At the time the term "prequel" was on the ascendency - Star Wars: The Phantom Menance was released just a year earlier. The fledging studio must have considered it made good sense. Having escaped from Egypt the story of the former Hebrew slaves is far less suitable for a children's film - 40 years in the desert lacks dramatic promise and Joshua's conquest of Canaan could hardly be classified as kiddie friendly. The Joseph story however was not only more suitable, but allowed the studio to rework some of what made the original film succeed, with the promise of more moving hieroglyphics and soaring, dramatic architecture.
Sadly, it was an unmitigated disaster. Joseph falls well short of both the quality and the entertainment of its predecessor. Furthermore, far from offering an additional, tidy, return, the film was released straight to video - still the only Dreamworks film to carry that particular stigma.
There are three main reasons why Joseph fails. Firstly, as if anticipating a lesser return, Dreamworks clearly cut corners. Whilst both Ben Affleck and Mark Hamill are relatively big names, the rest of the cast was largely unknown. In comparison Prince of Egypt boasted at least ten major stars. And whilst much of the animation is of a similar, if not better, standard, one or two of the dreams are rendered so poorly that they cast a shadow over the rest of the film. History has not been kind to turn of the century CGI, but even at the time Pharaoh's cows would give anyone nightmares. Corner cutting such as this isn't necessarily that obvious, but it often has the effect of permeating through a whole film, leaving it flat without any one thing clearly being out of place.
Ironically, the film's second major problem derives from those very aspects of Prince of Egypt which won it such acclaim. Again we have scenes of wall paintings coming to life and these are complemented nicely by some excellent early dream sequences. The problem is that these aspects were so striking and notable in the original movie that, here, they just feel derivative and unoriginal. There's a reason most magicians don't do their tricks more than once to the same audience: it's easier to reproduce a really good trick than it is to reproduce the experience of seeing it for the first time.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of the film, though, is the music. I read a quote recently that attributed 70% of film to the music. Whilst the occasional song in Prince of Egypt is a little mawkish, generally the music is pretty strong - the opening scenes in particular. Here almost all of the songs are dreary, forgettable, sub-par pop ballads, performed with very little heart or invention. It drags the film down again and again and leaves it bereft of soaring high points.
Which isn't too say it's all bad. Most of the animation is very good: indeed, one or two of the pieces of it are stunning. The Van Gogh inspired sequences with the sunflowers are particularly impressive. The characterisation is also fairly strong. Joseph's (voiced by Ben Affleck's) transition from spoilt brat to mature and forgiving man is well worked, relying on both a process and a epiphany or sorts.
It's also good to see an animated family film that doesn't have to resort to cute animals or fart jokes. Whilst Joseph has it's faults, there's never a moment that could have been improved by the simple addition of a cat with a quirky sense of humour. And if there is, perhaps, one too many montage it's almost forgiveable given the sleek efficiency with which they are executed. The opening song - miracle child is a particularly good example.
So whilst King of Dreams is no match for Prince of Egypt, it's a lot better than some of the films that Dreamworks have turned out subsequently. Ultimately, though, it's biggest problem is that it leaves you wishing you had watched the Moses film instead.