In this direct-to-video prequel to The Prince of Egypt, Dreamworks presents the Biblical story of Joseph.
For those who don't remember the story from Sunday school, or who were confused during The Prince of Egypt, Joseph's story explains how the Israelites got to Egypt in the first place. Along the way it comments on families and the relationship between siblings, forgiveness, and faith in God.
Facts of the Case
As we begin our story, Joseph (Ben Affleck—Chasing Amy, Shakespeare in Love, Forces of Nature) is the youngest son of Jacob (Richard Herd—Sgt. Bilko, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and Rachel (Maureen McGovern). Joseph's parents know that he is a miracle child with a special destiny ordained by God. He is the favorite in the family. He is a bit spoiled, receiving the best of everything and the lightest work. He gets to stay home and study scrolls while the rest of his brothers have to do the hard work of raising crops and tending the sheep. When Joseph's mother gives him a spectacular coat of many colors, it makes his brothers even more jealous.
Joseph also has a gift from God. He has the ability to see the future in his dreams, as well as the ability to interpret the dreams of others. His brothers become even more jealous and distrustful of him when he starts having dreams that seem to say that he will rule over all the rest of his family. Finally his brothers have had enough and sell him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. The slave traders take Joseph to Egypt, where with God's assistance he rises to power and prominence, and fulfills his unique destiny.
Joseph: King of Dreams will shatter any expectations you may have about direct-to-video animated features. This is no halfhearted attempt to cash in on the success of The Prince of Egypt, but is instead a fully realized and carefully crafted story of its own. This film could easily have been released theatrically, although its running time is maybe just a bit short for that.
Almost everything about this film is very well done. The animation is first-rate. A combination of digital animation and traditional cell animation allowed the filmmakers to achieve looks and effects that few animated films have been able to capture. Details like rippling water, small shafts of light coming through holes in a tent, or light reflected from the gold trim on Joseph's coat of many colors are natural and convincing. The scenery and surroundings, especially once the story turns to Egypt, are incredibly detailed and beautiful. Perhaps the most impressive sequences are Joseph's dreams early in the movie. According to the production notes, the filmmakers wanted these scenes to look like Van Gogh paintings coming to life. That may be a bit of a stretch, but these sequences really are marvelous. They capture a surreal, dreamlike quality while conveying crucial story elements.
The story that this movie tells is equal to the animation. The story of Joseph as told in Genesis is an inspiring, heroic tale of struggle and triumph. This movie is faithful to that story, while making it warm and human and peopled with knowable, identifiable characters. This combination of the heroic and the personal makes the story very moving. There is a strong religious element here as well, as one might expect from a Bible story. The movie finds just the right note, balancing excitement and drama with religion. It is entertaining but it has a deeper significance; on the other hand, it accepts God and religion without ever becoming overtly "preachy." As such it is able to appeal to everyone, regardless of religious background or lack thereof.
Another great strength of the movie comes from the performances of the voice actors. In particular, I was pleased to hear Jodi Benson's voice again. She is probably best known for her work as Ariel in Disney's The Little Mermaid and as Tour Guide Barbie in Toy Story 2. In Joseph she plays Asenath, the Egyptian woman who eventually marries Joseph. As in her previous roles, her voice is so warm and so real that her characters jump off the screen and envelop the listener. A person could fall in love with this voice. Her part in this movie is not that big, but she is always a welcome presence in any animated picture. Also notable is the performance of Mark Hamill (Star Wars, do you really need any other credits?) as Joseph's older brother Judah. Judah is a complex character, a good but flawed man who sells Joseph into slavery out of jealousy, and then spends twenty years wrestling with his guilt and grief.
The music in this movie is also excellent, with several original songs. The best of these is entitled "Better Than I," and deals with Joseph's acceptance that his destiny and the answers to life's questions must come from a higher source than his own understanding. It is performed by David Campbell, an Australian and veteran of musical theater both down under and in the US.
