I find it really strange that for a company known for being the crude, snarky, subversive alternative to Disney, one of DreamWorks’ first films is a retelling of a story from Exodus. But it makes more sense when you think about it: Katzenberg helped bring Disney back to its glory by making their movies feel larger and more epic, and now at his own studio, he hoped to show his former employers the biggest, grandest story of all, and what better source material to cull from than the Old Testament? This is one of only four traditionally animated films DreamWorks put out, and one of two I’ve never seen. As a kid, a movie like A Bug’s Life or The Rugrats Movie has a lot more pull than something like this. And what’s the movie that beat this Biblical story out at the box office? You’ve Got Mail. Kind of a harsh blow for the Almighty there. But all jokes aside, this film is decidedly serious; Antz had a darker, drabber tone than most animated fare, but this one is absolutely a drama, with virtually no comedy at all, and for an animated film, that’s a complete rarity. I can respect this movie on a number of levels, but I have a few issues with it as well.
As I was raised secular and am an agnostic by default, my knowledge of the intricacies of Biblical stories doesn’t extend much farther than parodies on The Simpsons or Rugrats. Since I have no real outside knowledge, I tried to view this movie for what it was: a movie, and focus on the story it was trying to tell, and not get wrapped up in the religious topic, since that could be debated forever. So the ancient Egyptians are working the Hebrew slaves to death, and to add insult to injury are seeking to kill the first borns to show ’em who’s boss. One mother sends her son down the river in a basket to save his life, only for him to end up in the arms of the royal family. All grown up, Moses is a carefree troublemaker, getting into trouble with his brother Rameses, who is set to inherit the throne. It isn’t until Moses actually sees the horrors his pharaoh father has committed against the Hebrews that he stops being so lackadaisical. He leaves the kingdom, only to discover his true lineage amongst his fellow Jews on the outskirts in the desert. After a divine meeting with the Almighty Himself, Moses returns to the kingdom, to order his new pharaoh brother to let his people go, lest there be grave consequences. And from this point, I’m sure you know the rest.
While Antz was part of the burgeoning new breed of CG animation, this film had to stand up to its contemporaries of the Disney renaissance both in look and scope, and I’d say it succeeds in holding its own. The movie is pretty gorgeous, giving you such a grand sense of Egypt: the deserts, the monuments, the kingdom, everything just feels so lush and detailed. There’s a bit of CG integration in some of the effects, but a fair share of it goes unnoticed and doesn’t call attention to itself. As I said, the movie’s basically a drama, but it mostly doesn’t get too bogged down in the gravity of the story, but also doesn’t beat around the bush either. There’s a fair share of brutality here: whipping the shit out of slaves, showing Rameses’ dead son, a man falling to his death, this movie doesn’t mess around. Though one sequence alternates between being stylistically neat and just plain silly, during the final plague of God killing the Egyptians’ first born, by way of a mystical white light. The light goes to each house, but if there’s blood over the door, it backs up and moves on. You almost expect like a cartoon ‘screech’ sound effect when this happens. But the film is still a visual treat, a marvelous piece of traditional animation.
So, the basis of the film sort of makes it difficult for me to take issue with the story in any way… Am I going to criticize the Bible in its storytelling? No, not in that context, but in this film, it feels not as satisfying. The stories of the Bible work in many aspects: as morality tales, stories of divine intervention and inspiration miracle. But when you expand a story to fit a film, it needs to have some heft in terms of our characters. Moses’ plight is very clear, and mostly effective, from his horrific realization of his life being a sheltered lie and his attempt to redeem his many years of turning a blind eye to the oppressed. It’s our finale where Moses takes a backseat for God where I lose a bit of interest. I know this is a movie all about faith, but when we get to the grand finale where it’s good vs. evil, and good is partnered with an omnipresent, all powerful, other worldly being, it’s not exactly that climactic. God creates a wall of fire to block out the Egyptians as Moses parts the sea (or rather, God does it for him), then he lets loose the wall so the Egyptians can chase them, then let the water go right as the Hebrews just barely escape. Couldn’t God have timed that a little better? Now I feel I’ve gone too far… but what do you want, I’m looking at this from a film perspective. When the resolution of your movie is “God saves the day,” it’s not as satisfying if the hero had done it.
This film’s also a musical.. sort of? I honestly could have done without the songs; they felt more like a crux the filmmakers felt they needed to have given the Disney formula at the time. I’m surprised the music seems to be held in somewhat high regard, none of the songs were particularly memorable to me. Some of them were alright, like the alternating duet between Moses and Rameses during the plagues, but then others were just weird and strange, like the two high priests’ (Steve Martin and Martin Short) number intimidating Moses with their heathenish magic. That’s the only actual musical set piece, the other songs are played over montages, or sometimes just randomly start and stop in certain scenes. I found the music angle to be sort of half-hearted, but if I’m in the minority on this, then so be it.
While I appreciated that they played this movie completely straight, there was really this dryness to it that kept me from getting too invested. For its themes of faith and hope, the movie just kind of washed right over me without impacting me that much. It’s visually splendid, featured some great performances by Ralph Finneas and Val Kilmer (!), and touts some incredible effects, like the burning bush and of course the Red Sea finale. But in the end, none of the things I liked really amounted to me enjoying the film as a whole. I appreciate and respect it for what it is, but it’s not something I want to rush back and watch again.