Siskel and Ebert may have given two thumbs up to "The Prince of Egypt." But a gathering of Baltimore clergy and religious leaders had most of their thumbs turned toward the floor.
Their complaint? The animated film plays too much with the story line and misses the theological point of the book of Exodus. The group, which included about 20 representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, gathered at the Senator Theatre for a showing and discussion arranged by the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies.
"It was like Nickelodeon goes to Vacation Bible School," the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, the NAACP's national youth and college director, said of the adaptation of the story of Moses, being released today.
The characters were too cartoonish, he said, and the film depicts God, in the few places where God is present in the story, as a transcendent, almost aloof being who works wonders, like the parting of the Red Sea and the 10 plagues that culminate in the death of the Egyptian firstborn.
"It has a lot of Rugrats personalities without giving people a sense of the intimacy" of God's relationship to people, Bryant said. "This was not a God who was very approachable, but a God who did strange things to people he didn't like."
"As a Jew, I'm offended that it simplifies my story," said Geoffrey Basik, the coordinator for teen educational programs at the Center for Jewish Education. "It is not just a story. It is a defining foundational principle for a people. I'm a little bit offended by it, not because it's a cartoon, but because of the simplicity of relegating my story to storyboards."
Rabbi Mark Loeb, of Beth El Congregation in Park Heights, said that the filmmakers at DreamWorks Pictures "chose to recast too many aspects of the Biblical text to the detriment of the overall dramatic impact of the story."
For example, although Moses was raised in the pharaoh's family, there is no biblical evidence that he was ever a prince. And a major dramatic element of the film is the brotherly relationship and later conflict between Moses and Ramses II, who would later become the pharaoh of the Exodus, an element that is not found in the biblical text.
"What concerns me is these things tend to become the 'gospel' truth for new generations, which will only reinforce a further distorted view of the biblical narrative," Loeb said.
What also bothered Loeb, and several others, was the fact that "The Prince of Egypt" focuses so heavily on the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, thus missing the true theological point of the Exodus story.
The central theme of Exodus is not simply liberation, but the relationship between God and Israel called the "covenant," a relationship continually broken by the Hebrews, who grumble when wandering in the desert, long for their life in Egypt, refuse to worship the one God and fail to follow God's commandments. None of this is found in the film, say the movie's critics.
"The idea of a God who out of concern for his people liberates them from bondage is, to my mind, hardly the emphasis of the story," Loeb said. "Liberation is not the end point of freedom. The end point is when one learns how to use the freedom with responsibility. And that's not exactly a Hollywood ideal."
The film ends with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, as inspirational music soars, an ending that irked several. "Just when, finally, there was about to be some ethical content, it stopped abruptly," said the Rev. John Roberts, pastor of Woodbrook Baptist Church on Stevenson Lane. "It was essentially a story of, 'We're having a bad time, get us out of this.' And the ethical response to the God who set them free, we never got to that."
The Rev. Christopher M. Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, said his problem with the film is with its portrayal of Moses.
"The kind of religion, the kind of spirituality that it dishes out is not Moses as lawgiver, who legislates a spiritual, ethical, theological discipline to people. It's not Moses as prophet, who is constantly in struggle both with his people, trying to bring about their reform and simultaneously in struggle with God, saying, 'Look, you're commanding me to do something for which I'm not qualified, choose someone else,' " he said.
"Instead he's a kind of messianic figure who takes an enslaved people, evokes from them blind obedience and submission, and their liberation is a function of simply following his footsteps," Leighton said. "So in a sense, freedom or liberation is something that is done to people, and it is not a collaborative achievement."
Imam E. Abdulmalik Mohammed, the leader of Baltimore's American Muslim Society, said that although Islam absolutely prohibits images of the prophet Mohammed, and is leery about representations of any other prophets, like Moses or Jesus, he was not offended by the film but saw it as merely another product of American culture. Many Muslim children will want to ++ see the film because of the huge amount of publicity surrounding it, Mohammed says, and he sees no harm in that, as long as parents and the mosque take a role afterward in presenting the portrayal of Moses in the Koran.
"DreamWorks is not a teacher on religious matters," he said. "We have to teach our children our faith."
There were a few, however, who saw something to like in "The Prince of Egypt."
"The fact of the matter is that it is out there," said Rosann M. Catalano, a Catholic theologian who is on the staff of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies. "It provides us with what I call a 'teachable moment.' It provides an opportunity to talk about the story, traditions and text in ways we couldn't do otherwise."
"Culture presents to us certain realities, and religious people can either put their heads in the sand and say, 'It's not about the sacred, it's not about the holy, let's not pay attention to it.' Or we can say, 'It's out there, people are going to deal with it,' " she said. "There are precious few films out there that parents who want to have fun with their kids can see. And this is one of those films."
Pub Date: 12/18/98