by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
Bonus Entry #1] Joseph: King Of Dreams (7th November 2000)
Direct-to-video rarely signals quality. This, I think we can all agree on. Sure, sometimes a just-plain bungled or vindictive release plan can cause something great to slip through the cracks (Man Of Tai Chi for the UK, and apparently this fate is going to befall Snowpiercer for most countries for some utterly bewildering reason), but most aren’t worth the time of day. They have budgets that resemble a Lifetime Original Movie at best, dreadful acting, poorly constructed stories, and oftentimes exist solely to cash on in whatever or whoever is currently popular at the time of its release or to ring some extra cash out of an audience with goodwill towards a great movie from a few years back.
It’s particularly bad in animation. Everyone’s realised so at one point or another. You wander into the DVD aisle at your local supermarket, and you see it flooded with knock-offs or cheap sequels. Late in 2011, as DreamWorks’ Puss In Boots was entering theatres, for example, I saw a DVD entitled Puss N Boots that even apes the DreamWorks’ art style to a degree that could genuinely confuse the less-attentive doing browsing. I’m pretty sure that I saw several parents during that time period actually do a double-take on it, having to give it a closer inspection before realising and moving on. Hell, that one got so bad that its Amazon listing actually has to have “(Not DreamWorks)” in the title! As for sequels… I really don’t think I need to clarify that I’m referring to Disney in that regard, right? You all know that there are only two great ones (The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and Pooh’s Grand Adventure) and that the rest are mediocre at best (the Aladdin sequels) and wretched at worst (Mulan II and Cinderella II). And I’m pretty sure that you already know about the twelve Land Before Time sequels.
So it’s definitely strange that DreamWorks Animation have so far only had one direct-to-video film. No, really, just the one. Those Madagascar and Shrek holiday specials? They were TV specials that got a home video release for the extra money (in the case of the How To Train Your Dragon and Valentine’s Day Madagascar ones, those are shorts and aren’t really the same things as a full-on direct-to-video feature), although we may touch on those at some point in this series if there’s time. The only direct-to-video feature that DreamWorks Animation have produced is this one, Joseph: King Of Dreams. It’s especially weird as, let’s not forget, we’re talking about a company that ruthlessly franchises everything (even Turbo, which actually caused the company an overall loss, has gotten its own Netflix Original Series) and that it’s actually rather safe to assume that any film that doesn’t get a continuation of any kind is a stillborn franchise. Even weirder is that this was the company’s fifth release, overall, and was in production during The Prince Of Egypt, a time when the company half-assed absolutely nothing. Going direct-to-video could be seen as Jeffrey Katzenberg and co. wanting to expand their all-conquering reach to every facet of the animation industry, again that theory of having an all-encompassing range of animated fare brought under a company umbrella that signals quality, but it still feels weird to see just the one, and this early in its lifespan.
Mind, even if it weren’t direct-to-video, Joseph: King Of Dreams would still be facing an uphill battle by merely existing for it is a prequel (kinda, sorta, spiritually at least, depends on how you view a studio making two Bible adaptations in similar styles to one another) to The Prince Of Egypt. As you may recall from three weeks back, The Prince Of Egypt is f*cking amazing. It is so amazing that, nearly fifteen years on from its release, it still holds up and may even be one of the best animated films I have ever seen (one of these days I will actually sit down and try to figure out which actually are sat behind Persepolis). If you want to come along and call yourself a prequel, spiritual or literal, to that film, you are going to be mercilessly scrutinised, my good fellow, and if you even come up even a little bit short then your privates are going to be nailed to the damn wall. There are high standards, is what I’m getting at, and falling even a little bit short is going to be seen as a failure at some level.
