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by: Michael Dequina

The Road to El Dorado is a reasonably entertaining animated feature, which is more than enough to satisfy the family audience the film courts--and, thus, enough for me to recommend it. But a merely adequate effort is somewhat disappointing coming from DreamWorks, the studio that had so spectacularly redefined the barriers of feature animation with their 1998 epic The Prince of Egypt. Instead of advancing the medium even further, El Dorado finds the studio--and feature animation in general--simply treading water.

El Dorado is the legendary lost city of gold hidden in South America, where Spanish con men Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) find themselves after escaping a ship piloted by the evil Cortes (Jim Cummings). The natives believe these strangers to be gods, and the two play along in order to get their share of the riches. Aiding in their scheme is the saucy, sassy local Chel (Rosie Perez), who keeps their secret in exchange for a cut of all that's given them.

The premise is thin, and the set pieces that are hung upon it are accordingly light. Tulio and Miguel exchange good-natured barbs at each other's expense; Chel incites some chaste looks of lust from the pair; the duo get caught in slapsticky chases and sporting events. These elements are not without their simple charm, due in large part to some sturdy art and animation and game vocal performances. Perez's famously squeaky voice, which often grates in her flesh-and-blood roles, is right at home in a cartoon context.

But sometimes the light nature becomes "lite"--as in inconsequential and forgettable. The villainy--Cortes, a deceitful high priest named Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante)--never seems particularly threatening; the big problem in the case of Cortes is that he doesn't have enough screen time to establish himself as a major threat. The songs by the Lion King team of composer Elton John and Tim Rice, which are mostly sung by John himself, are better suited to lite FM radio stations than an animated feature. The song score also suffers from the miscalculation I call "Tarzan Syndrome": if a film is going to use the tunes as an underscore, it should not insert a big production number where the characters sing. Trying to have the best of both worlds--as Disney did with Tarzan, shoehorning in a completely gratuitous Rosie O'Donnell musical showcase--ends up shortchanging the film as a whole, especially when the tunes are as unmemorable as they are here.

But those two complaints aren't so much annoyances as they are distractions in a work that, while being completely pleasant to watch, never really captivates. As mentioned before, the animation and art are fine, but there is nothing particularly distinctive about it. After a promising avant garde prologue that recounts El Dorado's legendary origins, there is nothing in the way of fresh sights. Tulio and Miguel's number "It's Tough to Be a God" is meant to be the big animation highlight, but anyone who's seen a Disney animated feature in the last ten years won't find anything that one hasn't seen or done better before.

But maybe that was what directors Eric "Bibo" Bergeron and Don Paul were hired to do: keep things familiar and, hence, comfortable for the audience. The Road to El Dorado indeed fits that bill, a film as easy to enjoy as it is to watch. And while that's enough for me to give El Dorado the seal of approval without hesitation, I cannot help but feel that I would be more excited about the film had it been a bit more of a challenge to like it.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)


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