Somewhat like its main characters, The Road to El Dorado has designs for greatness but comes up short. The middling Dreamworks production boasts fine voice talent, a sterling music team, and a story rich with artistic potential but doesn’t coalesce around any strong creative vision. I watched with a constant yearning for something more majestic. Visually, the film should be stunning; El Dorado, after all, was a mythical city of gold, cradled in the mountains and forests of South America and lusted after by European explorers. With only the imagination as reference, this new world should be an animator’s dream. And musically, a collaboration between Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer all but promises a charged and award-winning soundtrack. Of John and Rice’s previous two projects, their Broadway hit Aida won an armful of Tonys and spawned numerous touring productions while The Lion King, and I’m not being hyperbolic, defined a generation.
But El Dorado doesn’t seize on any of these opportunities, and it’s surprising how uninspired the whole movie turns out. Besides its lifeless animation and forgettable music, the story settles for an average plot and characters that only go through the motions of a great adventure. It’s as if the filmmakers, sensing their lack of vision, dump the rogue explorers, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh, the fairest Spaniard of them all), into the fantastic, fabled city and continue on their merry way.
Tulio and Miguel’s friendship should guide the enterprise and does form the backbone of the plot. We are introduced to them as they con their way through the streets of 1500s Seville. Miguel, the daydreamer, scores a map to El Dorado, and before the practical-minded Tulio gets a chance to talk his friend out of the journey, they both accidentally find themselves Hernán Cortés’s (Jim Cummings) ship bound for the New World. After prematurely parting ways with the raging conquistador, they stumble upon the hidden city.
Since this is called The Road to El Dorado, you might think this was some sixteenth century version of a road trip movie, which is it for awhile. But the time Tulio and Miguel spend stranded on a boat or lost in the forest is neither formative nor very much related to what ends up being the main story. The two strange looking Europeans are mistaken for gods when they arrive and, conveniently for them, are honored with mountains of golden baubles. They meet the benevolent ruler (Edward James Olmos) who is depicted not unlike a genial Hawaiian surfer king, a raging pharisaic priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), with authoritarian ambitions, and Chel (a slightly less Brooklyn Rosie Perez), a spunky, shrewd woman who sees through Tulio and Miguel’s deception. It’s a trio almost as discordant as the voice casting.
El Dorado ends up sparking a change in both characters, but this is only explored superficially. Tulio falls for Chel and wants to make off with her in one hand and the loot in the other, but his most impassioned affections are reserved for inanimate objects. Even if he really is nothing more than a charming thief, he doesn’t have enough emotional gravity to pull the audience towards him. Miguel at least has the benefit of introspection, and my favorite scenes are when he begins falling under the spell of this breathtaking city. When he considers staying in El Dorado, you expect some weight in the conflict between the friends, but there is hardly any. Instead, there is a giant rock monster that comes to furious life, bringing the movie to a lively crash of an end.
“El Dorado” by Elton John:
“Someday Out of the Blue” by animated Elton John:
“Without Question” by Elton John:
“Friends Never Say Goodbye” by Elton John:
“The Trail We Blaze” by Elton John:
“16th Century Man” by Elton John:
“The Panic in Me” by Elton John:
“It’s Tough to be a God” by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh:
Prod: Brook Breton, Bonne Radford
Dir: Don Paul, Eric Bergeron
Writer: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Cast: Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Jim Cummings, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos, Frank Welker
Time: 89 min
Country: United States