Co-director Robert Ramirez has said that whilst the reviews for the film had "generally been very good" there was a period "when the film was not working very well, when the storytelling was heavy-handed" and "klunky".
Joseph is the youngest of Jacob's eleven sons and the favorite child of his father's as his mother, Rachel, was thought to be barren; thus inciting his brothers' jealousy when Joseph grows conceited and arrogant when constantly pampered by his parents such as receiving a multicolored coat from his father.
One night, Joseph dreams that the sheep his brothers are tending to are attacked by wolves who slew the flock's ram. When he tells his family, his brothers deny it and soon trick Joseph to look after the flock while they go swimming. However, a wolf pack attacks the flock and Joseph is nearly killed protecting a lamb until Jacob saves him. Jacob becomes furious that Joseph was abandoned by his brothers, and amazed that Joseph's dream about the wolf attack and the ram's death came true. Judah, the eldest of the brothers and their leader, merely denies this, though secretly frightened by this.
The next night, Joseph dreams that his brothers each carry sheaves of wheat that bow to Joseph's gigantic sheaf, and that he is a brilliant star surrounded by ten smaller stars and the sun and the moon; and Jacob predicts that Joseph shall supersede his brothers. Annoyed and jealous, the latter retreat to a cave and determine to do away with Joseph. Joseph overhears this, and the brothers tear his cloak and hurl him into a pit until nightfall. When withdrawn, Joseph is sold to slave traders, and thence into Egypt, while his brothers tell their father that he was killed by wolves.
In Egypt, Joseph is made the servant of the Egyptian captain Potiphar, and gradually becomes his personal attendant after Joseph stops a shifty horse trader from conning more money from Potiphar. Joseph befriends Asenath, the beautiful niece of Potiphar, and proves himself an asset to his master.
However, Potiphar's wife Zuleika tries to seduce Joseph and is denied by him; so she lies to Potiphar that Joseph attempted to rape her. Potiphar orders Joseph's death; but when his wife intervenes, he realizes that Joseph is not guilty and therefore imprisons him instead. While imprisoned, Joseph interprets the dreams of the royal butler and baker who are also prisoners: that the butler will return to his position at the palace in three days, and the baker will be put to death. Joseph asks the butler to tell the Pharaoh about his talent and offer of help, to secure a release from prison. The butler promises to tell Pharaoh but forgets; while Asenath supplies food to Joseph regularly.
When the Pharaoh is haunted by nightmares and is told by the butler that Joseph can interpret them, he sends Potiphar to retrieve Joseph, who interprets the pharaoh's dreams as warnings of famine caused by a drought, and suggests that one-fifth of each year's crops be kept for rationing. Impressed, the Pharaoh makes Joseph his minister, under the name "Zaphnath-Paaneah". In the following years, Joseph's plan saves Egypt from starvation. Joseph marries Asenath and has two children with her. Eventually, his brothers arrive in Egypt to buy food, and do not recognize Joseph, who denies them their offers of purchase, accuses them of espionage, and has Simeon imprisoned. Questioned by Asenath, he reveals his past. The next day the brothers reappear with a young man named Benjamin, who is Joseph's almost identical younger brother. Simeon is released and Joseph asks Benjamin about his family; to learn that his mother, Rachel, is dead, and his own death presumed. Joseph invites the brothers to a feast and has his own golden chalice concealed in Benjamin's bag while no one is looking; and upon its discovery, orders that Benjamin be enslaved as part of a test to see if his brothers had changed. He is astonished when his older brothers offer themselves instead, as losing another son would surely cause their elderly father to die from heartbreak. Grief-stricken and ashamed, Judah confesses having sold Joseph himself due to jealousy and it has haunted him and his brothers ever since. Touched by their honesty and genuine love for Benjamin, Joseph identifies himself to them, reconciles and invites them and their families to live with him at the palace. Shortly after, he is happily reunited with his father, and meets the wives and children of his brothers.
"Development for Joseph started while Prince of Egypt was being made, so the same crew worked on both films, and the wide group of ministers who were asked to be consultants on Prince of Egypt also looked at Joseph. Work on the animated movie was based in Los Angeles and Canada, and nearly 500 artists contributed to the project."