Of course, if you watch Joseph with the sound off, maybe instead replacing the songs and dialogue with a fitting soundtrack of your choice, you’d be hard pressed to call it a failure of all but the most minor of kinds. It’s not as pretty as The Prince Of Egypt, of course not (reduced budgets will do that), but is has aged just as well. Movements are wonderfully fluid, shot composition is fantastic, CGI is kept to the bare minimum or is so well integrated that I didn’t notice it, there’s good usage of lighting and shadows, animals are theatrical-release quality… It looks a lot like Egypt except that there’s a bit less detail and a slightly smaller scale (wide shots of expansive sets and landscapes don’t feel wide, for example) which betray the lower budget. The dream sequences, though, look astounding. It’s the way that they blend and utilise several different art styles yet never have the end result look a mess. Joseph’s early dreams employ a swirling background that gives off the style of a living painting, all of them accurately capture the symbolic yet ultimately shifting nature of dreams without becoming disorientating, some employ the camera-swivel effect that Beauty & The Beast’s ballroom dance made famous and it creates this very dream-like off-ness to the scene, whilst the visualisation of Pharaoh’s dream takes full advantage of the fact that CGI doesn’t age well to purposefully create this otherworldly and foreboding imagery.
I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that it looks this good. Reminder, this was a film made at a time when DreamWorks were young and hungry, with something to prove, and didn’t half-ass anything. They even went into the production knowing from the outset that this was destined for a direct-to-video release and yet refused to let the animation quality suffer. There’s heart and soul being put in, here, the result of a team refusing to settle for good enough. Compared to most animated films that go direct-to-video nowadays (or, in some cases, get called up for the cinema), it’s a visual tour-de-force. The reflective gold decorations on Joseph’s coat look better and more convincing than the gold featured in The Road To El Dorado and, lest we forget, they had to write an entire program from scratch to render gold in that theatrically-released film! If the sound was off, if they only paid attention to the visuals, and they hadn’t seen The Prince Of Egypt (the slight lack of detail and scale is missed but not as badly as one might think), I imagine that several people would actually fail to believe that this is a direct-to-video film even if they were told it was.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the good comparisons end to The Prince Of Egypt. See, whilst that film invested its narrative with good pacing, emotional stakes, and a willingness to not sugar-coat its darker sections and themes, Joseph: King Of Dreams is a bit of a mess, one that attempts to do too much in too short of a timeframe without much of an emotional connection. In fact, I was genuinely not in the slightest bit surprised to have found out during my research of the film that it had a very troubled production. The film’s co-director wrote an entire article on the eve of its release about the disastrous first act story-reel screening he had in early 1998 and the major reworking that had to occur for it to be usable. Apparently, proceedings at that stage made no sense and lacked characters, instead just being a series of disconnected events that happened with little rhyme or reason. This is a fundamental issue, as you may be able to gather, and it’s a hard one to correct in an animated production where a whole bunch of work has already been done and the release date is two years away.
Credit where it’s due, they did fix the issue. Proceedings do make sense and there are characters with motivations and the like. The problem is that everything feels rushed and completely lacking in depth. To compare it to The Prince Of Egypt (which is something I’m going to keep doing even though, in all honesty, it’s kind of an unfair comparison), that film’s emotional centre works because it takes half of the film before we actually hit the liberation of the slaves conflict. Prior to that, we get the character work, we learn about Moses, about Rameses, about Egypt, the stakes involved, why we the viewers should care. There’s an expert usage of pacing going on in Egypt and it’s that pacing and that character work that imbues proceedings with emotional heft. It takes its time, doesn’t rush (presumably because the actual meat of the story is rather short and simple by comparison), lets us get a sense of who these characters are and what they’re like so that the emotional moments matter.
In that respect, Joseph was probably doomed from the start. To try and invest this story with the kind of emotional heft that Egypt had, like it very much wants to, it needs a runtime longer than 70 minutes (75 with credits). The story of Joseph is too large and expansive to be able to adequately do justice in just over an hour, at least from what I can gather here. And unlike with Egypt, Joseph can’t get away with focussing on one specific part of his story because it all feeds into the conclusion of him forgiving his brothers; without that, you have no emotional climax. So, really, this is a story that needs a feature-length runtime, otherwise you just get a rather dry retelling of the tale like the one we’ve ended up with here.
