Before Disney made a big business out bypassing the big screen with animated sequels like "Lady and the Tramp 2," straight-to-tape status was the kind of light a studio would want to hide under a bushel. Now DreamWorks is jumping on the lower-budget, non-theatrical bandwagon. "Joseph" is no sequel, but it feels like a follow up to the studio's entrée into animation, "The Prince of Egypt," all the way down to its royal title.
It's safe to say theater owners won't be crying "We wuz robbed." The quality of the animation isn't the problem. In fact, considering the tighter budget, the artwork is far more lavish than you'd expect, particularly in the backgrounds, and occasionally it's really something to look at. But whereas "Prince of Egypt" was pitched largely at adults (the studio was quite proud, at the time, of its PG rating), "Joseph" effectively writes off the more mature audiences.
The result is a script as bland as any children's Bible paraphrase, made far worse by a sagging score full of inspirational bromides that will gag anyone who's been weaned off Raffi. Adults looking for wit, sophistication, or imagination in a biblical dramatization will have to borrow the kids' Veggie Tale tapes.
Of course, of all the Bible stories that may lend themselves to narrowcasting to kids, Joseph's may be most juvenile-friendly of all. If it didn't originate in scripture, you might write it off as adolescent wish-fulfillment: a prototypical gifted child, spoiled by his parents, picked on by siblings, and trampled underfoot by society, rises to reclaim his divine birthright and stand in judgment of his former tormentors. Here, the wronged young hero, given the chance to dole out comeuppance, opts for mercy, this being the Bible and not Columbine.
These jealous dudes trash the jacket, kidnap their coddled kid brother, and sell him into Egyptian slavery. Years of toil (and jail time) later, this unlikely Hebrew becomes Pharaoh's right-hand man, just in time to see his unsuspecting brothers come begging for crumbs in the midst of famine. They're years overdue for a good thrashing, but the twist ending is ... grace.
What little "King of Dreams" adds to the narrative isn't always graceful. Genesis has Joseph so overcome with emotion before forgiving his brothers that he retreats to a private room to sob. Dreamworks' Joseph is spurred to mercy more or less by the henpecking of his sexy Egyptian wife, Asenath. (Her practically non-existent biblical role has been beefed up, and needless to say she looks fabulous in a white pantsuit.)
The movie is so determinedly family-friendly that you'd be hard-pressed to guess that Potiphar's wife, the oversexed vamp of Genesis, is even trying to seduce our hero, much less that attempted rape is the charge that sends him to the slammer. Where's biblical sexploitation king Cecil B. DeMille when you need him?
John Bucchino's fourth-rate songs, too, avoid the slightest hint of religious feeling and instead suggest something dredged up from an Up With People tour. "You've got to take whatever road's at your feet," goes one chorus. The movie's most-reprised tune informs us, "You've got to give a little more than you take." (In case any boomer viewers were under the mistaken impression that the love you take is equal to the love you make.) This is what the profound lessons of Genesis have been reduced: Go with the flow, and be generous, slightly.
There are occasional compensations for the over-12 set. As in "Prince of Egypt," the computer-animated dreams stand in stark contrast with the movie's generally traditional drawing style. These sequences are strange and terrific, particularly one early nocturnal fantasy that's an overt homage to Van Gogh's "Starry Night." The backgrounds are beautiful, whether it's sweeping desert vistas or closer views of buzzards settling in to feast on cattle carcasses.
The human figures are more problematic, as ever, in any animated film striving for some kind of naturalism. Loathe to perpetuate the old custom of making biblical figures fair-haired, button-nosed and gentile, the animators have given almost everyone--Hebrew or Egyptian--an impossibly long and utterly vertical nose.
"Joseph" goes without the long, ecumenical list of religious advisors who convinced DreamWorks to cut most of the cutesy comedy out of "Prince of Egypt." The prevailing motto, though, seems to be the same: Offend absolutely no one. You wouldn't think Jeffrey Katzenberg, of all moguls, would be such a scaredy-cat about giving Bible stories some zip. The "K" in the "SKG" on the Dreamworks' logo, Katzenberg helped rescue animation as an artform--and Disney as a studio, when he was chief there--by hiring musical-theater geniuses for "The Little Mermaid," instead of the hacks who'd been killing the genre throughout the '70s and '80s.
But somewhere along the way--perhaps chastened by the number of adults left "Prince of Egypt" unconvinced animated tricks were for anyone but kids--DreamWorks decided to give up on mature audiences, and unapologetically pitch the "Davey and Goliath" demographic. Truth is, the youngest tykes will probably take to "Joseph" just fine. As for us elders, when it comes to biblical videos, you'll excuse us if we head right for the singing-and-dancing zucchini section.