain each-other, now their beliefs and destinies must put them at odds with one another.
Throughout the entire scene, we still see that although they have committed each to their own cause, they still hold on to the last strand of hope that they can convince the other to come to their side. Most importantly of all, we see the toll taken on by the stubbornness and indignation of the others. There is great pain in both, piled on by the other, and they are each convinced it would all cease if the other would only capitulate, but neither can. Rameses must build his dynasty to prove himself to his people and ancestors, and Moses must carry the will of God, and save his people.
After the crescendo of the song, Moses walks alone in darkness through the hall of statues, seeking his brother in his place of refuge amongst the stone guardians. There the two recant a tale of more mischief they got into when they were younger, happier and more ignorant of their destinies. A brief flash of anger takes over Rameses as he recalls how much trouble Moses would get him into, but a brief spark of serenity takes over as he realises that Moses was always there for him, and the troublemaking was only to appease his brother, not to strain his relationship further with his father.
This is interrupted by Rameses’ young son, and this is the pivotal moment where Rameses fully commits to his cause. He realises now, there is no reasoning with Moses, and he must be strong in front of his son, fully labelling his brother as an enemy, and he announces his retribution will come to the people Moses is trying so desperately to free, and it will be righteous and furious. Moses gives his brother one final warning; the next plague will be the most terrible, and he gives one final, grief-stricken look to the boy who should be calling him uncle, as he knows what the final price to pay is.
In a beautifully understated, devastatingly haunting sequence, God himself travels to Egypt as a wisp of silver smoke, smiting the first-born children of any house not adorned with lambs blood. The only sound is the breeze of wind and a gentle whimper of final breath, and when the night is out, the sound is replaced with the devastated screams of those who have lost their children. In the foreground of the cacophony, Rameses, bathed in cold light, lays his only son on a plinth and bids a silent goodbye. Finally, he bids Moses and his people freedom to leave. Moses tries to comfort his brother, as devastated as he that it has come to this, but Rameses angrily commands him to leave.
Here we see the true toll taken on by Moses. He collapses in tears at the pain he has brought to his brother and the land of Egypt, pain that could have easily have been prevented by Rameses if he only heeded Moses’ words, a fact altogether too real for his brother too.
The Plagues scene is not the climax, but the culmination of each relationship, and the conclusion of its themes. It thematically sets the desires and needs of each of its characters in a single song, their stances and remorse’s are characterised perfectly in their duality.
Although Moses is our protagonist, Rameses is not his nemesis, and through this characterisation of a stubborn, proud and defiant ruler, we see he is merely the true obstacle for Moses, fuelled by his own hubris. It is not through narcissism, but misguided duty, that Rameses will not relent. We know that Moses might not be any better of a person than his brother, but circumstances have led him to his own idea of redemption, it just happens that in this story he is backed by his omnipotent deity.
It is this scene that perfectly separates the two, as their duality and similarities had been a blessing to them both before, and now they must stick with the paths they have chosen, and this is the song that cements it. It broadcasts loud and clear the ideals they had only contemplated before, and how far they are willing to go for their causes.
The visuals are striking throughout, but the sudden threat of danger and darkness contrasts itself beautifully from the vibrant colours and wonder that came before. Although the music begins epically, it drifts lighter in tone similarly. The ten plagues brings the dark imagery and epic choruses to reinforce its themes, it’s beautiful, dark and utterly captivating, and that’s why it’s still arguably the greatest work ever created by Dreamworks, and still a masterpiece worth talking about 24 years later.