FILM REVIEW HH1/2
The Road To El Dorado
Destination NowhereBy Vladimir Zelevinsky
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR
Directed by Don Paul and Eric Bergeron
Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
With the voices of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Rosie Perez
Dreamworks strikes back at Disney, this time using weapons borrowed from the Mouse House. The Road To El Dorado is written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (writers of Aladdin), features the voice of Kevin Kline (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and has songs composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice and an underscore by Hans Zimmer (all of whom were involved in The Lion King). The result feels, not surprisingly, half-exciting and half-stale: mostly it is the same old reliable formula, applied without much concern about why it works and whether it should be tweaked to suit the story better.
The first half hour is by far the best: per the title, it is indeed a lighthearted adventure tale, a mixture of a modern pop-sensibility and old-fashioned adventure narrative. Starting from a stunning prologue (with great art direction, mixing in equal amounts Mayan designs, circuit board patterns, and Yellow Submarine sensibilities), it launches into non-stop action, one set piece rapidly switching to another; it’s exhilarating and inventive. Centering on two lovable Spanish rouges, Miguel and Tulio (voiced by Branagh and Kline), this first third of the movie follows them on their accidental journey from Spain with Cortez and his conquistadors to Latin America, where they get chased, beaten, imprisoned, marooned, and stranded -- all the while keeping their good spirits.
There are two unique things about this portion. First, it possesses the witty quality of a buddy film, centering on two protagonists who are friends, as opposed to the usual single love-lorn hero. Second, it is a road movie, a rare instance in animation, at least modern American animation (perhaps because using the recurring setting would usually allow the animators to save on backgrounds). The result is preposterously effective, doing the perfect job of placing us in the protagonists’ shoes, with every turn of the road being as much of a surprise to us as it is to them. It is also thankfully free of moralizing, content at being merely exciting, and that’s really all I ask from a cartoon.
Anyway, Miguel and Tulio eventually find their way to El Dorado, and their journey ends, and the movie instantly stops in its tracks, despite having yet a whole hour of running time. The bulk of this hour is spent inside El Dorado, and the story literally doesn’t go anywhere. The attempts to spice up the narrative by extravagant production numbers, huge action sequences (like the scene of a basketball-like game), and earnest sentimentality feel alternatively like filler -- or like acts of desperation. The setting and mood stubbornly remain the same, and there’s precious little excitement to be gleaned.
Two things work in favor of The Road to El Dorado even throughout this portion, and, as a result, the movie remains consistently watchable and never boring, despite the fact that pretty much nothing of interest happens.
There are the vocal performances by Rosie Perez and Kenneth Branagh (Kline is good as well, but his character doesn’t have much of a throughline). Perez, as a local petty thief, is all attitude and husky voice; her character design is aces too, making her suitably gorgeous without a hint of customary emaciation. Branagh is even better, embodying his character’s wistful wanderlust without sounding preachy. The wanderlust theme ends up being the film’s main one, and the only one with any emotional heft (the love story is remarkably sketchy and unconvincing); it makes little sense that this theme is the strongest when the heroes have already reached their Eden-like destination and wish to remain there, but it’s touching nevertheless.
What is less than inspiring are the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. The latter’s lyrics are just about bland as they get, totally devoid of wit or substance. John’s music is much better (with “The Trail We Blaze” being my favorite), but his orchestrations are all the same, and the songs sound entirely too similar. Hans Zimmer’s score is utterly forgettable as well, a far cry from his stunning The Lion King soundtrack.
I guess I will have to wait until DreamWorks realizes that being original pays both creatively and financially (nobody accused, say, Antz of being derivative, mostly due to Woody Allen’s snarky wit). Until then, DreamWorks is in danger of having its animated movies feel like pale copies of Disney’s not terribly sharp originals.