Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Joseph: King of Dreams - Special Edition (2000)
Studio Line: DreamWorks

From the filmmakers of the Academy Award-winning box office hit, The Prince of Egypt, comes an all-new animated epic, Joseph: King of Dreams. One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, this inspiring musical adventure retells the classic story of a boy (voiced by Ben Affleck), with an extraordinary gift of seeing the future through his dreams. Winner of the Film Advisory Board Award of Excellence, Joseph: King of Dreams is a timeless treasure for every generation, with five memorable new songs, sparkling animation and "storytelling at its best" (Alice O'Neill, Los Angeles Feature Syndicate). This family favorite is "destined to join The Prince of Egypt and The Lion King as an instant classic" (Bruce Kluger, Us Weekly).

Director: Robert Ramirez and Rob Laduca
Cast: Ben Affleck, Mark Hamill, Richard Herd, Maureen McGovern, Jodi Benson, Judith Light, James Eckhouse, Steven Weber, and singer David Campbell
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated NR; 74 min.; $26.99; street date 11/7/00.
Supplements: Read-along; Sing-Along Songs; Downloadable Kids’ Coloring Sheet; Downloadable Activity Sheets; Storyboard Presentation With Directors’ Commentary; Interactive Trivia Game; Memory Game; Trailer; Production Notes; Cast and Crew Biographies.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: A/B+/C

Although many film studios have attempted to challenge Disney’s hegemony in the animation domain, successes have been few and far between. Despite a bomb like The Road to El Dorado, DreamWorks have done the best job in this domain. Clearly their animation department isn’t viewed in the same light as Disney’s - they’re simply too new - but they’ve done moderately well for themselves through modest hits like Antz and Chicken Run.

The studio’s biggest moneymaker was also their riskiest venture: 1998’s The Prince of Egypt. That movie told the story of Moses in cartoon form, something that potentially could have cheesed off a lot of people. However, it seemed to go over fairly well and although it didn’t approach blockbuster territory with its gross of $101 million, that was still a pretty solid take, especially for a non-Disney animated title that didn’t benefit from an already-established franchise ala Pokemon or Rugrats.

Not only are DreamWorks trying to horn in on Disney’s theatrical territory, but now they’re going after another sacred mouse: the business of direct-to-video (DTV) films. Disney have churned out a slew of these pictures, many of which are sequels to theatrical films such as The Little Mermaid II and Pocahontas II. All of these have been vastly inferior to the original pictures, and most have been pretty crummy in general. At best, Disney’s DTV movies have provided very modest entertainment; as a rule, they’re bland and forgettable rehashes of their predecessors.

In their first DTV sequel, DreamWorks actually improves upon the Disney model. Although Joseph: The King of Dreams isn’t anywhere near as good as The Prince of Egypt, it works decently enough; I found it to be a generally enjoyable and watchable little film.

Technically, Joseph really has little to do with TPOE other than its Egyptian setting and Bible source. Just as TPOE covered much of the story of Moses, Joseph looks at its eponymous future-predictor, voiced by Ben Affleck and sung by David Campbell. Seen as a “miracle child” by his parents, Joseph suffers repeated setbacks and problems related to his special status: he can predict the future through dreams.

Bible adaptations are tricky territory, especially for works that aim for a wide mainstream audience. The filmmakers want to remain true to the source but not come across as excessively preachy or serious. I can’t address the former - it’s been a while since I’ve perused the Bible - but I think the tone of Joseph feels fairly appropriate. In the early stages, I feared it would go for a more cartoony vibe than did TPOE, especially since there are some googly-eyed sheep that didn’t fit the film’s visual style well. However, though Joseph doesn’t come across with same portentous drama of its predecessor, it plays things fairly straight and maintains an even keel.

That said, Joseph generally feels like a blander version of TPOE. Both stories concern men who suffer due to a burden/gift given them by God which causes them to split with their families, and the general formats are similar. Joseph is also a musical, and while none of TPOE’s songs seemed terribly great to me, they were much more memorable than the generic ditties heard here. There’s not a memorable melody in the bunch, although I should note that at least the songs avoid any serious flaws. Their main problems stem from their dull qualities, but they aren’t embarrassing or silly.

The voice cast of Joseph is also a significant step down from the all-star roster of TPOE. Even though I wasn’t completely enamored of everyone in that group’s work - Michelle Pfeiffer came across rather poorly - the weight the stature of the actors added was substantial, and most performed well. In Joseph, the only true star is Affleck, who seems a little too genial in the role; he can’t handle the character’s various moods terribly well.

