The men who would be queens

Animated buddy film gets Road hard and put up wet

From its opening moments, The Road to El Dorado looks and sounds oddly out of time, as though it were removed only yesterday from a time capsule sealed and buried in 1972. With its Peter Max visuals and Elton John vocals, it's a decidedly unhip piece of work from the get-go -- Starlight Express for kids, animated and lit up like a sinking Yellow Submarine. Indeed, there's no reason why this movie, like The Lion King (another Elton John-Tim Rice concoction), shouldn't translate well to the Broadway stage sooner or later. You can even keep the leads intact: Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh are products of the hardwood, after all, men more comfortable in tights than in slacks. The children will love it, and their parents will convince themselves they've been to an Art Event for the evening. It'll be fun for the whole family, assuming the whole family doesn't own a television and thinks that big ball of fire in the sky is the handiwork of an angry demon.

Aw, but it can't be all that bad, can it? Surely not. It is, after all, just a cartoon, a Saturday-afternoon trifle for preteens and the parents trying to keep them still and mute for a couple of hours. How can anything so sterile and inane be awful enough to inspire such revulsion that it grows only more intense in the rearview mirror? (Indeed, I didn't mind the film 10 minutes after seeing it, but two days later, I felt so worked-over, I was still a little sore.) But such loathing is easily explained, the result of being forced to endure so many wretched Elton John songs that you almost long for Phil Collins' beat-crazy Tarzan soundtrack. The Road to El Dorado is nothing but one long infomercial for its tepid, overwrought, wordy, derivative, clumsy soundtrack. That seems to be the movie's only reason for being -- to sell Elton John's record (featuring six songs not even in the movie) on DreamWorks' label, yet another brilliant crossover marketing move by the Holy Trinity of Entertainment (Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen -- the father, the son, and the wholly crass).

Otherwise, The Road to El Dorado is just obnoxiously dull, a rich man who dresses in blinding silk and chats endlessly about how much money he burns through in an afternoon. You can see how much expense and effort went into the thing; you can feel the movie's millions rubbing against you as you sit in the theater. The film is such a visual delight, each cel should hang in a museum (or sell for $50 on eBay, at least). A combination of traditional and computer-generated animation, The Road to El Dorado is what every child imagines (or, at least, should) when he or she falls asleep and dreams of a faraway place -- in this case, the cities of Spain and the golden temples of a mythical land called El Dorado. Only a heartless cynic could deny the film's surface thrills; every frame contains a surprise, a vigilantly rendered delight. One scene involving an overturned rowboat punished by the sea is sumptuous and thrilling. It could actually pass for art.

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road to El Dorado: Tulio and Miguel make such sweet music -- until Elton John shows up.
Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road to El Dorado: Tulio and Miguel make such sweet music -- until Elton John shows up.

Details

Starring the voices of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Rosie Perez, Armand Assante, and Edward James Olmos

Release Date:
March 31

Official site

Directed by Eric Bergeron and Don Paul

Screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio

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But the animators' talents and diligence have been corrupted on every front -- by DreamWorks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, who makes movies the way McDonald's makes cheeseburgers; by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the Aladdin co-writers who have fleshed out a Star Trek episode (the one in which the dim brown natives think The White Man is a god) and turned it into marketing plan; by Sir Elton and Tim Rice, who apparently made up their ditties as the tape was rolling (the Talmud is less wordy than these plot-advancing odes); and by composer Hans Zimmer, who rips off his own Rain Man score for the new-age incidentals. This is the Frosted Flakes of movies, the antithesis of DreamWorks' first ambitious forays into animation, Antz and The Prince of Egypt. Every delicious frame is rendered hollow by a banal script, an overload of empty calories. Children will see this and be unable to sleep for weeks; they will grind their teeth from all the sugar.

El Dorado is one of those animated films that panders to the children and condescends to their parents. Katzenberg has said he intended it to be built around two sidekicks -- think Robin Williams and Nathan Lane's characters from, respectively, Aladdin and The Lion King, paired together in one giddy extravaganza. (Wasn't Aladdin about Williams' Genie anyway?) To that end, it's nothing but The Man Who Would Be King rendered as a musical -- or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Singing and Dancing. Miguel (Branagh) and Tulio (Kline), two swindling Spaniards (and, from all appearances, life partners), wind up with a map to the mythical city of El Dorado, where, legend has it, everything's made of gold. After a brief tussle with a snorting Cortez (who, oddly, looks like an inflated Armand Assante, though he voices an entirely different character), the pair find themselves in El Dorado -- where they're mistaken for gods, no doubt because of their white skin, well-trimmed facial hair, and fashionably loose-fitting garments.

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