Executive Producer Penny Finkelman Cox and DreamWorks worker Kelly Sooter noted the challenge in telling a Bible story faithfully yet still making it interesting and marketable: "we had to take powerful themes and tell them in a way thats compelling and accessible for all ages". They also noted that though it was destined to be a direct-to-video project from the beginning, "the quality of the animation does not suffer...Our approach to the movie was to develop it with the same quality and storytelling that we did with Prince of Egypt", and added that "one of the most challenging parts of the movie was creating Josephs dream sequences, which look like a Van Gogh painting in motion". Sooter also explained "Its a very interactive story...It really is beneficial to be able to sit with a family and talk through some of the things that are happening." Nassos Vakalis, who helped storyboard and animate the film, said "I had to travel a lot to Canada to see work done in a few studios that were subcontracting part of the movie". Composer Daniel Pelfrey explained "I must say the writers and directors did a great job staying true to the story and bringing it into a presentation for a contemporary audience."
Ramirez explained the early stages of the film's production:
December of 1997 was a great time on the production. While the script was being fleshed out, Paul Duncan (the head background painter) and Brian Andrews (story artist) were creating some phenomenal conceptual artwork. Francisco Avalos and Nasos Vakalis were doing storyboards based on a rough story outline. Weeks later we started assembling a very talented story crew that included artists that had both television and feature experience. We had a script that was well-structured and followed the Bible story fairly accurately. Once the First Act was storyboarded, we filmed the panels, recorded a temp vocal track with music, and edited it all together to create the storyreel. We were excited and ready for our First Act screening for Jeffrey Katzenberg, which was set for an early weekend morning in the New Year of 1998.
Ramirez explained how things turned awry at the film screening:
When the lights came on in the screening room, the silence was deafening. All the execs put down their yellow legal notepads and headed down the hall to the conference room (which for me felt miles away). When we all sat down, Jeffrey looked up and said three words: "Nothing made sense." He was right. Nothing made sense. We followed the Bible story tightly. The script had structure. We storyboarded it word for word, yet it fell flat on its face. It all suddenly felt like a horrible, horrible disaster, and the worst part of it all was that I didn't know how to fix it. I was deeply confused, and our aggressive production schedule didn't allow for the story re-working that usually takes place on a theatrical feature. Share Stallings, one of our creative executives on the project, was very supportive and offered encouragement to the crew. She assured me that at least two sequences could be saved by clarifying some visuals and re-writing some dialogue. I couldn't see it at the time, although she turned out to be right. The only thing I could think about was that "nothing made sense."
Ramirez explained the shift from disjointed set pieces to a character-driven story:
The following Monday morning I was going over the notes compiled after the First Act screening, when I heard a group gathering outside my door. It was the story crew. They were dying to know how the screening went [...] I had to tell them the truth. "What do you mean, it bombed?" asked a board artist who two weeks prior to the screening had pitched a successful sequence. "The sequences are based on good ideas...good concepts, but when we cut them together they don't connect," I responded. "Something's missing." After having some intensive story meetings with Steven Hickner and Penny Finkleman-Cox (Executive Producers), I knew we had to throw away 90% of what we had. They both brought great knowledge and experience, and proved to be the driving forces behind the project. They directed our attention toward focusing more on the characters and their relationships to each other, instead of always thinking in terms of plot and structure [...] The lead editors on Joseph -- Mike Andrews and Greg Snyder -- often had only a few days to cut music and edit many sequences that were constantly being rewritten even as they dropped in the last few sound effects for the next day's screening.
Ramirez explained they cracked the story by returning to the basics of storytelling.
When we started analyzing the characters in Joseph, we began to work from the inside out as opposed to just putting together a story. Once we delved into the minds of these characters and dissected their personalities, we started making some important breakthroughs. What does Joseph want? To be a part of his brothers' lives and reunite with his family. What does Judah, Joseph's older brother, want? He wants the love and positive attention that his father Jacob reserves only for Joseph. What does Jacob want? Jacob wants to show the world how much he loves his favorite son, Joseph. Why does Jacob love Joseph so much more than his other sons? Because Joseph is the spitting image of his favorite wife. He's the first-born son of the woman he waited for all his life to marry. Once we discovered the "wants" of the main characters, it was simple to figure out what actions they would take to satisfy them. Another important discovery was finding the voice of each individual. Once we had a deeper understanding of our characters and what made them tick, the scenes had a new spark of life that had been missing all along. The characters were now driving the scenes, instead of vice versa. In time, ideas that were born out of character helped blend sequences so that they flowed into each other instead of feeling disconnected.
Mark Hamill, who was cast as Judah, Joseph's eldest brother, explained that the choices he made regarding his character:
Judah starts out at a high station in his family structure, and that's all disrupted by this little child who claims to have visions of the future, he says. Eventually, it causes Judah to lead all the brothers against Joseph. I don't think of him as a villain. In many ways, he's like all people, wondering, "How will this affect my own life?" He's self-centered and has to re-evaluate all his preconceived notions.