Everyone else just appeared very indistinct. Mark Hamill has made a nice second career as a voice actor in animated programs like “Batman”, but his work here as Joseph’s brother Judah was completely undistinguished. Frankly, all of the brothers sounded the same to me except for Joe himself; there was almost nothing by which to distinguish them.

No one else in the cast does much to stand out either. Overall, the group seemed eminently professional and competent, but no one breaks out of the pack to make their roles more distinct or winning.

That general blandness really is Joseph’s greatest flaw, and it’s the only reason I didn’t like the movie more. I enjoyed it as a whole, but nothing about the project seemed tremendously special or compelling. The animation resembled the work done in TPOE but it lacked the fluidity and life-like qualities found in the predecessor. Ironically, this means that Joseph’s computer animation blends better with the cel work. I thought the CGI in TPOE meshed poorly with the rest of the package, but since Joseph doesn’t display traditional animation of the same high quality, the computer sections don’t stand out so starkly.

Only one aspect of Joseph genuinely annoyed me: no one other than Joseph ever ages! The film starts with Joey as a newborn and progresses until he’s in his mid-thirties, yet all around him stay exactly the same. This is most glaring due to the advanced age of Joe’s father Jacob. At the start of the movie, Jacob’s already an old man; there’s no way he’s going to hang on for an additional 35 years or so. But he does, and the only signs of aging are his stilted gait. Geez, Joe’s brothers all have to be at least in their fifties by the end of the film, yet they look exactly the same as they did in their twenties! It’s bizarre and silly.

Ultimately, I thought Joseph: King of Dreams was a minor film but still one that I generally enjoyed. It started fairly slowly but gradually picked up steam and eventually became a modestly satisfying experience. I wouldn’t recommend it over The Prince of Egypt or virtually any theatrical release from Disney animation, but as a direct-to-video program, it’s much better than average.

The DVD:

Joseph: King of Dreams appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although The Prince of Egypt presented a fine picture, Joseph looks even better - it’s a simply gorgeous movie.

Sharpness appeared completely immaculate. There wasn’t a soft or fuzzy moment to be found; the entire package seemed perfectly defined and accurate. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV appeared minimal. Print flaws seemed totally absent; I couldn’t detect any signs of scratches, grain, nicks, hairs, speckles, grit or other defects. This DVD’s production notes the movie was completed digitally and never touched a frame of film; I can’t confirm whether or not the DVD was mastered straight from the original digital data, but I’d guess this is what occurred.

As with TPOE, the image’s greatest concerns related to shadow detail. Black levels appeared very deep and dark and looked quite solid, but the low-light situations often seemed excessively dim. At times, it could be somewhat difficult to discern facial expressions and other nuances. However, I do believe that these issues are not a problem per se; I think the movie was designed to look that way and the DVD translates the image properly. Frankly, I’m not wild about the overly-dark appearance, but it’s not a genuine problem and the movie still looked terrific nonetheless.

Another trait that Joseph shared with TPOE concerned colors, which appeared fantastic in both films. As impressed as I was with the hues of the original movie, I found the tones on display in Joseph to be even stronger. Put simply, this picture offered some absolutely stunning colors. The richness and depth of the hues seemed amazing, and they truly leapt off the screen at times. The best scenes came from Joseph’s dreams; these provided exceedingly bright and accurate colors that were a delight to behold. Overall, Joseph looked terrific. Had I not been slightly displeased with the darkness of the image, I likely would have awarded it an “A+” for picture. As it stands, the movie will have to settle for a solid “A”.

Joseph offers a good but not spectacular Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield provided some decent breadth at times and it always created a rather nice general atmosphere. The forward channels dominated the proceedings, and the audio spread nicely across those three channels; the stereo music sounded well-delineated, plus effects and some music seemed cleanly-defined. The surround mainly contributed ambient effects, but they also kicked to life actively at times. Compared to TPOE, Joseph featured far fewer “showy” sequences - there’s nothing here to compete with scenes like the parting of the Red Sea, for example - but one thunderstorm segment created a convincing effect and seemed life-like.

Audio quality appeared consistently fine. Although dialogue occasionally didn’t seem to integrate especially well with the action - a problem that occurred during TPOE as well - the speech sounded warm and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were clean and accurate and displayed no distortion. Music came across as clear and fairly vivid. The dynamic range usually seemed quite good; the soundtrack lacked much deep bass, but the low end generally appeared adequately defined, and the highs seemed crisp. Joseph doesn’t provide a killer soundtrack, but it seemed more than sufficient for the material at hand.

