The original animated film Prince of Egypt from 1998 holds a special place in my heart, with its vibrant animation, powerful soundtrack, and moving story. While I only got around to fully enjoying it this past April (I dipped out in the middle as a child), I have tremendous nostalgia for it for multiple reasons.
I remember the trailer with its bright colors and lively snippets of “River Lullaby,” “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” and “When You Believe” from my family’s VHS copy of Antz. We owned a read-along cassette tape based on the movie. When I did my homework from middle school to college, I occasionally had Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston’s “When You Believe” in a background tab. To further hone in on the nostalgia, the movie is only one year older than me, just shy of a few days.
Finally, I appreciate The Prince of Egypt because it represents the story behind the Jewish holiday of Passover. With family films frequently dominated by Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, it was really meaningful to see one of my favorite Jewish holidays reflected in a mainstream movie.
Therefore, when I first saw an ad for The Prince of Egypt: The Musical (a taping of the London stage adaptation), I was intrigued to see how well it would hold up. On one hand, I figured the live theatrical format could offer an inventive new perspective of the Exodus story. On the other hand, I wondered if this release’s only purpose was to join the trend of remaking older animated movies, as well as to cash in on the original’s 25th anniversary.
Similar to the original, the story follows Moses, a Hebrew, and his relationship with his adoptive brother, Ramses, an Egyptian in line to become pharaoh. Moses and Ramses are very close, however their dynamic changes when Moses discovers his true heritage, and eventually under God’s command, leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt.
The biggest flaw with this adaptation is that it unsuccessfully expands the original’s 99-minute runtime to 143 minutes. As a result, the story alternates between recreations of scenes from the original and new scenes which mostly feel like filler. This negatively impacted the pacing, because I knew when certain moments would be coming, however the new scenes really threw off my sense of timing.
Another major flaw is that animation is a much better format for the story than a theatrical performance. While there are some beautiful practical effects in this movie (costumed actors creating the burning bush and the split sea), overall the visual effects pale in comparison to the original.
There are two scenes where this downgrade is most apparent. The first is the chariot race between Moses and Ramses. In the original, the animation allows us a feel of the grand architecture of Ancient Egypt, the chaos the brothers create for the villagers, the hazardous heights they reach, and the sand dune they ride down on.
However, the detailed animation is replaced with the brothers riding in front of simpler backgrounds projected on a screen, as they sing the number “Faster.” There are some attempts to recreate the havoc of the original chariot race, but it falls flat because the brothers’ mischief is mostly described through lyrics, and the villagers’ reactions compete with the music.
The second scene is the montage of the plagues between the first (blood) and the tenth (death of the firstborn). We only see boils, hail, and a glimpse of locust. This was a major missed opportunity, as the plagues remain my most colorful childhood memories of Passover, and are masterfully animated in the original scene. It would have been nice if the adaptation tried to portray plagues like frogs, wild animals, and death of livestock, instead of omitting them.
The adaptation incorporates a generational trauma theme which doesn’t work out. Without delving into spoilers, this theme is explored in a way that conflicts with my memories of Ramses as an over-the-top villain. Furthermore, the theme feels incredibly weak when compared to recent family movies which more effectively cover this topic such as Encanto, Turning Red, and Strange World.
Additionally, the humor often misses the mark. Except for one self-aware joke (when Tzipporah questions why her father Jethro, the priest of Midian, wants to accept Moses into their community against her wishes, he deadpans “I don’t know. It just works out that way.”) most of the jokes are only okay or feel out of place.
This is not to say that everything about this adaptation is bad. I enjoyed how Moses’ relationship with his adoptive mother, Tuya, is more fleshed out. There are also great additions to the soundtrack, such as “Heartless,” “Simcha,” “Never in a Million Years,” and “For the Rest of My Life.”
I really appreciated how the adaptation dedicates a number (“For the Rest of My Life”) to explore Moses’ guilt over the impact of the plagues on innocent Egyptians. We hear powerful lyrics such as “Does a noble end mean any means will do? Is your power the only reason I follow you?” I related to this song, because while I love Passover, its juxtaposition of celebration and God’s cruelty has always stood out to me.
Ultimately, these strengths are not enough to outweigh the flaws. While I can’t definitively say if this production is a cash grab, its poor pacing and execution make for a very mediocre experience. I give The Prince of Egypt: The Musical two out of four stars.