The Road to El Dorado

| April 5, 2000

n the animated feature film community, there appear to be two rules that its members strictly adhere to. One: In order for an animated feature to have some degree of success, it must have to have been adapted from some sort of classic novel, myth or fairy tale. Two: Its central characters must be animals so children will have something with which to identify.
Animated films such as Tarzan, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Snow White all have enjoyed a certain amount of exposure prior to the leap to the silver screen. And in essence, The Lion King, is Shakespearean. The Rescuers are about mice, and we all know what 101 Dalmatians look like.
So what’s the deal with Dreamworks’ The Road to El Dorado? Among other things its audience is largely undefined. And while this doesn’t necessarily spell disaster, it certainly makes 89 minutes appear an eternity. Indeed, what struck me was how few children were actually in the audience and how little they were laughing at the more comedic scenes. What also struck me was how many adults actually went to see this thing. Uh-oh.
Clearly a project with Dreamworks’ co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg written all over it (he is an un-credited director), The Road to El Dorado touts the re-coupling of Academy Award-winners, singer-songwriter Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, whose previous outing includes The Lion King. From a visual standpoint, The Road to El Dorado, using up-to-the-moment computer imagery and animation, is a masterwork. So, what happens in the story, you ask.
A lucky roll of the dice puts an old map into the hands of two vagabonds, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh). The map, of course, shows directions to the legendary Latin American city of El Dorado, the City of Gold. They stowaway aboard Cortez’s treasure-seeking armada to the New World.
Through trial and tribulation, Tulio and Miguel eventually find El Dorado, where they are instantly greeted as gods by the city’s shifty high priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante). Their timing couldn’t have been better because, lucky for them, there’s a power struggle between Tzekel- Kan and the city’s rotund Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos). The high drama and antics kick into high gear, only to be occasionally slowed by Tulio’s love interest, a shapely thief named Chel (Rosie Perez). And though this throws a little spice into the mix, she’s no Fa Mulan!
Animators paint jungles very well, and The Road to El Dorado certainly has plenty of that. But eye candy aside, the film’s pace is slightly confused and, for a “children’s movie”, there frankly isn’t enough heartfelt singing one would expect. For example, in a pivotal scene where Tulio and Chel realize their mutual affections, we’re left with a rather suggestive fade-out rather than exposition of the values of love in song form: they’re from opposite ends of the world! Isn’t that something to sing about?
The loveless, albeit sensitive, Miguel embraces being treated like a god (who wouldn’t?) and vows to stay behind while Tulio and Chel plan on taking piles of gold back to Spain. While our godly vagabonds quarrel, the aforementioned power struggle between The Chief and Tzekel-Kan climaxes with the latter being banished from the city. And since he’s a witchdoctor, this can only spell trouble. He returns with the type of vengeance I haven’t the heart to give away.
The tragedy of The Road to El Dorado really only begins here: History tells us that Cortez and the Spaniards show up in the New World, and so does every disease that ravaged Europe.
The Road to El Dorado holds your attention for a brief moment, but the impression is short-lived. It’s ambitious and somewhat timely, a beautifully painted and romantic rendering of a time and place long since faded into history books. We’re only too thankful that all roads lead to Rome, and not El Dorado.

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