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'El Dorado': Conquistadors In Vaudeville

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 31, 2000


    'The Road to El Dorado' A treasure map leads Tulio and Miguel into a series of misadventures. (DreamWorks)
"The Road to El Dorado" plays so close to the line it leaves me a little woozy. After all, it's essentially an animated Crosby-Hope picture set in a holocaust.

That holocaust is initiated by the arrival to Mexico of the syphilitic Spanish mercenary Hernando Cortes, bringer of death to the thousands, maybe the tens of thousands and even possibly the millions. With guns and horses and armor--and ultimately germs--he cut a swath through an ancient civilization in the name of God (his) and gold (theirs). He ended up rich, they ended up dead.

Comedy? Laughs? Hey, folks, what about some darned entertaining musical numbers? What about cute li'l Rosie Perez's pictograph as a sassy Aztec babe with a New York 'tude, an upturned nose and a pair of hips so bouncy they could titillate the senior class at St. Albans?

Yet all that is exactly what DreamWorks has created with its high-end, tone-deaf, color-saturated "Road to El Dorado," which glosses over the more complex issues in search of the vaudeville values of goofiness, wackiness and hellzapoppin' fun. That embarrassing business about the Aztec tendency toward recreational human sacrifice? Your typical peasant family as an ambulatory McDonald's for the upper classes? Make a joke of it! The whole thing is like a pie fight in hell.

The movie opens in a Spanish port city in 1519 with two plucky Spaniards--you know, the American and the English kind (the voices are Kevin Kline's and Kenneth Branagh's; the characters are animated to resemble those men 25 years ago). The boys, Tulio and Miguel, appear to be roving Shakespearean actors half a century before the birth of the Bard; they acquire a map to the legendary city of gold whose existence has been tantalizing the Spanish imagination since 1492 and manage through a number of thin pretexts to bumble over there and find it.

The movie repeats what might be called the plot patterns of the Crosby-Hope pictures: Nothing in it is thought out terribly well and nobody cares. It's the ramshackle, fly-by-night, omigosh story line of low-budget '40s comedies locked in the high-tech stylizations of 21st-century computer digitizing, an odd and not altogether satisfying fit. The boys win the map gambling with sailors, they're chased by cops, they fall into barrels, the barrels are shipped off on Cortes' voyage to the Americas, they are caught by the big bad boy himself (this Cortes resembles Robert Goulet on steroids and methamphetamines), they escape in a small boat (with a horse, of course!), landing exactly at the starting point of the map, they find the city, they are mistaken for gods (nice work if you can get it), they become involved in political squabbles between religious and secular factions, they end human sacrifice, and they introduce Elton John's music to the New World. Are we having fun yet?

Now, possibly I make too much of the anachronisms. They are, after all, intentional and the whole thing is one big nutty stylization. Thus when the two heroes high-five or show a passionate humanism that was inconceivable in the barbarous quasi-medieval world of 1519, it's engineered to be part of the loopy, improvisatory feel of the piece. And who would want to see a historically accurate feature about the looting and slaughter of a culture?

At the same time, the movie lacks a certain virtue difficult to identify. I can only call it moral appropriateness, ominous as that may sound. This is not a funny time or place and what it wrought, these centuries later, is still with us in a number of ways, all of them tragic. That would include colonialism, nationalist aspiration, racism, the enduring agonies of a people decreed inferior by men who'd had the foresight to invent the musket and the cathedral. "El Dorado" progresses in a state of total obliviousness; it feels ever so slightly creepy.

The best thing, absolutely, is the verbal byplay between the two stars in that recording booth somewhere in Lala. They have the mysterious thing called chemistry. You can feel their affection. They play off each other in exactly the goofy yet reassuringly pleasant way Bing and Bob did in their legendary series of films, and the spirited Perez makes a great stand-in for Dorothy Lamour. I say: Get this cast out of the recording booth and into a live-action comedy, set it somewhere far from the deaths of millions, and sit back and count the money and the kudos as they roll in.

As for the animation, it's compelling enough, but weirdly overcolored. Hint from critic: Bring sunglasses. It appears to combine old-fashioned cel animation--that is, anonymous pen-pushers drawing image by image in cubicles--with the weird, geometry-intense computer antics of 10 years ago. It hasn't anything of the rubbery reality of the recent Disney product, as exemplified by the "Toy Story" movies. It's a meld between the drawn and the pixel-driven, with ships or structures having a peculiar weighty reality to them that the flatter human figures altogether lack.

Alas, the plot's ramshackle quality never leaves the film. Toward the end, it's as if the directors Eric Bergeron and Don Paul suddenly realize they haven't provided enough big action, so they unlimber two scenes of massive carnage. The first involves a high priest who animates a gigantic jaguar statue into a monster, which trips the light fantastic on the sidewalks of El Dorado. Judging from the wailings of many loathsome OPCs in the audience (that would be a horrid species known as Other People's Children) this may be too intense for the very young or impressionable, or any kid who hasn't been Ritalinized that day. Then Cortes arrives and the movie quite coldbloodedly plays with the themes of genocide as our PC heroes must find a way to spare these Aztecs from the fate that befell all the other Aztecs.

The movie itself may be a species of Montezuma's revenge.

THE ROAD TO EL DORADO (83 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild cartoon violence.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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