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JOSEPH:  KING OF DREAMS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Ben Affleck, Mark Hamill, Maureen McGovern, Jodi Benson, Dan Castanella
Directors:  Robert Ramirez, Rob La Duca
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  74 Minutes
Release Date:  November 7, 2000

Film ***

The story of Joseph from the Old Testament is one of the greatest and most memorable tales in all of literature:  the favored son who gets sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, only to rise years later as a great leader in a time of famine, and who is able to save his family because of it.  Regardless of one’s religious affiliations, there is much to be learned as this story unfolds:  the dangers of favoritism, the tragedy of jealously, the way hope can rise up from the ashes of despair, and most importantly, the power of love and forgiveness.  For an animated film, only the studio and team who brought the superb The Prince of Egypt to the screen could earn the creative task.  They did, and the result is one of the best direct-to-video family releases in memory.

Although I plan to touch on these further down, I have to start off by saying leave it to Dreamworks to give a video-only release such a red carpet treatment.  This studio has issued nothing but top-quality DVDs from day one, and even here, they give this film an anamorphic widescreen transfer and full 5.1 digital sound.  Plus, the features package make this the best overall family fun disc on the market.

I try to rate each movie I see strictly on its own merits, but I have to confess, I watched Joseph under the spell of The Prince of Egypt.  To say it doesn’t fully measure up is hardly a complaint…I personally found very few animated features in the 90’s to be the equal of Dreamworks’ first effort in that department.  The styles are very similar, including the way the characters look and move—I appreciated that, because in many ways, this story is the prequel to Prince…they both involve Hebrews in the land of Egypt, only Joseph’s tale was many generations before that of Moses.

When the movie opens, Jacob is awaiting the news of the birth of his youngest son, Joseph (Affleck).  He is considered a miracle child:  the first born to Jacob by his wife, Rachel.  She was thought to have been barren, and even though his other wife Leah bore Jacob ten other sons, Joseph is special in his eyes.  While his other sons grow up to tend the family business and toil in the sun, Joseph is taught to read and write, and given a beautiful coat of many colors.

The favoritism, however, doesn’t set well with his other brothers, particularly when Joseph begins to exhibit some signs of really being a miracle child:  he has dreams of future events, and the ability to interpret those dreams.  When he dreams that his brothers one day bow before him, it is the last straw.  They sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, tell Jacob that he was killed by wolves, and we don’t see or hear from them again until the end of the story.

From that point, it becomes the story of Joseph in Egypt:  alone, afraid, betrayed, and forced to be a slave in a foreign land.  He makes the most of his chances, rising to prominent status in the house of Potiphar, but later, when falsely accused, finds himself in a cold dungeon prison. 

It is there he learns to accept that there must be a reason for his long, strange, sad journey, and after many years, it becomes clear.  When the Pharaoh needs a haunting dream interpreted, the Hebrew slave is sent for.  There, Joseph is able to deliver the message of the dream:  there will be seven years of prosperity, followed by seven years of family.  He convinces the Pharaoh they can survive with proper preparation, and Pharaoh allows him to do so, putting him in the position of second in command of all of Egypt.  Under Joseph’s wise guidance, Egypt works, saves, and stores, and prepare to meet the lean times in the best possible way.  But the story isn’t over yet.

One day, in the midst of the famine, Joseph’s brothers show up to buy grain.  Still hurt by their betrayal, and unconvinced they have changed their nature, he orders one thrown in jail until the others return with his youngest and full brother, Benjamin.

Both the Biblical version and this story culminate in one of the most emotional scenes ever:  when Joseph and his brothers are finally reconciled, and Jacob finally learns that his son is alive after all of those years.  This film captures an unforgettable moment beautifully.

Overall, I was impressed with the effort that went into this direct-to-video release, starting with the cast, which includes Ben Affleck, Mark Hamill and others in the lead roles.  Plus, the film doesn’t have the stripped down look of most video releases:  there are touches of computer animation that give the images extra depth, along with a full range of beautiful and fully realized colors.  One picture I loved in particular was Joseph’s hieroglyphic wall, where he stored his history.  This wall has an amazing sense of real texture to it, even surpassing the great hieroglyphic walls of The Prince of Egypt!  Joseph’s early dreams are even rendered in the style of a Van Gogh painting, with the swirls of paint coming to life around him.  Only one sequence seemed a bit under-developed:  Pharaoh’s dream is completely computer animated, and very stiff and geometric, like older computer technology might have produced.  But it’s a minor complaint.

The three years Dreamworks devoted to this project were well spent.  I think this is one video that kids and parents alike are going to enjoy sharing.

Video ***1/2

Once again, let me reiterate:  this IS an anamorphic widescreen presentation.  As I mentioned, the colors are plentiful and bold here.  There are some minor instances of bleeding of stronger colors onto weaker ones—hardly a distraction, but noticeable, and just enough to keep it from being a full fledged 4 star rating.  This is a dual layered disc, and as such, there were no noticeable signs of compression.  The images were sharp and clear, free from grain, shimmer or noise, and with good detail from beginning to end.  As I’ve said, there was a lot more work done here than you might expect for a video release, and DVD makes sure the extra effort will translate to your home system.

Audio ***

This is indeed a 5.1 digital soundtrack…nice treat!  No real complaints, but I have to mention that the dynamic range was a little more subdued than I would have liked:  it’s there, but there are moments that I personally felt should have been louder or with more force, that simply weren’t.  Most of the audio is presented on the forward stage, with good clear dialogue and beautiful music, including a handful of terrific songs.  The subwoofer wasn’t used much, but the rear stages added some nice effects and opened up the overall listening experience nicely.

Features ****

This is where I think the disc really succeeds, and why I think it’s a perfect family DVD.  The parents are going to enjoy the storyboard presentations (with or without director commentary), the trailer, production notes, and very extensive talent files.  The kids are going to enjoy the other features.  There’s a read along, which plays out like a video story book with animation, where the words appear on the screen as a narrator carefully reads them.  There is a sing along section, with a choice of three songs as they appeared in the video, but with color changing words at the bottom so the kids can keep their place as they go.  There are DVD ROM extras for the little ones as well, including activity sheets and a coloring sheet.  And to top it off is one of the best uses of a trivia game I’ve seen.  It’s aimed at the kids, asking simple questions about the movie, complete with narration, video, and interaction.  Parents and kids can play it together.  Outstanding!

Summary:

If you’ve ever thought that direct-to-video meant skimp-on-quality, prepare to be surprised by Joseph:  King of Dreams.  Kids and parents alike are bound to be impressed with this timeless story given stellar treatment on disc by Dreamworks, especially the fun extras.