Alongside the Advent wreath, in some parishes and households, is a second Advent symbol marking progress toward Christmas, a “Jesse tree.” (We have one and have used it for many years in Advent devotions with our children.)
The Advent Jesse tree is a contemporary phenomenon with a number of older cultural relatives, from the “tree of Jesse” motif in medieval Christian art, depicting the Old Testament lineage of Jesus as a literal family tree, to the Advent calendar in which each day in Advent is marked by small tokens or symbols, to the Chrismon tree, an expressly religious cousin of the Christmas tree.
A Jesse tree (which can be a real tree, a model, or a poster made of felt or similar material) is progressively adorned throughout Advent with symbols relating to Old Testament stories starting with Genesis leading up to the birth of Christ. In family devotions, the daily addition of a new symbol to the Jesse tree — an apple for the fall of Adam and Eve, a rainbow for the flood, a burning bush for Moses — is accompanied by a corresponding Bible reading.
In our household, we sometimes also watch a related movie around the time we read certain stories. During the second week of Advent, as we’re wrapping up Genesis and turning to Exodus, these often include DreamWorks’ two animated Pentateuch movies: the Exodus movie “The Prince of Egypt” (released Dec. 16, 1998) and its made-for-TV prequel, “Joseph: King of Dreams” (2000).
Coming first in the biblical chronology, “Joseph: King of Dreams” — the story of Jacob’s son Joseph, the dreamer with the coat of many colors who rose to power in Egypt after being sold as a slave by his brothers — is clearly a lesser effort than its better-known big-screen predecessor.
Neither the animation nor, more damagingly, the music in “Joseph” are in the same league as “The Prince of Egypt.” “Joseph” also skews younger; it is definitely a kids’ film. Still, it has its own more modest appeal, and for family audiences makes a decent lead-in to “The Prince of Egypt.”
Visually, “Joseph” is clearly meant to evoke its predecessor’s style; character designs have a similar look, with flat faces and long, narrow noses at once reminiscent of Egyptian art and Byzantine iconography. For once, Bible-film characters look Middle Eastern rather than European.
In keeping with the target audience, the rough edges of the biblical story have been somewhat smoothed. For instance, Jacob’s polygamy is elided; the movie admits that Joseph is the first son born of Rachel and that his older brothers are half brothers, but Rachel is Jacob’s only onscreen wife, as if he might have remarried after being widowed. (The fact that Joseph’s older brothers were born of three different women isn’t acknowledged.)
At the same time, right from the start “Joseph” shows a willingness to critique the sacred figures. Just as an early shot in “The Prince of Egypt” implicates parental favoritism in Moses and Rameses’ sibling rivalry (baby Moses in the arms of Pharaoh’s wife, cutting off from view young Rameses, with his arms outstretched to his mother), an early shot in “Joseph” implicates Jacob’s clear favoritism for Joseph in his elder brothers’ resentment: The patriarch draws a curtain, cutting off himself, Rachel, and the favored child from Judah (Mark Hamill) and his other brothers.
Ah, but it’s one thing to blame Rameses’ Egyptian parents for stoking their royal son’s jealousy, and another to implicate the patriarch Jacob in provoking his revered sons into selling their brother into slavery. The lyrics of the opening song reinforce the motif: The brothers’ lines initially suggest fraternal identification with Joseph, but Jacob repeatedly comes between them.
By the song’s end, with teenaged Joseph (whose speaking voice is supplied by an unremarkable Ben Affleck) celebrating his own specialness — “I am special, I am smart / I am somehow set apart / Petty rules and limitations don’t apply!” — viewers may be ready to throw the brat into a pit themselves.
On this interpretation, Joseph’s via dolorosa into slavery in Egypt, and then his years in prison, are not just a trial, but a character-building crucible. Even after this, late in the story the film cross-examines its protagonist as he tests his brothers to see if they have changed since they betrayed him.
Most provocatively, Joseph’s accusatory language (“And now you insult me with denials”) overtly echoes Potiphar’s language falsely accusing Joseph in connection with Potiphar’s wife (an incident dealt with as discreetly as possible). Driving home the point, Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath (Jodie Benson, Barbie in the “Toy Story” movies), clearly the voice of reason, expresses dismay at Joseph’s treatment of his brothers.
By far the best thing artistically about “Joseph” is the visualization of Joseph’s dreams, animated in a swirling, rippling style reminiscent of living, flowing Van Goghs. “Joseph” also overtly borrows from the even more stunning dream sequence in “The Prince of Egypt,” Moses’ hieroglyph-vision of Pharaoh’s slaughter of the innocents, but uses the technique in a much lower-key way for Joseph’s daydreams of home; it’s not bad, but not stunning here as it is in “The Prince of Egypt.” Pharaoh’s dreams, by contrast, are animated in a boldly symbolic computer-animated style that is more interesting than successful.