Dreamworks has done its usual outstanding job with this DVD, far better than what most studios do for their blockbuster theatrical releases. Joseph: King of Dreams is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Yes, you read that right; a direct-to-video animated feature in glorious anamorphic widescreen. It is simply gorgeous, an almost perfect video presentation. This movie, while using CGI and cell animation, did not use a single frame of film, but rather was totally digitally composed. As a result, there are no film blemishes or nicks to worry about, all colors are exactly as the filmmakers intended, and every frame is crystal clear. There are no digital defects that I detected. It is just plain flawless.
The audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 surround. It is also very good, with good use of the rear channels for music and atmospheric effects, such as cicadas in the background, or thunder during a storm. They were also used during some special effects/action sequences, notably Joseph and Pharaoh's dreams. There aren't a lot of sound effects that will blow you away, but this audio mix does very well with what the movie requires.
This being a Dreamworks disc, and a "Special Edition" at that, you can bet on a collection of extra material that is a cut above the ordinary. This disc has a great selection of extra features, many of which are geared towards a younger, i.e. family, audience. There are some standard items such as a trailer. Since this is not a theatrical release, I assume this trailer has been seen on other Dreamworks products. The trailer is presented full-frame and is noteworthy for only one reason: it identifies Joseph as "the second in a series of classic stories." We can only hope. Standard items also include production notes and cast/crew bios. The production notes are interesting, but they are word for word the same information presented in the case insert. Still they are better than nothing, and many studios would not bother to put them on the disc if they were already available in printed form. The cast and crew bios are pretty standard information, but they are noteworthy for the number of people included. Where most discs have information on a couple of cast members and maybe the director, this disc has profiles on over a dozen people involved in making this movie, a good reminder of what a collaborative effort this is.
There are also a number of features unique to this movie. One is a presentation of storyboards for key scenes. These can be watched with directors' commentary or with the audio from the finished scenes. This presentation is about 10 minutes long and is quite interesting. There is also an interactive trivia game, with about 20 questions based on the movie. Correct answers are rewarded with a film clip showing the correct answer, while incorrect answers trigger a scene of Joseph being thrown into an Egyptian prison. The questions are pretty easy, but younger viewers (under age 10 or so) should get a real kick out of it. Also included is a "Read-Along" version of the story for younger children. There is also a "Sing Along" segment that gives viewers the chance to sign along with three of the songs from the movie in a karaoke-like format. Even if you don't feel like singing along, this track is a nice chance to hear the songs by themselves, without having to search the movie for them.
There are also a number of DVD-ROM features, again geared more for younger children. I was unable to test these, but they sound like things that kids would enjoy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Those viewers familiar with the Biblical story will note that a few minor details have been changed in the interest of creative license. One example is the fact that according to the story in Genesis, Jacob's youngest son Benjamin had been born and Rachel had died prior to Joseph being sold into slavery. It is a minor point, but I mention it here because I know some people would be offended by any change in the original story. I don't particularly mind some minor dramatic license, so long as it doesn't change the substance of the story, and overall I don't think this minor change ruins anything.
The only real criticism I have is Ben Affleck's performance as Joseph. I like Affleck in much of his other work, but I didn't like him as well here. He does a good job at portraying Joseph as he goes through various stages and trials in his life, but his voice is just not as clear as one would want for an animated character. Many of his lines come out mushy and hollow, as though he were not enunciating clearly. Also, his portrayal of young Joseph is maybe just a bit too whiny-sounding for my tastes.
Aside from that, there were a few instances where the cell animation and the CGI did not mesh as seamlessly as one might wish. In a few scenes the characters look very soft and somewhat blurred in comparison to the sharp, clear CGI backgrounds behind them. This is only a minor objection, but I did find it just a bit distracting at times.
It is a shame that this film was released directly to video, because I think it is superior to The Prince of Egypt. I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of age or religious background. I hope Dreamworks really does intend to continue with a series of these animated films. I vote for Jonah and whale next, or maybe Joshua at the battle of Jericho.
The movie is completely acquitted. Dreamworks is to be commended for their meticulous attention to what could have been just another lowly direct-to-video animated feature.
We stand adjourned.
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