The best that can be said for The Ten Commandments, the first in a projected series of CGI animated adaptations of Bible stories from fledgling Christian production house Promenade Films, is that it (a) sticks closer to the biblical narrative than DreamWorks’ classic The Prince of Egypt, and (b) tells more of the story. If only the worst that could be said about it were in regard to the stiff, unappealing animation.
The film’s problems start with the screenplay by Ed Naha (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), beginning with its derivative, uninspired take on the story. Although less speculative and less freely adapted than the earlier film, The Ten Commandments shamelessly rips off interpretive conceits and even specific dramatic beats from The Prince of Egypt, from the menacing of Moses’ basket by a passing croc to the foundering of Ramses’ chariot on the shores of the Red Sea, allowing him to live to see the destruction of his army and the escape of the Hebrews.
The Ten Commandments also borrows freely from the 1956 DeMille film of the same name starring Charlton Heston, such as casting a minor biblical figure named Dathan (here Lee Tockar; Edward G. Robinson in DeMille) as the ringleader in the Israelites’ doubts and grumblings, and especially in the golden calf incident. (The character design of Dathan even owes something to Robinson.) Stealing from DeMille, though, seems less egregious than stealing from The Prince of Egypt, in part because DeMille is less accessible and less familiar to the young target audience than the deservedly well-known DreamWorks film.
A title-credits sequence, animated as a series of moving tapestry embroiderings in a device directely indebted to The Prince of Egypt’s brilliant hieroglyphics dream sequence, establishes Moses’ and young Ramses’ relationship as one of fraternal competitive rivalry.
The story proper opens with a wrestling match that ends in the toppling and breaking of some monument or other, much like the opening chariot race in The Prince of Egypt that results in the breaking of the Sphinx’s nose and a huge mess of sand in the new temple. Cut to Pharaoh scolding his two wayward sons, particularly singling out Ramses (Alfred Molina, Spider‑Man 2, The Da Vinci Code) as the heir apparent for his lack of responsible behavior. Cut to Ramses grousing at Moses (Christian Slater) for always getting him in trouble. Are they kidding?
Where The Ten Commandments most clearly distinguishes itself from its predecessor is where the latter leaves off, after the parting of the Red Sea. The Prince of Egypt gave us only a brief glimpse of Moses the lawgiver descending Sinai with the stone tablets under his arm. The Ten Commandments offers the rest of the story: the wandering (and grumbling) of the Hebrews in the wilderness, water from the rock, manna and quail, the giving of the law, the golden calf, the ark and the tabernacle; even Moses’ death and the Hebrews’ entry into the Promised Land under Joshua. Even the 3½‑hour DeMille version didn’t get all that in.
First, though, it’s a long slog through material that was better told, and vastly better animated, in the DreamWorks film. There are nice touches here and there, though, such as the uneasy reluctance on an Egyptian soldier’s face during the slaughter of the innocents as a Hebrew woman clutches at his leg in a vain effort to save her baby. And elements altered in the DreamWorks retelling, like the feminist heightening of the roles of Tzipporah and Miriam relative to Aaron, are closer to the original text here. The murder of the Egyptian is softened with a self-defense angle, but is still closer to the biblical story.
Where The Prince of Egypt went out of its way to humanize Pharaohs Seti and Rameses, The Ten Commandments takes a more conventional, less nuanced approach, casting them as unsympathetic antagonists and ultimately villains. More gratingly, the grumbling of the Hebrews in the wilderness against Moses and God is depicted with morality-play simplicity rather than psychological texture (which is a bit jarring, given the pillar of smoke plainly visible not far ahead and the parting of the Red Sea only minutes earlier).
Among the nicer touches are the visualization of the water from the rock and the shadows of the approaching quail. Catholics may note that the round, white manna has a distinctly host-like appearance — a resonance that was probably unintended in a film that (like the DeMille version) gives the traditional Protestant enumeration of the commandments, with two on idolatry and one on coveting rather than the other way around. (“Coveting,” incidentally, is given the kid-friendly rendering “want what belongs to someone else,” and “bear false witness” is simply “lie,” but “adultery” is left unexplained. Also, rather than the traditional division of tablets, with commandments relating to love of God on the first and those relating to love of neighbor on the second, this one simply puts five on each tablet.)
The voicework is a mixed bag. Easily the best thing in the film is Molina as Ramses, followed by Ben Kingsley (Moses in the TNT TV version!) as the semi-superfluous narrator. Most glaringly wrong is Slater, whose Moses lacks authority and gravitas; he should have traded places with Christopher Gaze, who has far more presence as Aaron. As the voice of God, Elliott Gould comes off sounding more like a Vulcan than the Almighty, composed and reasonable, but lacking both warmth and transcendence.
The animation is serviceable at best, which is more a limitation than a fault. Production values don’t necessarily count against a low-budget film. They just don’t count for it either. Somewhere or other you need to achieve something special, in the story if not the visuals. The Ten Commandments doesn’t get there.
For good and for ill, it’s as much a testament and a fixture of traditional American ideals and affections as a courthouse display of the stone tablets, and as weighty and solid.
Witness the astonishing animation of scale at work in capturing the towering monuments of Egypt, or the host of departing Hebrews: few if any traditional animated films have ever captured the sheer sense of size in this film. Watch the subtle storytelling in an early scene as the infant Moses, caught up in the Queen’s arms, eclipses the toddler Ramses in her line of vision, leaving him standing there with outstretched arms; foreshadowing the rivalry and ultimately the enmity between the heir to the throne and his Hebrew foster brother. Notice the small details in those quiet numinous moments: the pebbles rolling back at Moses’ feet at the burning bush; the halo of clear water around his ankles as the Nile turns to blood; the horror of an Egyptian servant as the surface of the water bubbles and the first frogs begin to flop out of the river onto the palace stairs; an extinguished candle flame or an offscreen sound of a jar crashing as the destroying angel swirls in and out among the Egyptians.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.