Truth in advertising: although I haven’t seen any other reference to the potential inclusion of a DTS soundtrack on Joseph, I did note this statement on the back of the case: “Plays in discrete 6.1 channels on DTS-ES Discrete 6.1 decoders. Fully compatible with DTS-ES Matrix 6.1, DTS-ES compatible and DTS 5.1 decoders.” Did DreamWorks plan to make this a dual Dolby Digital/DTS release but back off at the last minute? I have no idea, but I thought this was an interesting line.

Joseph contributes a few decent supplements. Most of these are aimed at kids, starting with a “Read-Along” program. A combination of film clips and narration, this piece lasts 18 minutes and 38 seconds. It tells the full story of the movie and allows kids to follow the text as it’s read to them. Unlike a similar feature found on many Disney DVDs, this one doesn’t provide the option to decode the tale without narration.

More juvenile fun comes through the “Sing-Along Songs”. In this section, we discover three different tunes: “Miracle Child”, “More Than You Take” and “Better Than I”. Each of these ditties features white lyrics at the bottom of the screen; as the words are sung, the text turns to yellow (or blue in the case of “Miracle Child”).

Kiddies may enjoy the DVD's "Interactive Trivia Game". This 22-question contest strongly resembles similar activities found on Disney DVDs. Each item offers three possible answers, and it's a pretty simple test for anyone who's watched the film. Unfortunately, a perfect score garners no reward other than a static congratulatory screen; Disney had the right idea on their DVD of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which showed a bonus cartoon for anyone who correctly answered all of its game's questions.

Not all of Joseph’s extras are simple kid stuff, however. For adults, the most interesting component is the “Storyboard Presentation”. This 11-minute and five-second program shows a few different scenes as they appeared during the planning stage. All appeared in the final film except for an alternate early version of the shopping plaza segment, which is accompanied by the boards for the finished piece as well. The storyboards are shown as story reels, really; they’re filmed, not displayed frame-by-frame, and displayed with audio.

You can also view the “Storyboard Presentation” with commentary from directors Robert Ramirez and Rob Laduca. These two add a lot of solid information during their brief appearance here, and they provide a fair number of details related to why they did what they did. They seem engaging and interesting; it’s too bad they weren’t allowed to record a commentary for the entire film.

We find a trailer for Joseph here, but not one for TPOE, although the ad for Joseph features some clips and music from its predecessor. The “Production Notes” provide short but solid details about the creation of the film. This text is also replicated inside the DVD’s booklet.

“Cast and Crew” provides one of the longest roster of biographies I’ve ever seen on a DVD. We find listing for nine actors (Affleck, Hamill, Richard Herd, Maureen McGovern, Jodi Benson, Judith Light, James Eckhouse, Steven Weber, and singer David Campbell) plus directors Robert Ramirez and Rob Laduca, producer Ken Tsumura, executive producers Penney Finkelman Cox, Steve Hickner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, associate producers Traci Mars and Mitch Watson, writers Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer and Joe Stillman and Marshall Goldberg, songwriters John Bucchino and Danny Pelfrey, art directors Chris Aguirre and Fred Warter, and editor Michael Andrews. Whew! That’s a long list! The bios aren’t tremendously detailed and they lack filmographies, but the quality of the entries is generally fairly solid.

One odd glitch in the “Cast and Crew” area. Somehow the formal listing of Affleck’s Oscar for Good Will Hunting got transposed in the middle of Hamill’s biography. Out of nowhere it says “1998 Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen/The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences”. This plops right in the middle of a sentence about Hamill’s other voice-over work. Funky!

In addition to these extras, Joseph includes some DVD-ROM features. The “Family Fun” section gives us a variety of kid-related activities. “Concentration” is a Joseph-themed version of the old “match the cards” game; you have to pair a mix of images from the film, and when you get two, the blocks disappear and reveal part of a picture. If you win the game, you get to see a cheesy little picture. Whoopee!

The other two “Family Fun” tasks require a printer. There’s a “Coloring Page” and some “Puzzles”. Any attempts to do anything with these other than print them will be futile.

The last area in the DVD-ROM section is called “Online Events”. As of November 6 2000 - the day prior to the disc’s official street date - the Joseph-related page is still “coming soon”. If you’re interested, check back later; I’ll revisit the site in a few days and see if it’s updated.

Although Joseph: King of Dreams doesn’t remotely approach the high standard set by The Prince of Egypt, its predecessor, it still seemed fairly entertaining and engaging. The film falls below most theatrically-released animated movies but was definitely more involving than the majority of direct-to-video offerings. The DVD provides absolutely stellar picture quality along with solid sound and a few decent extras. Although I didn’t like Joseph enough to give it a firm recommendation to all audiences, I definitely think fans of The Prince of Egypt should give it a whirl.

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