The Road to El Dorado (2000)

D: Bibo Bergeron, Will Finn
S: Voices of: Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline

Relatively harmless animated comic adventure featuring the voices of Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline as a pair of Spanish conmen who inadvertently accompany Cortes on his trip to conquer South America for the Spanish Crown in the 16th Century. With the help of a cryptic map won in a crooked game of chance (which leads to some Aladdin-like action as they escape from the angry mob), they find their way to the mythical city of El Dorado, where they are mistaken for Gods. The duo face various ethical conundrums as they hook up with a likeminded native voiced by Rosie Perez (eager for a share in the scam) and find themselves caught in the middle of a local conflict between a sadistic high priest voiced by Armand Assante and a corpulent, avuncular chief voiced by Edward James Olmos. Amiable enough in all respects, the film sticks perhaps too closely to the Disney formula for its own good. Lacking some of the detailed draughtsmanship of the likes of Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Tarzan, there is little to distinguish it. There is however a bizarre emphasis on the closeness of the relationship between the two men which borders on something most kids won't pick up on but which adults will wonder about. They'll wonder for one thing if in fact the film would have been stronger had it been even more pronounced. It certainly would have made it different.

Such concerns aside, The Road to El Dorado is marginally more watchable than DreamWorks SKG's last animated epic, The Prince of Egypt. Liberated from the constraints of history (or dogma), scriptwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio put the emphasis on savvy exchanges between the characters which Branagh and Kline play with relish and gusto. It is a buddy movie first and foremost (even the title evokes memories of the Hope/Crosby/Lamour vehicles), and everything that happens in some way relates to the effect events have on the central relationship. Worries about the history of Spain's destruction of the native peoples of South America are sidelined by the emphasis on these characters, the use of fantasy, and a clever finale which sneakily avoids having to deal with the kind of historical problems which dogged the bogus ending of Pocahontas. As such most of the effort in animation has gone into the facial expressions, placing much of the burden on the character animators led by Jakob Hjort Jensen. Some of these are very effective, particularly the sneering, arrogant high priest whose range of responses to the newly arrived Gods varies from delight to confusion and suspicion, though the curvaceous female con voiced by Perez seems to be the most aggressively heterosexual element of the film for purely decorative reasons. Cortes is a nicely dark and terrible presence, but he is not on screen for very long (voiced by Jim Cummings when he is). The helpful horse and armadillo who accompany our heroes also have their moments, and thankfully don't sing any songs.

On the whole, the film is pleasant and inoffensive without being especially bland. The strong vocal characterisations help, and the script has some nice moments. It is not especially funny, but there are amusing moments. There are some good action sequences (though the 'stone jaguar' is less interesting than seems to have been intended) and plenty of broad physical action to keep the eye moving, but there are not quite enough grand entertainments for a full-scale adventure. The disappointing detail in the background animations and production design makes it less rich than Tarzan, and despite the best efforts of everyone concerned, the film on the whole simply doesn't stand up the the standards of the usual Disney product (which is not to say Disney are above reproach; far from it: they consistently squander their resources on safe material). Despite the sub-texts which raise an eyebrow, The Road to El Dorado is also disappointingly safe. It is finally a light comedy which may appeal to adults in the right frame of mind and will probably amuse the kids until the next of its type comes along. It is worth a peek if you have nothing better to do and the small fry have seen Stuart Little, but I wouldn't pursue it with particular interest.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.