Jeffrey Katzenberg, the ex-Disney movie exec, was sipping wine at Steven Spielberg's house along with ex-Sony music czar David Geffen, where the three were discussing the next frontier for animation. Katzenberg had shepherded the genre's renaissance at Disney with such hits as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. He felt animation was ready to burst its fairy-tale-for-toddlers trappings. This led to a discussion about what went into a cinematic epic. When they listed the different elements, Spielberg blurted out they all added up to The Ten Commandments. And with that, the three of them decided to start a new studio, DreamWorks, with its first project being an animated telling of the life of Moses, The Prince of Egypt (to be released Dec. 18).
But Geffen added a caution: They shouldn't Disneyfy it—that is, reconfigure the ancient story in order to tell an upbeat American tale. "Moses is not our story." And because of that injunction, I got to enjoy a special preview at DreamWorks' state-of-the-art animation studio. Katzenberg took Geffen's advice to heart and made an effort to transform Hollywood's relationship to the religious community from enmity to partnership. At every stage of production—from storyboards to previewing the close-to-final film—hundreds of religious leaders have been brought in to consult, including Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Ralph Reed.
"Dozens and dozens of changes were made," said Katzenberg. Of the ones he is willing to comment on, he tells of the song lyric that was already recorded as "You can work miracles when you believe." "All three religious groups let us know that that line was a problem," says Katzenberg. It was rerecorded as "There can be miracles when you believe." The change was not cheap.
While DreamWorks decided to eschew crass commercialization—and so waved off opportunities to merchandise Burning Bush night-lights—they tapped Christian publisher Thomas Nelson to produce a smorgasbord of mostly children's offerings, from The Prince of Egypt A to Z to The Exodus: Moses' Story from the Bible with Notes by Charles R. Swindoll. Look for the cardboard dump in a bookstore near you. The books will be placed alongside three albums: the soundtrack and two "inspired by" productions, one called "Nashville" and the other "Inspirational."
But merchandising and networking do not a hit movie make. If the movie flops, DreamWorks' brave attempt at a positive relationship with faith communities might backfire, making other studios less likely to pursue religion-friendly projects. Then again, Steven Spielberg's instincts were right: The Prince of Egypt is a great story. And Jeffrey Katzenberg was right: MovieGuide's Ted Baehr calls the film "a quantum leap in animation."
In fact, the movie is more entertaining than the book. To speed up the action, the role of Aaron is severely downgraded (the Val Kilmer-voiced Moses speaks for himself), and at the time of the Exodus, Moses looks more like a spry 32 than a robust octogenarian. And there are none of those awkward scenes of Hebrews grumbling in the wilderness; the movie ends at the hooray-for-our-side moment on the other shore of the Red Sea. Yes, there are certain advantages to having entertainment rather than revelation as your goal.
Still, unlike in most entertainment vehicles, God plays a major role. God's white fire in the burning bush wonderfully captures both his nurturing love and his majestic holiness. The plagues can only be interpreted as a revelation of Yahweh's supremacy over the Egyptian gods. And the parting-of-the-waters scene would cause Cecil B. DeMille to faint. There is no doubt who pulled these wonders off.
DreamWorks sought a PG rating. They thought scenes of soldiers killing Hebrew babies and God killing all of Egypt's firstborn—no matter how tastefully done—might be too much for toddlers. Still, the movie is one of those rare gifts from our consumer culture where what they are selling happens to further the work of the kingdom. My advice: Let the people go.
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