It’s Easter weekend. Like any good Southern mom, I have approximately 17 pairs of shoes for my daughters and me, three coordinating but not matchy-matchy Sunday dresses, and some very matchy-matchy polka-dot bunny leggings I picked up at Target in the little girls’ section for good measure. Those were all easy to find.
A little trickier to find are activities that commemorate the actual reason for Easter in a way that young children can understand and enjoy. Obviously, if you’re looking for stories of suffering and sacrifice that end with the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises, start with the Bible.
But may I also suggest the 1998 animated movie, “The Prince of Egypt.” This ambitious production was the first project undertaken by Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks and was the top-grossing non-Disney animated film at the time, but it’s a bit of a forgotten gem 20 years later.
Here are five reasons to watch it this weekend with your kids.
1. It’s Epic
I don’t mean epic in the overused modern Internet slang way. I mean the themes are serious and universal, the story timeless, the music moving. Animation allows for the locusts and the blood and the frogs to pour forth in a truly stunning fashion, giving the Exodus story the towering, overwhelming imagery it was meant to have. There is one shot, during the parting of the Red Sea, of a whale silhouetted behind the giant curtain of water as a parade of tiny people walks to freedom in its shadow that is just stunningly beautiful.
As Roger Ebert said in his review, “What it proves above all is that animation frees the imagination from the shackles of gravity and reality, and allows a story to soar as it will.”
A lot of animated films aim to be entertaining for both adults and kids, tossing in sly jokes for the parents in the crowd. Pixar is famous for this. “The Prince of Egypt” feels more like an animated film for adults that children will also enjoy. There’s a bit of comic relief in the form of the Pharoah’s two hapless magicians (Martin Short and Steve Martin), but the movie is dignified and sophisticated. I discovered it as an adult and it holds up 20 years later with my kids.
2. The Cast
“The Prince of Egypt” was lauded for its voice acting, and with good reason. The cast is a bunch of A-listers in their prime in the ‘90s. Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Patrick Stewart, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Helen Mirren, the aforementioned comic superstars as Pharaohs lackeys, and a special treat for any cast, but particularly voice acting — Jeff Goldblum.
I mean, if you had to choose one person you’d like to hear comment live on the parting of the Red Sea, wouldn’t it probably be Jeff Goldblum? Wish, granted.
3. The Music
Again, the material is ambitious, soaring, and sophisticated. The movie opens with no mistake about its message. “Deliver Us” sets the tone, with a huge orchestral sound and a full choir of vocals, and does not shy away from the darker parts of this story of redemption.
With the sting of the whip on my shoulder
With the salt of my sweat on my brow
Elohim, God on high
Can you hear your people cry?
Help us now
This dark hour
Hear our call, deliver us
This and “When You Believe, ” which took home the Oscar for Best Original Song, bookend the story — a lament and a celebration, both beautiful and clear in their message.
Many nights we prayed
With no proof anyone could hear
In our hearts a hope for a song
We barely understood
Now we are not afraid
Although we know there’s much to fear
We were moving mountains
Long before we knew we could
The score is Hans Zimmer’s work, who won the Oscar for “The Lion King” several years earlier, and the pop versions of the soundtrack’s singles are no joke. An epic (maybe in the overused modern Internet slang way) duet between Mariah and Whitney on “When You Believe,” K-Ci and Jojo’s “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” and Boyz II Men on “I Will Get There.”
I cop to being a longtime fan of Val Kilmer, who plays Moses, so please take that into consideration if you see fit. But doing double duty as the voice of Moses and God is a pretty decent resume point. Kilmer has a great voice, which was on display in his film debut “Top Secret” and in his portrayal of Jim Morrison in “The Doors.” I’m glad it got this showcase.
4. The Animation
DreamWorks recruited a bunch of Disney alumni to join a team of 300+ total animators. A combination of traditional hand animation and computer graphics created a look that wasn’t overtaken by new technology with the potential to age badly. Instead, it was used sparingly to heighten the imagery of the plagues scenes and the parting of the Red Sea. In revisiting the film years after I first saw it, I expected the look to be dated, but it’s not at all.
Ebert called it “one of the best-looking animated films ever made,” and it still is.
5. It’s On Netflix
For free. Enjoy!