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The men who would be queens

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

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.

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.

The high priest, Tzekel-Kan (Assante), has awaited the arrival of such gods in order to harness their power and overthrow the kindly Chief (Edward James Olmos). Miguel and Tulio want only to escape El Dorado with a shipload of gold trinkets. To that end, they enlist Chel (Rosie Perez), a towel-clad swindler who cons the cons and threatens to bust up Miguel and Tulio. And with that, the movie builds toward a shrug of an ending, complete with a borrowed Iron Giant that serves only to remind you of a far better, far more effective big-screen cartoon (one with...what's that word?...ah, yeah, a story). You don't even know it's over until the end credits begin rolling.

If this is what Katzenberg considers "adult" entertainment, perhaps it's because someone replaced his New Yorker subscription with a copy of Highlights. This is a film whose idea of clever involves an enormous boat, a crashing wave, and a character shouting, "Holy ship!" before the whole lot comes tumbling down around him. Writing the screenplay couldn't have taken more than a week; the shooting script must have been a deli napkin. And worse, Katzenberg still wants it both ways: The sidekicks have their own sidekicks -- -a war horse and an armadillo, no doubt easier to market as action figures than two men who look as though they've wandered in off the Dance Fever set.

Speaking of which, some colleagues have suggested The Road to El Dorado contains a gay subtext. Subtext? It's the text: This movie could have been based on an article that originally appeared in The Advocate. It displays more male nipples than a night on Fire Island, and one day, grad students will write papers about the skinny-dipping scene, featuring Tulio and Miguel. There's no mistaking the, uh, subtext: Toward the film's end, when Tulio chooses Chel over Miguel (though, of course, not for long), Sir Elton breaks into "Friends Never Say Goodbye." He croons what is in essence the film's love song: "There isn't much I haven't shared with you along the road," he sings over a montage of stifled tears, pouts, and hurt looks. "We are, have always been, will ever be as one." It ain't quite "You Got a Friend in Me." But it is, well, adult -- revolutionary, even.

And the always game Kline and Branagh must be in on the in-joke: They scream like little girls and speak in cuddly tones. The two give it their brash Hope-and-Crosby best, only to be usurped by lines that might better render them mute. And isn't it redundant to cast Rosie Perez in a cartoon? No matter how hard she tries to temper her Brooklyn blurt, she, like Assante and Olmos, still sounds as though she's reading off a paycheck -- or from the merchandising contract. They'll all make millions, and we're stuck with pennies on the dollar.


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