For example, the central relationship that propels the film’s opening and close is Joseph’s relationship with his brothers. The basic strokes of the relationship are presented, they’re jealous of him because his father favours him over them, but it doesn’t really go further than that. We don’t even really see their side of the equation, they’re only shown to be wanting to be kind to him once and that’s during the opening song before they’re shut out by the over-coddling Jacob. I understand the concept of narrative economy, but this is a bit too economical. None of his brothers really feel like people, they certainly don’t feel like individuals, and the fact that most of the opening of the film is sped through in a musical montage where they’re basically background filler doesn’t do them many favours. Maybe it was a deliberate choice, to keep them one-dimensional and unempathetic so that we don’t end up siding with their idea to sell Joseph into slavery, but it’s the wrong one. Not only does it make the conflict at the end, will Joseph forgive his brothers when they unwittingly re-enter his life in desperation, lack stakes or investment (why should Joseph forgive those who were only ever utterly terrible to him; also, weirdly and despite that, the sequence unwittingly makes him come off as a bit of an arsehole, I feel), it also feels like a cop-out when Egypt was willing to humanise Rameses and give him depth even though he was a full-on abusive slave-dictator come story’s end.
Meanwhile, the relationship in the middle part of the story, concerning Joseph and his slaver Potiphar, similarly feels rushed. Hell, it barely feels like Joseph has kicked off his shoes before he gets falsely imprisoned for two years. So the scene where he forgives Potiphar, supposedly the rebuilding of this strange kind of friendship the two had fostered before the falsified attempted rape, either rings hollow or kinda is just a thing that happens despite the film trying to make a big deal out of it. The passage of time is especially weird, two years supposedly pass between Joseph being sold off and him being thrown in prison but on-screen depictions make it seem like it’s only been a few months, at best, or a few days, at worst. It gets better later on, the length of his stay in prison is well-communicated and the time span afterwards becomes very clear due to the laid out milestones, but it just adds to the overall lack of real involvement. So much of this film takes place in montage, backed by what feels like an endless number of songs, that it only compounds the one-dimensional nature and lack of emotional involvement.
Speaking of, the songs are decent. There’s a bit more variety to them than in The Prince Of Egypt (contrast the prior embedded “Miracle Child” with “More Than You Take” which is embedded below this paragraph), “You Know Better Than I” is lyrically well-done and captures the intended “God has a plan for all of us” vibe and mood much better than “When You Believe” did in Egypt, and there are several instances of Jodi Benson singing and that is never not a wonderful thing to hear. The problem is that there are too many of them. Way too many of them in too short of a time-frame and they crop up so often that I found myself wishing that they’d just stop for ten minutes and let the characters lead the story instead of yet another damn song and montage. Their frequency also means that, despite the variety, they eventually just blend into one another. There’s also an issue where song lyrics end up being played over dialogue and sounds that are going on on-screen; the non-song sounds and words being too quiet to overtake the mix but too loud to block out and dismiss, so many lines in the songs get muddled in the rest of the mix. It’s not a frequent occurrence, but it happens often enough to be really distracting and feels rather amateurish every time it does happen.
So, as it turns out, there is a reason why Joseph: King Of Dreams has languished in obscurity for the 14 years since its release (I mean, be honest, did you really remember this film before opening this entry?). It’s a very pretty film that has significant narrative and emotional shortcomings, one severely hampered by its direct-to-video nature and shortened runtime. Nothing really to write home about. Let’s bring this entry home, then, by attempting to answer the big question that appeared near the start: why is Joseph the only direct-to-video feature-length that DreamWorks Animation have ever made and released? Well, me being me, I have a couple of theories if you’ll indulge me for a paragraph or five.
Theory #1: It has been said that there were plans for more direct-to-video Bible story adaptations if Joseph was a success. I imagine that DreamWorks were banking on this being a rather successful little supplement to their cinematic films; maybe pump a new one out every year around about Christmas and reap a nice consistent cash flow from the more religious or simply parents who want to get a stocking stuffer for their kids and, hey, cartoons always keep them quiet. The fact that it’s 2014 and that the only DreamWorks Bible films we have are still The Prince Of Egypt and Joseph: King Of Dreams should give an indication as to how well it ended up doing (even though, as much as I’ve tried, there seems to be no sales data of any kind for it out there).
