An animated combo of the old Bob Hope–Bing Crosby “Road” pictures and “The Man Who Would Be King,” DreamWorks’ third major feature cartoon, “The Road to El Dorado,” is a strained and pallid concoction that won’t fire the collective imaginations of modern children. The automatic kidpic audience will turn out for this high-pedigree production, but lack of a story that pre-teens will find involving and six of the least memorable songs Elton John and Tim Rice have written will make this only a moderate earner, one certainly destined for lower B.O. than the studio’s “Antz” and “The Prince of Egypt” and more likely to reach the numbers of “Anastasia” or less.
Five years in production, epic buddy picture went through two sets of directors and numerous evolving concepts, arriving finally at a middle ground between outright romp and a serious take on the arrival of the conquistadors in the New World. Subject matter is rife with possibilities, even for a moppet-oriented effort that obviously isn’t going to grapple with such heavy themes as conquest and subjugation. “Pocahontas” showed that it is possible to tread this sensitive terrain with a degree of balance and sensitivity in terms that kids can grasp.
But whenever “El Dorado” threatens to get serious, it backs off, retreating into loud shenanigans between its two mischievous heroes, complete with annoyingly anachronistic mannerisms such as high-fiving and shouts of “Yes!”; vampy scheming on the part of its heroine, who looks and sounds like a Las Vegas tart; rambunctious action sequences and montage-oriented musical numbers that tend to center on general concepts (“The Trail We Blaze,” “It’s Tough to Be a God”) rather than on immediate emotions.
First quarter-hour introduces dark-haired Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and blond-maned Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) as Spanish rascals who delight in creating scrapes and extricating themselves with devilish aplomb. After one prank too many, however, they find themselves trapped in barrels and placed aboard one of Cortes’ ships headed across the Atlantic in 1519. With Cortes’ noble horse, they escape in a lifeboat and finally wash up on a beautiful beach bordered by jungle.
Quickly captured by imposing bronze-skinned natives, the boys think their goose is cooked upon arrival at the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. But the coming of such “gods,” as they are perceived to be, has been prophesied, and, after a bit of lucky shuffling and hocus-pocus, Tulio and Miguel are installed in exclusive quarters atop one of the city’s many pyramids. Local babe Chel (Rosie Perez) is on to their game and blackmails the flummoxed pair into including her in their plan to escape El Dorado with a bounty of gold, courtesy of a large boat to be built especially for them.
Although there is a local chief (Edward James Olmos), he, along with the rest of the community, is dominated by high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), a commanding figure who pays elaborate homage to the white strangers at first but gradually becomes skeptical of their presumed divinity. The severe holy man is especially offended by the newcomers’ oh-so-sensitive objections to human sacrifice, first when they prevent an execution, and later after the “gods” manage to win a furious ball game and then insist that the losers, contrary to custom, be spared. In a direct lift from the film “The Man Who Would Be King,” Tzekel-Kan realizes that the visitors are just human beings after all when Miguel bleeds from a cut.
Far too much time is devoted to the two charlatans’ silly arguments about if and how they’re going to pull off their charade, and to contretemps concerning Chel, whom they declare to be off-limits romantically but who manages to come between them nevertheless. By contrast, one of the script’s more promising elements — Miguel’s sudden surge of feeling for the local citizens and their gentle lifestyle when he mingles with them, to the consternation of his anxious partner — is given unduly short shrift. Even if “the allure of the primitive” reps a cliche in the adventure/exploration genre, a bit more time devoted to it would have brought the setting and its inhabitants more to the foreground; as it is, there is no individuation among the native people.
Kline and Branagh (last paired in “Wild Wild West”) give boisterous, spirited readings to their characters, even if Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s script provides them with few shadings or interesting traits. Assante registers strongly as the powerful priest.
But the Chel character is so contemporary, and in a vulgar way to boot, as to be incredible and off-putting, and Perez’s urbanite voicing doesn’t help. Even Chel’s motivation is unbelievable: El Dorado is presented as a Shangri-La–like paradise, and no one in this sealed-off city would even know about another place to which he or she would want to flee.
Visual design as overseen by directors Eric “Bibo” Bergeron and Don Paul is colorful, sometimes attractive but never breathtaking. Animation, compositions and editing favor dramatic angles and fluidly changing perspectives that keep things interesting, while the characters are more commonly conceived; a few elements, notably the gold, are rendered with near-photographic realism. The animals on view comprehendingly participate in human endeavors but aren’t anthropomorphized in traditional Disney fashion, while the tunes are vigorous and well sung but, at least at first listen, not catchy or distinctive.