“Joseph” leads directly into “The Prince of Egypt,” where we find Jacob’s descendants enslaved by a later Pharaoh, Seti (Patrick Stewart), father of Rameses (Ralph Fiennes). From the powerful opening number, “Deliver Us” — a psalm of lament arranged as a Broadway-style chorus, scoring a majestic animated vision of the suffering of the slaves and the grandeur of Egypt — it’s clear that we’re, um, playing with the big boys now. (The big boys include “Godspell” songwriter Stephen Schwartz and film composer Hans Zimmer, who arranged and produced the songs and did the film’s score.)
“The Prince of Egypt” was the first animated feature film produced by DreamWorks (though “Antz” wound up getting released first); it was a pioneering effort that broke new ground in a number of ways: The first major big-screen animated Bible film, and the first big-screen take on the Exodus since Charlton Heston played Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic “The Ten Commandments.”
DreamWorks was acutely conscious of the towering importance of this story for all three Abrahamic faiths, and took considerable pains to get it right. Input from rabbis, priests, Protestants, and Muslim authorities was solicited, and the film is shaped in different ways by all three traditions.
Hebrew lyrics are heard twice: in a lullaby sung by Moses’ mother Yocheved (Ofra Haza) during the opening number (“My good and tender son, don’t be frightened, don’t be scared”), and during the triumphant Exodus song “When You Believe,” in which children sing the opening line of Moses’ song in Exodus 15, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously”), segueing into a Hebrew hymn, “Mi Chamocha,” based on the biblical song.
In a nod to the Quranic version of the story, baby Moses in the basket is found in the Nile not by Pharaoh’s daughter, but by his wife. Among adjustments made in response to rabbinic consultants, a ritual of modern Jewish weddings — breaking a glass by stepping on it — was dropped from Moses’ marriage to Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer) when it was pointed out that this act symbolizes the destruction of the Temple that wouldn’t be built for centuries, let alone destroyed.
Likewise, a crucial scene in which Moses defends a Hebrew slave from an Egyptian, in which the filmmakers originally juiced the drama by making the Hebrew Moses’ sister Miriam, was brought closer in line with the text when rabbis objected that the slave’s anonymity in Exodus 2 highlights Moses’ identification with his suffering people as a whole. (As with Joseph’s brothers casting him into the pit, the Egyptian’s death is softened by making it an accident rather than a deliberate act on Moses’ part.)
“The Prince of Egypt” is both a DeMillean Hollywood spectacle and a postmodern psychological drama. Moses’ story is cast in a quintessentially contemporary light as an identity crisis: In this telling, Moses grows up in the Egyptian court unaware of his Hebrew origins until a chance encounter with his siblings Miriam and Aaron (Sandra Bullock and Jeff Goldblum).
The conceptually and visually stunning hieroglyph dream that follows — one of the most brilliant sequences in American animation history — which Moses’ identity and Pharaoh’s brutality toward his people are revealed to him, is one of the film’s two towering artistic tours de force, along with the parting of the Red Sea.
Other powerful sequences include the burning bush, the most numinous rendition of this iconic biblical moment I’ve encountered in any Moses movie; the plague montage, scored to Moses’ and Rameses’ duet “The Plagues” (Fiennes sings his own lines); and the Passover night sequence, played without music or dialogue, with an eerie, wispy heavenly destroyer reminiscent of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with each firstborn’s death marked only by a long, last sigh.
Notably, “The Prince of Egypt” softens any sense of nationalistic triumphalism by developing a warm fraternal bond between Moses and Rameses, here depicted not as a villain but as a sympathetic, tragic figure, haunted by his father Seti’s doubts about his abilities and unable to see the human dignity of the Hebrew slaves.
Moses is fond of Rameses and pained to be pitted against him and forced to watch him destroy himself and his nation. It’s a more universal, or catholic, take on the story than many; and Moses, depicted throughout the story as a young, dark-haired man with a short beard rather than the octogenarian prophet of the biblical story, looks strikingly like a Christ figure.
There are weaknesses. I don’t mind that the filmmakers wanted to enhance the roles of the women, notably Miriam and Tzipporah, but they do so at the expense of Aaron and even Moses. Goldblum’s Aaron is a rather histrionic, unimpressive figure who serves mostly as a foil for his feisty, faithful sister, and Tzipporah takes Aaron’s place accompanying Moses into Pharaoh’s court. Moses himself needs Miriam’s encouragement to keep going, and at the denouement he thanks her as if to say he couldn’t have done it without her.
For all that, “The Prince of Egypt” is a masterpiece, one of the best screen versions of the Bible’s most cinema-ready story, and one of the two best animated Bible movies ever made, along with “The Miracle Maker.” With its less essential prequel, it has an enduring place in religious pedagogy for both Christians and Jews, and perhaps for Muslims as well.