Film: Liberation Theology

Man bites dog: The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks’ animated feature film about the life of Moses, has been banned in Malaysia because it is too explicitly religious. “We found it insensitive for religious and moral reasons,” says Lukeman Saaid, chairman of Malaysia’s Film Censorship Board. The ban is all the more comical given the equally unprecedented fact that in making the film, DreamWorks went out of its way to get every imaginable religious leader on board; more than 600 of them were consulted on the film’s content, and The Prince of Egypt has since been publicly endorsed by everyone from Pat Robertson to Cardinal O’Connor.

It’s tempting to assume that a movie with so many official seals of approval would have to be bad, or at least bland. So I went off to see The Prince of Egypt, girded for the worst but open to the possibility of a pleasant surprise, and surprised I mostly was: It wasn’t bad at all.

To be sure, the makers of The Prince of Egypt have attended scrupulously to matters of palatability, following the Disney model right down the line. In this revised standard version, the adolescent Moses (Val Kilmer) becomes a bit of a hellion, drag-racing through the streets of Egypt with fellow charioteer Pharoah Jr. (Ralph Fiennes). Pharoah’s magicians are turned into a pair of Laurel-and-Hardy-esque connivers (Steve Martin and Martin Short), and the voice of Moses’ wife is supplied by none other than the famously sexy Michelle Pfeiffer, a touch weirdly reminiscent of the use of Kathleen Turner in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But this is, after all, a children’s movie, and we have it on the very best authority that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

In any case, what is most surprising about The Prince of Egypt is not the use of such artificial sweeteners as celebrity voice-overs and comic relief, but the willingness of its makers to take the Passover narrative at something like face value. Any true-blue connoisseur of political correctness would have expected considerable modification to such uncomfortable episodes as, say, the unleashing of the nine plagues, in which God reveals Himself to be not merely violent but (even worse) intolerant. Yet the story plays more or less as written—the smiting of the firstborn is the scariest piece of animation to emerge from Hollywood since the death of Bambi’s mother—and for all my predisposition to pick flaws, I found nothing in the script of The Prince of Egypt that could be construed as even slightly hostile to Judeo-Christian tradition. The Hebrews are the good guys, the Egyptians the bad, and that, incredibly enough, is that.

That a major film studio should have produced a movie that takes religion seriously is, I suppose, enough of a miracle that one ought to play down the quibbles. But The Prince of Egypt is not without flaw, and the flaws, not surprisingly, have less to do with theology than taste. For one thing, Stephen Schwartz’s songs and Hans Zimmer’s score are appallingly vulgar—a cross, if you can imagine such a thing, between Titanic and Fiddler on the Roof—and since music is heard in virtually every scene, sensitive viewers are likely to find themselves putting their empty popcorn bags to good use. The animation is far less banal, and one scene, the parting of the waters, is actually very beautiful, both in conception and execution. Still, Hollywood animators have yet to solve the problem of creating human beings who resemble human beings, and the characters in The Prince of Egypt are rendered without exception in the Disney-approved manner: The men have huge, sensitive eyes, the women cheek-bones to die for, and Zipporah, of all people, looks like a Vargas girl.

Why should such things matter? This being an age desperately in need of spiritual sustenance, shouldn’t we welcome any film, however kitschy, that seeks to tell the story of Moses with reasonable accuracy and genuine respect? Perhaps. But lest we forget, The Prince of Egypt tells only part of Moses’ story, the part that fits most neatly into Hollywood’s truncated view of the spiritual life. The Moses of The Prince of Egypt is first and foremost a liberator, the hero who freed his oppressed people from Pharoah’s yoke. What of Moses the lawgiver, the man who showed his people “the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do?” That awkward fellow is relegated to the film’s last half-minute, a dialogue-free tableau in which he descends from Mount Sinai, illegible tablets in hand, followed by a quick cut to the credits. Of course every film has to end somewhere, but one suspects the Seventh Commandment might have been too much for the board of directors of DreamWorks to swallow.

As it happens, adultery is also conspicuous by its seeming absence from Chris Columbus’s Stepmom, the three-hankie hit of the Christmas season, though sharp-eyed observers will have no trouble spotting it in the middle distance, a little cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. But, then, quite a few other uncomfortable realities have been scissored out of the script of this extraordinarily shifty movie, the apparent purpose of which is to define divorce down. The plot, accordingly, is laughably simple: Luke (Ed Harris), a New York lawyer, has left his wife Jackie (Susan Sarandon) and kids (Jena Malone and Liam Aiken) and is now living with the much younger Isabel (Julia Roberts), a fashion photographer. Jackie loathes Isabel and tries to turn the kids against her, but when she is suddenly stricken with terminal cancer (yes, you heard right), she makes nice with the Other Woman so that the future happiness of her loved ones will be assured.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, to begin with, the whole question of how Luke and Isabel happened to meet is left dangling. Did he leave the middle-aged Jackie for her? It’s vaguely hinted that their romance began after the marriage broke up, but the whole atmosphere of the movie argues against it: Luke is all too clearly a fiftysomething hunk who decided to go trolling for the more abundant sexual life, found himself a megababe, blithely kissed the mother of his children good bye, and went off in search of self-actualization. As for Jackie’s slight case of cancer, she is just as clearly suffering from one of those rare Hollywood-bred strains whose only outward manifestation is the sudden disappearance of makeup.

The dishonesty of Stepmom even extends to the decor. Most ex-wives suffer an abrupt postmarital decline in their standard of living, especially those who don’t have jobs. But Jackie is a full-time house-ex-wife who lives in a big house in a nice suburb, and, whatever her other difficulties, the one thing she never, ever complains about to Luke is the size of her alimony checks. Don’t get the wrong idea: She isn’t rolling in dough. The official studio press release quotes production designer Stuart Wurtzel as follows: “We didn’t want the house to look too affluent. After all, Jackie is no longer working—she’s living off savings and the money Luke provides. Her home couldn’t be too opulent.” No, indeed, and that presumably explains why Wurtzel chose to shoot the exterior of what the press release describes as “an 1860 original colonial clapboard structure with a porch on a charming plot of land.”

Also included in the press release is a useful bit of information about Gigi Levangie, who wrote the original story on which Stepmom is based. It seems she herself is a stepmother, a fact that may help to explain why Jackie behaves like a bitch from hell throughout the first half of the film, only finding peace once she accepts Isabel as a quasi-sister (a sister who is canoodling her ex-husband, mind you, but that’s a mere detail). In fact, the script of Stepmom comes close to implying that Jackie is stricken with cancer as condign punishment for her spitefulness—that, to put it bluntly, she deserves to die for standing in the way of her husband’s liberation.

Whether or not this is what Levangie and her collaborators had in mind, the effect is repulsive in the extreme. For that matter, virtually everything about Stepmom is repulsive, not least the scene in which Jackie informs her children that she is going to die. Truth flees at the touch of kitsch, and this scene is as kitschy as anything I have ever seen in a Hollywood movie, though it is noteworthy for another reason: In the course of explaining her fast-approaching fate to Anna and Ben, Jackie makes no mention whatsoever of God or heaven. (That the scene takes place on Christmas morning merely serves to underscore the point.)

One wonders exactly when Hollywood decided that it could do without the nominal obeisances to religion that once were deemed obligatory, if only as camouflage. Certainly the fact that people flocked to see Stepmom suggests that few found it offensive. On the contrary: I saw it in a theater crammed with teenage girls, most of whom cried at the end. Perhaps it was the happiest ending they could possibly imagine. No doubt the idea of a married couple who stayed together for the sake of the children would have struck them as too fanciful, even for a movie.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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