Ramirez explained one of the main themes in the film by analyzing how Joseph reacts upon seeing his brothers for the first time after they sold him into slavery:
"These 'strangers' turned out to be his brothers. Now it was Joseph's turn. Would he follow his initial gut instinct and enslave them? Abuse them? Kill them? Or would he rise above hatred and forgive them? In a nutshell, that's what the crux of the story is about: forgiveness
Jodie Benson (Asenath, Joseph's wife) was thrilled to work on the film, after seeing how well the team led by Jeffrey Katzenberg handled the story of Moses in The Prince of Egypt. Thus she also had a lot of faith in the production. Benson didn't audition for the part, and was instead offered it. Unlike some of the other characters, she provides both the speaking and singing voices of Asenath. It took twelve days to record her lines, and the only other voice actor she worked with was the singing voice for Joseph, David Campbell. Benson explained her character is the "voice of reason and the voice of trying to do the right thing to reconcile [Joseph] with his brothers". Her character was given a much larger role than what is presented in the Bible; Benson thought developing Asenath further was a good move.
All songs were produced and arranged by Danny Pelfrey, and he also composed the score. Hans Zimmer, the composer for The Prince of Egypt, had approved of Pelfrey taking over his role after the latter, a relative unknown at the time, did a couple of interviews at DreamWorks. Pelfrey explained "Through the process [Zimmer] gave me input as to what they like to hear, mostly through the arranging and production of the songs. After that he got too busy but he gave me the foundation and communication skills I needed to successfully complete the project". After receiving the job, Pelfrey read as many different translations of the original Bible text as he could, to find story nuances that he could incorporate. In regard to his collaboration with DreamWorks, he said "Before starting the input was pretty sketchy, but it was an ongoing process with lots of dialog with writers, producers and directors along the way. Jeffery Katzenberg always ultimately approved everything. He was directly involved with the entire process." He also explained "I had never done a musical before...[and Zimmer] helped me incorporate the sounds from Prince of Egypt as well as guided me in the song production".
Pelfrey used choral choirs sparingly in his score, with notable examples being "a small female group in the beginning for what I was calling God’s theme, and in the big scene at the end, which was the reunion of Joseph, his brothers and Jacob, his father". This was because the effect reminded him of angels, adding "I also I think it was more appropriate to the sonic tapestry and created a more uplifting feeling". He described his musical style in the film as "World/Orchestral", noting that the instruments used were more regional than specifically Egyptian, incprporating: "Duduk, Ney, Rebaba, Ban-Di, Bansuri, Moroccan Flute, Zampona, and a great variety of percussion including Djmbe, Darabuk, Dholak, Udu, etc etc". In regard to using instrumentation from an inaccurate historical context, he said "I always thought...that the exact historical and geographical use of the instruments is not as important as the evocative or dramatic effect...So, I didn’t really concern myself too much with 'right place, right time'. A temp-track was made for the score, though Dreamworks "were not too attached to it"; some parts were tracked with "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" by Vaughan Williams.
Pelfrey said "Since I had never done a musical before, it was interesting to note the difference between producing these songs as opposed to doing a record. In a musical, the songs advance the story and I had to help that process, as well as make the songs belong to the fabric of the film and the palette of the score. Although this was animation, it certainly did not call for a cartoon approach, due to the depth of the story. The film needed more of a live-action treatment to the score. "Joseph: King of Dreams also allowed me to work with the best producers in the business and helped make this a very successful experience both personally and professionally." He explained "[Lucas Richman] is the reason the Symphonic Suite from Joseph was created. He contacted me about wanting to present it in a concert he was doing in Knoxville where he is the conductor and music director, so I created the suite especially for them. He has created a vibrant and thriving orchestra there and they were all very welcoming to me." It was performed in LA by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony in August 2010.
Music and lyrics to all seven of the songs were written by John Bucchino. A soundtrack was not released with the film.
As the only DreamWorks Animation direct-to-video film, Joseph: King of Dreams was released on DVD and VHS on November 7, 2000. Special features included "Sing-a-long songs, storybook read-a-long programming, an interactive trivia game, and printable activity and coloring sheets". The film was released on Blu-ray on May 13, 2014, as part of a triple film set, along with DreamWorks Animation's The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.
The direct-to-video film was "made available to Christian retailers, but mainly will be sold in traditional retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target and video stores". The sale success of Joseph was to some degree influence whether more animated Bible stories would be released by DreamWorks. As of 2014, Prince and Joseph have been the only two.
