Dumbing Down the Bible

Dreamwork's first animated feature and challenge to Disney, The Prince of Egypt, based on the life of Moses as recounted in the book of Exodus, isn't boring; indeed it is entertaining in spots, but it is a good example of a film that demonstrates the limits of animation for feature art, especially for narrative art involving realistically portrayed human beings.

The biggest problem I had with the Prince of Egypt is that while listening to the eloquent voices of Ralph Fiennes, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, and Michelle Pfiefer, among others, portray grown ups, I kept longing to see their faces. Particularly since, with one exception, the characters were so realistically drawn, it brought into question the whole point of this exercise. What exactly is the purpose of so realistically drawing human characters when they can be portrayed using live action actors? The one exception in a film of otherwise realistically drawn characters are two villainous Egyptian high priests whose body shapes and facial features are deliberately unrealistic for comic effect. Which brings in another problem. Since these two characters so little resemble real human beings, it presents the disturbing spectacle of dehumanizing the sinners, making these characters inhuman in and of themselves, rather than because of what they believe and what they do. This type of moral judgement is contrary to both Judaism and Christianity. By contrast the Rabbi of the exiled Jewish tribe looks like a real person. And by contrast as well, and commendably, the villainous Pharaoh Ramses' cruelty and megalomania is contextualized with a plausible and tragically oedipal motivation. But this intelligent approach to portraying a negative character just further enhanced my longing to see the story done as live action.

As it is, the film could have done without the "comical" high priests, but it seems Dreamworks was afraid of losing out on the crucial "kids" market this film is aimed at. But this is ridiculous. With the possible exception of maybe the story of Jonah and the Whale, nothing in the Old Testament that is humorous, and as evil as certain historical and mythological characters in it are portrayed, not a one of them is to be laughed at. There are no "jokes" in Scripture, and trying to insert them, or "funny" characters into it in order to make it more "winning" with kids hooked on "South Park" makes as much sense as doing the same with, say, a full length animated version of the Oedipus Trilogy or, better yet for the kids, Medea. I am not anxious to see how they would bring the story of the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah to the screen.

Dreamworks does not spare, for the kids or adults in the audience, the horrors of the Pharoah's powerlust or God's wrath, but it is worth noting that even here, in not wanting to alienate the kids market, except for two cobras, no animals are shown in any distress. Babies are shown tossed to alligators, non-Jewish first borns are shown dying from God's plague. We see lamb's blood smeared on doorways, but no lambs slaughtered. Egyptian soldiers are shown drowning, but not their horses. Which goes to show that when it comes to the bottom line in showbiz geographics, infanticide and even genocide are one thing, but killing off lovable mammals is the first deadly sin.

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