`El Dorado' an unneeded detour

Review: This `Road' -- a noisy, predictable and plotless offering from Disney -- is a bumpy ride.

March 31, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The Road to El Dorado" is a mess. A handsome, well-drawn mess, but a mess nonetheless.

For one thing, it begs the question, "Do we really need an animated Hope and Crosby picture?" For another, it needs a story -- any story, but preferably one the audience can have a rooting interest in. And finally, it proves the truth of the adage that any movie depending on an animated armadillo for excitement is looking for trouble.

Set in the early days of New World exploration, "El Dorado" focuses on Miguel and Tulio, Spanish con men who spend 20 percent of their time separating people from their money and 80 percent getting on people's nerves -- especially the audience's. After a rigged game of craps goes awry, our heroes end up as inadvertent stowaways on the ship of famed conquistador Hernando Cortes. Put in irons below deck, the pair escapes -- thanks to the help of comic sidekick Altivo, a horse that should have held out for a bigger part.

Rough seas and other watery perils eventually deposit the boys on a New World beach, and faster than you can say "Isn't it about time some friendly natives showed up?" some friendly natives show up -- and instantly assume Miguel and Tulio are gods. Thus it is that the boys are taken to El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold.

Naturally, this seems too good to be true: An entire city of gold is theirs for the taking. And when ignorance of local culture threatens to expose them for the frauds they are, a buxom young thing named Chel shows up to help them in return for a share of the take.

Can Miguel and Tulio connive their way to a fortune? Can Chel save them from themselves? Who will emerge as the real hero -- the rotund, jovial chief who believes in our boys or the jut-jawed high priest who's jealous that they're assuming power that should rightly be his?

And, perhaps most importantly, will Miguel and Tulio ever shut up? (Without giving away too much of the plot, I must report the answer to that last question is no.)

Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline provide the voices of, respectively, Miguel and Tulio, and it sounds like they had a swell time. Reportedly, they improvised much of their own dialogue, and it shows, as they repeatedly try to top one another. Too bad there was no one there to rein them in.

Too quickly, "El Dorado" devolves into a lesser Hope and Crosby film, the kind where the only redeeming quality is their repartee. (And don't forget, Bob and Bing each had more than a decade's worth of show-business reputation to play off of.)

Another misfire comes in the character of Chel, voiced by Rosie Perez. Meant to be an update of Dorothy Lamour, instead she's more like a second Hope, zinging equally as well as her co-stars. This is definitely a case where three becomes a crowd.

Given the troubles "El Dorado" suffered during production, perhaps none of this should be a surprise. Originally envisioned as an adult drama, this story line changed repeatedly over the course of its five-year production schedule. Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg reportedly favored a more serious approach. In an earlier version of the script, one of the main characters died and was put on display for the benefit of the natives.

Not surprisingly, the finished story has the appearance of something that everyone wanted simply to finish, as if the filmmakers just threw up their hands. Of little help are a series of uninspired tunes from Elton John and Tim Rice, who definitely are capable of better things.

True, the look of the film almost makes up for the deficiencies; especially within the confines of El Dorado itself, the look is all bright colors and marvelous vistas. As a series of still paintings, the results would be stunning; as a film, the one thing most sorely missing is movie magic -- an element no animated feature has ever gone very far without.

Disney has always known that, and with their first effort, the impressive "Prince of Egypt," DreamWorks seemed to understand as well. "The Road to El Dorado" represents a distinct step backward.

`The Road to El Dorado'

Starring the voices of Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and Rosie Perez

Directed by Eric "Bibo" Bergeron and Don Paul

Released by DreamWorks

Running time 83 minutes

Rated PG (mild thematic material and language)

Sun score * * 1/2

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