Nashville publisher Tommy Nelson, the kids division of the Christian publishing company Thomas Nelson Inc., partnered DreamWorks to publish four companion book titles based on the film, and has exclusive publishing rights to Joseph ("a read-along tape, a sticker storybook, a 48-page hardcover storybook with illustrations from the film, and a smaller hardcover storybook which retells the story of Joseph"). One of them, My Sticker Storybook: Joseph and his Brothers (published 1 Nov 2000) was a sticker storybook that followed the plot Joseph, and was written by Dandi Daley Mackall. The 48-page storybook (published1 Nov 2000, and sometimes subtitled "Classic Edition") featured images from the film, a retelling by Mackall, and was a "stand-alone book, as well as a splendid companion to the video", also written by Mackall. Joseph, King of Dreams: read-along (8 Mar 2001) was a full-color storybook and accompanying cassette which "capture[d] all the emotional and dramatic high points". Written by Catherine McCafferty, it included the song "Better Than I" and dialogue from the film. A fourth book was published as well.
The film received mixed to positive reviews from critics. While praising the film's merits including animation, storytelling, and music, much of the criticism came with comparing it negatively to its theatrically released predecessor The Prince of Egypt. The song You Know Better Than I was singled out for praise by numerous critics, as were the van Gogh-inspired dream sequences. Many noted that the animated hieroglyph effects were similar to those from Prince, and suggested that the film stuck closer to the Bible source material than Prince too.
DecentFilmsGuide gave the movie a B for Overall Recommendability and 3/4 stars for Artistic/Entertainment Value, writing "Artistically, the best thing about Joseph: King of Dreams is the visionary animation work in the dream sequences...I caught my breath at the first glimpse of these dreams, which look like living, flowing Van Goghs". However it wrote "Joseph: King of Dreams is not remotely in the same class as The Prince of Egypt. [It] is much more a children’s movie". It said the songs "while cheerful and uplifting, are generally unmemorable", and described the animation as "fine but not wonderful". It noted that "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". Nevertheless, the review complimented the "ominous tune' Marketplace, and said "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". DVD Verdict wrote "Joseph: King of Dreams will shatter any expectations you may have about direct-to-video animated features. This is no halfhearted attempt to cash in on the success of The Prince of Egypt, but is instead a fully realized and carefully crafted story of its own. This film could easily have been released theatrically, although its running time is maybe just a bit short for that", praising its animation, music, and storytelling. PluggedIn wrote "while not as eye-popping as Prince of Egypt, [the film] is impressive for a direct-to-video title. Artfully executed dream sequences. Uplifting songs. It also takes fewer liberties than Prince of Egypt did". Lakeland Ledger said "At its best, the story communicated the sense of desperation and yearning that make up the tale and provides a sense of the emotions that underscore the story". Jan Crain Rudeen of Star-News wrote "As with Price of Egypt, the best part of Joseph for me was the discussion it sparked afterward with my kids".
The Movie Report gave the film 3/4 stars, writing "while clearly not on the level of that 1998 classic, it is a solid piece of work that is about on par with the SKG's spring theatrical release The Road to El Dorado"...Joseph is a new technical benchmark for straight-to-tape animated features, putting Disney's chintzy home video efforts to shame. It added "Bucchino's work is downright forgettable; the only song making the slightest inkling of an impression is Joseph's--and the film's--central number, Better Than I". ChristianAnswers.net gave the film 4/5 stars, writing "Although the visual effects were not as outstanding as in The Prince of Egypt, the storyline does stay closer to the biblical version". The site added "The music was enjoyable, especially the song Better Than I". "CommonSenseMedia rated the film 3/5 stars, writing "The animation is accomplished. Particularly compelling are the dream sequences, which almost look like animated Van Gogh paintings", however noting "it lacks [The Prince of] Egypt's poignant tunes and powerful storytelling". The Los Angeles Times wrote "with its beautiful, big-screen quality, flowing animation and striking computer-generated imagery--and with its dignity and heart--is a fine telling of the biblical story". Variety said "King of Dreams has just as much cross-generational appeal as its predecessor, and doesn't make the mistake of skewing primarily toward moppets. To put it another way: This is family entertainment in the best sense of the term, for which many families will be immensely grateful."
The film designates that Judah is the eldest brother of Jacob's sons. In the story of Joseph in the Bible, Judah is actually the 4th son of Jacob and Leah, after Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. This is mentioned in the Book of Genesis at 49:1-27 which mentions each of Jacob's twelve sons, by order of birth. The film also shows Rachel being alive when Joseph is a young man and Benjamin appearing the second time the brothers come to Egypt. In the Bible, Rachel died after giving birth to Benjamin, who was a baby when Joseph's brothers sold him to the merchants.