Film Review

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Frustrating and flawed, yet bouncy, breezy and entertaining.

By Mike Lyons     April 06, 2000

There's a scene toward the end of DreamWorks' latest animated feature, THE ROAD TO EL DORADO, during which Miguel, one of the two con-men main characters, talks with the Chief of the South American city he's been conning. Miguel has spent a week convincing the citizens of El Dorado that he and his friend are the gods for whom the village has been waiting. The Chief knows Miguel is a fraud, but a harmless one, and Miguel has an inkling that the jig is up. Neither character broaches the subject and much remains unsaid. The scene contains some of the best 'animated acting,' the medium has ever seen. In between its more awkward moments, THE ROAD TO EL DORADO uses such scenes to stretch the boundaries of the medium. Frustrating at times, yes, flawed in sections, yes, EL DORADO is also entertaining and easy-to-take.
Combining elements of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's 'Road' pictures, with Kipling's THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and almost every buddy movie ever made, THE ROAD TO EL DORADO follows two inept con artists, Miguel (voice of Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), who stumble across a map and stowaway on a ship run by the cutthroat explorer Cortes (Jim Cummings). After escaping (with an indifferent, yet loyal horse), Miguel and Tulio make their way to land, only to find that they've been mistaken for gods by the citizens of the mystical city of El Dorado. It is this 'city of gold,' where the two realize they can reap a quick reward and make a quick exit. That is, until they're discovered as frauds by Chel (Rosie Perez) a local girl who also wants out of El Dorado. She's in the Dorothy Lamour role, but her body looks more like Jennifer Lopez at the Grammys. The cons also become entangled in a coup by the evil high priest, Tzekel Khan (Armand Assante, with a voice full of wonderfully maniacal timber) who is trying to overthrow the kindly Chief (Edward James Olmos).
One of the creative inspirations behind EL DORADO was allowing characters who would normally be supporting, comic relief to finally step into the spotlight. This, along with Branagh's and Kline's perfectly timed delivery, allows for some hysterical moments. When the two are first hailed as gods, the character reactions recall the wonderful, pregnant pauses in Chuck Jones' short subjects.
The film also allows the DreamWorks' artists to finally cut loose. PRINCE OF EGYPT, with its serious subject matter, had a restrictive style. EL DORADO leaves room for cartoon silliness: eyes bug out; characters squash and stretch; animals react like humans; and a few movies, including studio head Spielberg's JAWS, are parodied).
Art director, Ramon Zibach deserves special praise for taking full advantage of this 'cartoony' freedom. The brilliant color palette and layout throughout the film are almost too lush to drink in. In addition, a surrealistic opening title sequence, that utilizes Mayan-like artwork, is a refreshing way for an animated film to begin.
That opening song, along with the others in EL DORADO, is penned by THE LION KING Golden Boys, Tim Rice and Elton John. While serviceable, the songs are ultimately betrayed by the film itself. It seems as if the filmmakers were, in a certain sense, attempting a carbon copy of Disney's TARZAN, in which Phil Collins served as musical narrator, singing the songs over the soundtrack. In EL DORADO, however, the songs aren't as tightly woven into the plot; instead, they're simply laid out on the soundtrack making the film look like an animated FOOTLOOSE.
For all its craftsmanship, EL DORADO mirrors live-action filmmaking a little too much. Stories are made in animation because it's a realm where anything can happen. At times, EL DORADO doesn't seem to realize this, and it almost feels as if the film is holding itself back. In the finale, Tzekel Khan uses magical powers to bring to life a giant, stone jaguar, which rampages, Godzilla-like through the jungle. It's a great visual effects, tour-de-force, but EL DORADO needed more scenes like it.
Like THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, this film wants to be the new face of animation. At times, it seems unsatisfied with being a goofy change of pace. Still, there is much to enjoy and recommend. Like Miguel and Tulio themselves, the film is bouncy, breezy and fun to spend some time with.


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