Indiana Jones meets low-budget Pixar in entertaining toon “Tad, the Lost Explorer,” an unpretentious, kid-friendly item that’s lively and sometimes funny, but lacks a distinctive edge. Borrowing from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and a couple of shorts starring the title character that helmer Enrique Gato also directed, this enjoyably retro yarn straddles homage and plagiarism with an infectious brio that makes it the top Spanish animated feature of its kind to date. International sales have been healthy, including a mid-September bow on 2,500 Chinese screens. At home, the pic looks set to become the year’s biggest release.
The nostalgic pre-credits sequence hastily dispenses with the pic’s deeper theme, that it’s important to bravely tackle your fears, leaving things clear for the unmitigated bounciness that follows. Cheerful, idealistic construction worker Tad (voiced in Spanish by Oscar Barberan) is fired for spending his time digging up inevitably worthless items that he takes to kindly Professor Humbert (Carles Canut) for examination, accompanied by his faithful mutt Jeff. By mail, the professor receives one half of a tablet, the other half of which might open the gates to Paititi, the legendary underground city of gold. After a bit of nonsensical business, it is Tad, rather than the academic, who boards the plane to Peru.
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There he’s met by Freddy (Jose Mota), a good-hearted street salesman whose role in things is never fully clear, and by Sara (Michelle Jenner), whom Tad instantly falls for. The trio set off in search of Sara’s father, Prof. Lavrov, only to find that, along with Tad’s hero, square-jawed, floppy-haired explorer Max Mordon (Pep Anton Munoz), Lavrov has been kidnapped by pirates. Their leader, Kopponen (Miguel Angel Jenner), has a prosthetic hand that supplies some of pic’s wittier gags, as when he reaches out and simply slices flies in half.
Kids, especially those who have little idea who Indiana Jones is, will eat this up, but their parents may yearn for a little more ironic darkness beneath the relentlessly cheerful surface. The backstory that both Tad and Sara’s mothers are dead seems to exist only to generate a brief moment of cheap emotion, and is swiftly forgotten, never feeding back into either the characters or a plot that concerns itself more with pressing tried-and-tested buttons than with devising anything new. Characterization is similarly stereotypical.
Visually, the pic mostly manages to conceal its relatively small budget, despite a lack of attention to background detail in some sequences. Gato’s imagination has clearly been fired by “Raiders,” so when the story moves underground for the last half hour, it’s like watching the Spielberg film pumped up to a factor of 10 — the big, rolling rock is now also a fireball; the vaults of the caves are impossibly, vertiginously high; and the glow of all the gold is so intense as to reach out beyond the screen. But moments where the 3D feels really necessary are intermittent.
Pop songs, including one by popular U.K. boy band One Direction, are dutifully squeezed in during transition sequences, but add little.