Theory #2: Direct-to-video really isn’t all that profitable. Or, at least, not to the degree that DreamWorks would have liked for it to be. I mean, it’s still a profitable market (let’s not forget that there exist twelve goddamn Land Before Time sequels), but it’s not really profitable enough to consider diving into on a frequent basis unless you have giant safety nets behind you. I mean, how many films that go direct-to-video do you think generate decent returns, especially the kind of returns that are able fund feature-length animated films with the visual fidelity DreamWorks aspire to? Disney could get away with doing this in the early to late 2000s (when even their theatrical films were tanking hard, but we will come back to that) because they often made enough money to be worth the cost of making them and they still had the safety net of their merchandising arm. DreamWorks… don’t, and especially not at the time that Joseph was released into the wild (more on that in two and three weeks from now), so it’s too much of a risk for what has proven to be too little reward.
Theory #3: Direct-to-video is basically dead in the animated realm. They wouldn’t have tried again in the early 2000s as they didn’t have the financial safety blanket if everything went balls up, they wouldn’t try it in the mid-2000s as they basically released everything they made in cinemas (they average 2 films a year back then, 3 nowadays), and they wouldn’t try it today because pretty much nobody does it anymore. There’s a reason why The Land Before Time series finally went extinct a few years back, whilst Disney just send anything that was planned to go direct-to-video (I’m specifically referring to the Planes and Tinker Bell franchises) to cinemas now. Why shouldn’t they? They make actual money in cinemas, practically every goddamn animated film makes money in cinemas now. Why not shake down gullible and/or desperate parents for extra money by making them pay twice for a film that they would otherwise only have to have paid once for in the hopes of keeping their kids quiet? It’s proven to work.
Plus, DreamWorks Animation nowadays simply can’t afford to take the risk. There’s a reason why the Madagascar and Shrek franchises just plain refuse to die, and that’s because they’re pretty much the only ones that actually still bring in money for the studio. Most of their original films, their risk-takers, their attempts at trying to mature? They’re failing. They have been for a while, now. Sure, they appear to turn a profit, but they keep causing the company to have to make write-downs. Rise Of The Guardians? $300 million against a $145 million budget sounds like nothing to sniff at, but they still had to list a write-down of $83 million and lay off 350 employees. Turbo? $282 million against a $127 million production budget plus a maximum $175 million marketing budget; write-down of $13.5 million. Mr. Peabody & Sherman? $268 million against a $145 million budget and still they had to take a write-down of $57 million. This is why, despite having taken $535 million so far and having exceeded the gross of the original, some people are claiming that How To Train Your Dragon 2 has been a financial failure and they honestly might not be wrong.
So of course they’re not going to touch the direct-to-video market with a bargepole. Of course the movie of The Penguins Of Madagascar is going to be a full-fledged cinema release. Of course they keep bringing back Madagascar and Puss In Boots for cinema sequels. They can’t afford otherwise. It’s a problem that’s been affecting most of their non-franchise films for a long time now (as we’ll discover as the series progresses), and it’s why their schedule has at least one sequel every year. Simply put, if their films underperform, the company stands a good chance of collapsing. There is no safety net, especially seeing as even apparent sure bets like How To Train Your Dragon 2, now the highest grossing animated film of the year, aren’t even completely safe bets any more. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money and they can’t take the risk to go direct-to-video, especially since their television arm is infinitely more lucrative than any potential direct-to-video venture would be.
Those are my guesses, anyway. Whatever the reason, it leaves Joseph: King Of Dreams as the black sheep of the DreamWorks Animation canon. A one-off experiment that failed miserably and has since faded into near-obscurity. Does it deserve such a fate? Eh, kinda, quite frankly. It’s very pretty and I appreciate the effort to try and bring theatrical production values to the world of direct-to-video, but the film beneath the visuals is wholly unremarkable, emotionally unaffecting and insanely rushed. It’s diversionary enough, but in comparison to the film it spawned from it is simply not good enough.
Next week, we get back on track and look at the film that changed everything. The film that announced DreamWorks Animation to the world. The film that would shape feature-length animation for the decade to come, for good and for ill. Shrek.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!