Artistically, the best thing about Joseph: King of Dreams is the visionary animation work in the dream sequences. It’s here that this DreamWorks direct-to-DVD/VHS animated retelling of the story of the patriarch Joseph and his brothers comes closest to matching its astonishing big-screen predecessor, The Prince of Egypt.
One of the visual highlights of The Prince of Egypt was also a dream sequence: Moses’ spectacular hieroglyph-vision of Pharaoh’s slaughter of innocents. Inspired by that creative triumph, the creators of this "prequel" have crafted new dream sequences in the spirit of Moses’ vision but with their own visual flair. (King of Dreams does directly borrow the hieroglyph technique for a daydream sequence; it’s still nice, but not stunning here.)
Joseph’s own dreams — the two biblical ones plus an extra one — are the best; I caught my breath at the first glimpse of these dreams, which look like living, flowing Van Goghs. The dream-sky swirls like Starry Night, and the grass ripples under the dream-Joseph’s feet like ripples in a pond. The dreamlike quality of these sequences is undeniable and memorable.
If this painterly technique had been used for all the dreams, I would have been happy. But more conventional animation is used for the two prisoners’ dreams that Joseph interprets. As for Pharaoh’s dreams, they are rendered with computers in a daring, symbolic style, with sickly cows and ears of corn represented by towering, painted obelisks. It’s an interesting experiment, and while I don’t think it quite works and wish they had stuck with the impressionism, I give them credit for trying.
All right, that’s the best of the good news. Time for the bad news. Accept it now: Joseph: King of Dreams is not remotely in the same class as The Prince of Egypt. The style of drawing used in the animation superficially resembles the look of the earlier film, and a similar sensibility is at work adapting the story in a way that is both reverent and creative. Yet from the first stanzas of the unremarkable and even initially off-putting opening song ("Miracle Child"), it is apparent that we are not in for another groundbreaking tour de force of animated biblical storytelling.
The Prince of Egypt is more grown-up than most cartoons; its characters and situations are complex, its storytelling sophisticated and mature. Joseph: King of Dreams is much more a children’s movie. The songs, while cheerful and uplifting, are generally unmemorable (a standout exception is the ominous tune "Marketplace" that accompanies Joseph’s arrival in Egypt); there’s nothing here to compare to the Moses/Ramses "Plagues" duet, or even "There Can Be Miracles." Moreover, in Prince of Egypt the songs are deployed more subtly; instead of characters openly breaking into song, the songs are used to give musical expression to a character’s inner thoughts. Here the model is more the traditional Disney musical (though again, not up to Disney quality). As for the animation itself, it’s fine but not wonderful: the monuments of Egypt haven’t a fraction of the soaring grandeur they had in the first film (I know it’s half a millennium earlier here, but still); and there’s nothing here remotely comparable to the majestic walls of water at the Red Sea.
All the same, once one stops making unfair comparisons to a theatrical film made on a much bigger budget, Joseph: King of Dreams is very much worthwhile on its own more modest terms. The story, while both simplified and elaborated, retains its essential power, and is accessible to young viewers. Joseph’s sibling rivalry with his brothers is depicted in terms that any child will readily understand, and the sequence in which they throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery is handled with the same sensitivity as Moses’ killing of the Egyptian man. Likewise, the episode with Potiphar’s wife has been made as understandable as possible without presenting anything inappropriate for young children.
There are some nice narrative devices. When Joseph (Ben Affleck) finds himself being pulled out of the pit by Midianite traders, he doesn’t immediately understand that his brothers have betrayed him, and cries out in dismay, "Let me go! My brothers will come for me!" Then he sees that his brothers are standing there, and the traders toss the brothers a bag of silver pieces. Later in Egypt, when his brothers arrive to buy grain, one of them gestures with a bag of silver — reminding Joseph of the price of his betrayal, and raising his old anger against his brothers. Then, when he has Simeon (Steven Weber) arrested and thrown into prison, Simeon calls to him, little dreaming how his words echo an earlier cry of distress: "You won’t keep me here! My brothers will come for me!"
The filmmakers take two interpretive liberties which are entirely defensible but which some viewers may question. In the first place, they suggest that Joseph’s favored status with his father may have rather gone to his head. During the "Miracle Child" opening sequence, when his parents give him the famous coat of many colors, he sings of the coat’s symbolism: "To remind me of things you’ve told me all my life / I am special, I am smart / I am somehow set apart / Petty rules and limitations don’t apply!" At that point, mere minutes into the movie, I wanted to throw him in the pit myself.
Second, Joseph’s motives for "testing" his brothers are called into question. Has he truly forgiven them, or is he trying to pay them out for what they did to him? (This may seem at first the less pious interpretation, but think about it: Do you want your kids testing each other to see if they’re sorry for bad things they did?) Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath (Jodi Benson) doesn’t understand her husband’s anger and pleads with him to be reasonable; but only when he sees that all his brothers — even Judah (Mark Hamill) and Simeon — are willing to sacrifice themselves for now-favored Benjamin is he able to embrace his brothers and reveal his identity.
Ben Affleck’s performance as Joseph is adequate but little more; like Sandra Bullock as Miriam in The Prince of Egypt, he’s too American (and in this case even too New-Jerseyan) to be really effective in a biblical epic: he sounds about as ancient as a Big Mac. The rest of the cast, though, are experienced voice actors, and on the whole the movie sounds good.
In one small way, Joseph: King of Dreams even outshines the earlier film: The spirituality of its signature song, "You Know Better Than I," is much more profound than anything in the more mainstream "There Can Be Miracles": "You know better than I / You know the way / I’ve let go the need to know why / I’ll take the answers You supply / You know better than I." There’s a message my kids can listen to as many times as they want.
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.