What I liked
The Ten Commandments is a beautifully rendered 3d CGI cinematic experience which embraces its animated limitations, rather than trying to pretend to model the characters after real people. Think Polar Express and Beuowolf. How refreshing. There are downsides which I will explain below under the heading of “What Distracted Me.”
There are flashes of cinematic brilliance in this film. I am impressed by the sweeping imagery of thousands of people laboring over the construction of Pharoah’s massive building projects, hundreds of chariots racing to catch the children of Israel, and the Israelites themselves, in all their motley glory. The level of detail was impressive and effective in evoking a sense of reality. I wanted the camera to zoom in on the specifics of what individuals were doing, but alas, it was not to be. And that is not a bad thing, as it would have distracted from the story.
There were impressive moments where I had an intense sense of space and time, especially as Moses ascended the mountain to meet with God. The curvature of the mountain and the surrounding landscapes provided subtexts of wilderness, danger and remoteness. The burning bush was beautifully rendered. It had a realistic look which evoked reverence rather than distraction.
The voice characterizations were marvelous. Moses was played by Christian Slater. I know, I thought the same thing some of you are thinking right now. Christian Slater as Moses? Yet, he did a wonderful job, adding a sense of humanity and allowing his characterization to grow in synch with the maturing nature of Moses throughout the series of depicted events. Ben Kingsbury was the narrator and Elliott Gould provided the voice of God. Both men provided beautiful performances. Alfred Molina played Raamses in all of his conniving, evil glory. His performance and the work of the animators in rendering Raamses gave a sense of profound tragedy, causing me to empathize with a character which previously I had always scorned. Now this was something fresh.
What was most impressive is that these four actors became the characters, rather than being recognizable as themselves within the characters. I cannot say the same about some of the other popular animated features which feature well-known voice talent.
At the beginning of the movie there is a prolonged series of stop motion Egyptian hierglyphics which depict the context of the story. I immediately thought of the similar scene in The Prince of Egypt movie. Was this really necessary? Yes, it is effective and even impressive, but why draw unnecessary comparisons to the cinematic predecessor? It feels too derivative.
Were there really two whales and a giant sea turtle swimming in the Red Sea?
Do you suppose the little kid was really able to stick her head into the mountain of water to play with the little tropical fish as the Israelites traversed the parted Red Sea? It was made to look like an idyllic glassy pool of water, shades of Finding Nemo. It was cute, but definitely distracting because of its incredulity.
I wish there had been the options of English/Spanish subtitles, a standard of any good DVD project.
Did the magicians’ snakes really have horns? Come now, this was just plain nonsense.
Why is it that they made the chubby Israelite out to be the bad guy? Also, umm, they had just completed 430 years of slavery…. Were there any chubby guys? Yes, I know they ate Egyptian food, but they also labored in severe conditions. This was another unfortunate distraction which really didn’t help the story. Also, the small gaggle of complainers were given caricatured appearances, such as darker forboding eyes. Why? Why not make them look like average citizens who happen to have really bad attitudes? After all, the byline of the movie is An Ordinary Man. An Extraordinary Calling. Weren’t the other people ordinary as well? It would have created a greater sense of tension had we been able to see that. It would have forced us to confront the sin nature which taints our own nature in the image of God.
In the movie, Miriam is seen telling Aaron that God will forgive him for building the golden calf. Yes, God did forgive. But did Miriam really say that? Did God really, in effect, give tacit permission for Aaron to build it in the face of the crowd’s wrath? I think the reality is that Aaron was complicit in the event, but later repented. This is the most problematic section of the movie, from a biblical point of view.
The tablets floated in the air as God wrote the commandments on them in blazing fire and also in Hebrew. We don’t know for sure exactly how it really happened. Yet, I doubt that the stones swirled in the air. Again, if we go back to the text, there is no indication of such a thing happening. As impressive visually as it was to watch this scene, I am not persuaded that this is how it really happened. It makes for good theater. It is distracting in terms of narrative.
The actual sequence of events during the course of the plagues is condensed severely. In terms of keeping the movie within a manageable time frame (88 minutes), this makes sense. Yet, it would give the person who is not familiar with the biblical record a sense that God is capricious in handing out his judgement. For example, it seems to suggest that while Raamses was rebellious, proclaiming himself as God, the punishments were handed out with a sense of piling on. The reality is, after each judgement, God commanded Pharoah to let the people go. Yet Pharoah hardened his heart each and every time. Also, the judgements were direct confrontations with the ten most prominent false gods which the egyptians worshipped. While this is not necessary to point out in what is supposed to be a children’s movie, it does help to be aware.
The Ten Commandments is a beautiful version of the beloved story. In many respects, it is more realistic that either the Charleton Heston version or The Prince of Egypt. In other ways, it is far more cartoonish. As a DVD release, this is forgiveable. If it had released in the theaters, I suspect it would have been heavily panned. It is all about story and the DVD indeed does go a long way toward providing a strong story, but it is not without its problems as indicated above. I liked the movie, but I would hesitate to show it to a group of kids, partly because of the nature of its implied violence. It is a harsh story. And it is a complex version which has light family-friendly elements, combined with dark, albeit heavily edited subtexts. I am also hesitant because it departs from the biblical text on occasion, as I shared above.
Do I recommend it? Yes, but with caution for young children. Preview it first and see if it is appropriate for your family or children’s church. It’s length is prohibitive for church viewing, but if you had a special event, it shouldn’t be a problem.
I really do like the movie, despite my concerns. I am encouraged that there is a new series of high quality biblical films being placed on the market. If they haven’t done so already, I hope that they will consider consulting with a biblical scholar on the accuracy of their presentations, so that they may remain true to the text, while having continued creative freedom.