The Road to El Dorado

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   R O B E R T   H U N T

When I was a young moviegoer, an animated feature was a special event, a rarity. The Disney films were several years in the making, and as for their competition, you could count every non-Disney animated feature on your fingers and still keep a grip on your Milk Duds. The last two decades have changed that picture dramatically, thanks to color xeroxing and computer animation. Disney films now appear annually, while nearly every other studio has made their pitch for that coveted "family audience," hoping for something that will become as much a part of our culture as Pinocchio and Bambi. As any parent knows who endured the Care Bears" and He-Man films of the early '80s, many of these films were nothing more than shamelessly extended exercises in product placement. Others were ambitious and well-intended efforts. But the number of new films worthy of a place alongside the Disney classics was still small enough to be counted without losing a single Milk Dud.

The Road to El Dorado, the latest attempt to annex Disney territory, is, as its title suggests, a kind of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby adventure set against the background of Cortes' 16th century invasion of Latin America. The heroes are Tulio and Miguel, two wise-cracking con artists from Spain who accidentally wind up in Mexico, discover the fabled city of gold, and are welcomed as gods. Add a bad guy, a sexy accomplice, some songs, and a few dozen visual gags and you get the picture. Animation aficionados and parents seeking a respite from Pokemon-mania will both be reassured to learn that El Dorado is an entertaining and admirable achievement, still just a fraction shy of the best Disney films, but thoroughly enjoyable on its own merits. It's attractive, witty, and handsomely animated, though the frequent reliance on computer-generated effects is still awkwardly apparent. It may not take the place in your heart of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or even Tarzan, but it won't drive you completely insane when your kids insist on watching the video four times a day either. For many parents, that's all you need to know.

stills from
The Road to El Dorado
[click photos for larger versions]

Disney's competitors have generally stumbled over obstacles in three areas: voice talent, music (Quick: think of a memorable Disney song. Easy, right? Now try to remember a song from Anastasia or The Quest for Camelot...), and story development. While the Disney studios may spend years on pre-production, reworking stories and characters until they fit, newcomers to the cartoon business don't have that luxury. El Dorado overcomes the first of these hurdles easily with the imaginative pairing of Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline and a pouty bad-girl performance from Rosie Perez, squeaks by the second with an adequate sextet of songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and an orchestral score by Hans Zimmer ( though their contributions are neither as distinguished or as well integrated as their work on The Lion King), and collides into the third only in the final minutes with a hurried ending that doesn't wrap up the plot so much as it scurries away from it.

El Dorado's flaws are not so much failures on the part of its creators as they are built-in challenges for any animator willing to step into Disney's home court. The making of an animated film is an intricate process and while the makers of El Dorado may have left a few bugs in, they make up for it with original pleasures of their own. The Disney masterpieces may remain an unattainable goal for most animators, but a fast-paced, colorful, and inventive entertainment like The Road to El Dorado shows that the competition can hold their own.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]


Text: (© 1999 Rhunt/film/wire.)

Photos: (© 2000 Dreamworks L.L.C. All rights reserved.)