Spring 1999, Vol. 2, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Civil Religious Affair

Covering the Bible Belt I: Montgomery Wars:   Religion and Alabama Politics

Covering the Bible Belt II:  A Freethinker's Testimony

Covering the Bible Belt III:  Liaisons Religieuses

God in the Press Box

Excommunication in Rochester

No National Conspiracy

Religion on the Small Screen

Epic Respectability

by Anthony Burke Smith

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The Prince of Egypt dodged a bullet--in fact, a bunch of them.When Jeffrey Katzenberg and his Dreamworks SKG studio mounted a serious animated treatment of the life of Moses, he found numerous storylines gunning for him-cultural politics, religious offense, box-office embarrassment, even the search for the historical Moses. Yet the film managed to evade them all.

What is remarkable about The Prince of Egypt is how unremarkable it turned out to be. Here was yet another case where religion, mass culture, and profits all came together, a reminder that selling God is still good, respectable business in America.

As word started trickling out from Hollywood last winter that Katzenberg, the golden boy of animated films, had asked Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, and other religious representatives to consult on his new Biblical animation epic, the media sensed a story with interesting political overtones. "Hollywood isn’t exactly the Bible belt," puzzled Newsweek. "And Dreamworks’ legendary founders-Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen-are big-time liberals and Clinton allies." The magazine concluded that "in a larger sense, the movie represents a d_tente between Hollywood and religion-the Paris peace talks of the culture wars."

Frank Rich of the New York Times took glee in what he considered a sign of the "meltdown" of the religious right: "[I]f Mr. Falwell and other religious-right peers give their all to help turn Prince of Egypt into a megahit Dream-works is praying for, they’ll be shooting themselves in another foot. The film’s potentially huge profits will accrue not only to Mr. Katzenberg but to his Dreamworks partners, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen-also major contributors to the Democrats and liberal causes." Early press coverage therefore construed The Prince of Egypt as cultural politics with a novel angle.

But this story had few legs. The Prince of Egypt simply featured too much religious outreach to fit the picture of conservative-liberal d_tente. As the holiday movie season rolled around, newspapers were replete with Prince as a modern-day epic of cultural pluralism: Katzenberg assiduously courting Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim religious leaders as well as hundreds of religious scholars, biblical experts, and archeologists for consultation and advice. In this, he harked back to earlier days of American filmmaking, when the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and David O. Selznick consulted religious authorities to gain credibility and avoid offense.

That done, the religious story of the film morphed into a battle of the Hollywood titans-the (pious) Katzenberg versus his old boss Michael Eisner who, a few years earlier, had denied him a promotion at Disney. Amy Wallace of the Los Angeles Times devoted a lengthy Sunday arts-section cover story in late November to the gamble Katzenberg was taking in choosing Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt for his first real animation apart from Disney. "This movie is the story of Exodus," wrote Wallace. "It is serious (not funny), aimed at adults (not kids) and, dauntingly, religious."

Similarly, James Verniere of the Boston Herald asked, "Will The Prince of Egypt establish Disney’s competitor, if not its superior, in the hotly contested animated film market?" And Ellen Futterman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wondered, "Will audiences embrace a cartoon adaptation of a biblical classic that’s dramatic in tone and fails to include a talking camel?" USA Today’s Chris Woodyard asserted, "If it succeeds, Prince of Egypt could rewrite today’s rules of animation." That Katzenberg had decided to forego the usual commercial tie-ins because of the serious nature of the film’s story seemed to underscore his daring.

When the film opened to strong but not spectacular ticket sales, Katzenberg’s baby was left among the bullrushes. "’Prince’ falls short of promised land" the Boston Globe announced after the opening weekend. "'Prince of Egypt’ is No King at the Box-Office" the New York Times concluded after two weeks. The less than boffo box office forHollywood’s latest Biblical epic may say something about religion and contemporary mass culture. Tied more weakly to traditional denominations than they were in the post-World War II heyday of the Biblical epic, Americans may today be less drawn to films explicitly based upon the Judeo-Christian tradition. Quite apart from their religious interest, The Ten Commandments and other religious spectacles of the 1950s appealed to audiences by representing contemporary Cold War anxieties (Rome as evil communist empire) and displaying a range of uncensored erotic desires (after all, what were all those pagan orgies really about?). Without all of the above, postwar Biblical epics might never have garnered their huge audiences. Today, by contrast, mass audiences are likely to turn out for religious epics only when the religion is implied rather than overt-as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.

Still, The Prince of Egypt did well on many counts. By telling a Biblical story through state-of-the-art animation, the film offered a new approach to a tired and critically disdained movie genre. Its rendering of Moses as a young man struggling against his Egyptian upbringing to become leader of the Hebrew people blended traditional American concern for the underdog with ‘90s multiculturalism.

While the film may have disappointed some financial expectations, at last count it was nuzzling the $100 million mark, considered the breakpoint for success by the movie industry today. And this is to say nothing of future video sales, which are likely to be immense. Finally, The Prince of Egypt successfully ran the gauntlet of religious criticism. Indeed, some Jewish leaders and scholars applauded it as a contemporary midrash, or interpretive riff, on the book of Exodus. All in all, a movie on a classic religious theme that brings in $100 million without generating vitriol is no small feat in today’s world.

The Prince of Egypt is therefore an example of the use of religion in popular entertainment to carve out some cultural common ground. That doing so required box-office appeal only underscores the importance of the marketplace in shaping American society, including religion. Cultural critics may look down their noses at this unholy mixture of the sacred and profane, but as some film scholars have noted, Hollywood’s religious spectacles reflect an American national culture that has traditionally perceived itself in Biblical terms of being a "city upon a hill" and a New Israel.

If The Prince of Egypt falls short of the millions racked up by a Lion King or an Independence Day, it nonetheless serves up a winning formula of religion, respect, and populism. And just around the corner is the nearest thing to a Second Coming in a culture so dominated by Hollywood-the latest installment in the Star Wars series.