Jewish Journal

Previewing the ‘Prince’

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Aug. 20, 1998 at 8:00 pm

Since Jeffrey Katzenberg started production three years ago of "The Prince of Egypt," an animated film version of the life of Moses, he has probably learned more about America's ethnic and religious sensitivities than any other Hollywood mogul.

Katzenberg, the middle initial in the DreamWorks SKG triumvirate, decided to canvass the opinions of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious and academic leaders at each stage of the musical film's progress.

So far, more than 350 clergy and scholars have been consulted, in addition to in-house experts, and the returns are generally complimentary of Katzenberg's intent and readiness to accept advice.

One of the earliest pre-viewers was Orthodox Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"We reached an early understanding that the film would be faithful to the biblical narrative, but in those areas where the text was silent, DreamWorks could be creative," Hier said.

Nothing is known of Moses' adolescence, so, following the guidelines, the film imagines that Moses and the future Ramses II were raised as brothers at the Pharaoh's court and competed in chariot races.

Some liberties were also taken in the portrayal of Miriam, Moses' sister, and potential theological disputes (not to mention 40 years in the desert) were avoided by ending the film with the spectacular parting of the Red Sea.

Greatest concern about the film's characterizations was expressed by Muslim and Arab-American spokesmen, who have long complained, with some justification, that Arabs have become Hollywood's villains of choice.

One reservation, which the studio had to reject, was the Muslim strictures against any physical portrayal of a prophet, including Moses and Abraham.

An early suggestion, which was accepted, was that the slaves building the pyramids be shown in varied skin tones and attires, to indicate that they were of many different races, not just Jews, said Michel Shehadeh of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his early fears had been allayed that the film might "fuel contemporary controversies" by pitting "good" Jews against "cruel" Egyptians.

Shehadeh went one step further by perceiving "Prince of Egypt" as a "human rights film against oppression," a viewpoint, he said, that might actually support present Palestinian grievances.

A minor correction was the renaming a friendly camel, initially called "Habibi," which is Arabic for "My darling." The expression, is was pointed out, is a modern one, unknown in biblical times.

The favorable impression created by Katzenberg's outreach and early clips of the film found its most glowing review in the words of Don Bustany, a veteran Arab-American activist and a Christian. "It's a terrific film," he said, adding with a wink, " It almost made me want to be Jewish."

Reaction among Jewish pre-viewers appears to be even more enthusiastic. Typical is that of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who praised the film as "a labor of love and respect... entertaining and exciting.

"There is a thin line between soliciting all opinions and pre-censorship, and I think DreamWorks has walked it successfully," Foxman said.

Christians who have met with Katzenberg range from Fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell to the Vatican's Council for Social Communication, and the general reaction appears equally favorable. Theater owners in rural areas believe the film will do particularly well among conservative Christians.

DreamWorks, otherwise not publicity-shy, declined at this point to discuss its outreach to religious and ethnic leaders for this story.

One major Jewish theologian, a longtime consultant to Katzenberg, also begged off, noting that his contract stipulated that all press comment come from the studio.

The unusual reluctance appears to be mainly a matter of publicity timing and marketing strategy and reflects the studio's concern about the film's image and audience appeal prior to its Dec. 18 premiere.

According to knowledgeable sources, the studio wants to avoid -- like the plague -- having the film tagged as either a kiddie cartoon or a preachy Sunday school sermon.

To counter the danger, the film's advance trailer and Web site promise "the greatest adventure of all time" offering "mystery, majesty and miracles."


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