The legend of El Dorado dates back to the 16th-century, the time when the Spanish began exploring the New World en masse. El Dorado was the name applied to the mythical chief of a Native American tribe that ruled in the northern part of South America. According to Native American legend, this chief possessed fabulous wealth, and would cover himself entirely in gold dust for major celebrations. Eventually, 'El Dorado' became synonymous with the kingdom he ruled, also known as Manoa or Omoa, which was supposedly blessed with copious amounts of gold and precious stones. Even though the Spanish devoted vast resources to locate this fabled lost city of gold, including the famous expedition by Francisco de Orellana in the 1540s, they found little, other than starvation and disease. The most famous account about the search for El Dorado came about at the end of the 1500s, when English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh claimed to have found El Dorado in the middle of Parima Lake in Guyana. Alas, two centuries later, Raleigh's account was found to be a hoax, and El Dorado still remains the stuff of legend.
"The Road to El Dorado" uses the legend of El Dorado as a starting point, while taking several liberties in the process, to fashion an animated musical in the vein of Dreamworks' first animated feature, "The Prince of Egypt". With the best celebrity voice talents and animation money can buy, as well as the musical stylings of Elton John and Tim Rice (who last worked together on "The Lion King"), how could it go wrong? Though it seems that they have the Disney formula down pat, "The Road to El Dorado" winds up being a passable effort that will probably delight the kiddies but elicit little more than yawns from their parents.
The heroes of "The Road to El Dorado" are two conniving Spanish con men, Tulio (voice by Kevin Kline of last year's "Wild Wild West") and Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branaugh, also of "Wild Wild West"). While swindling the gullible with a loaded dice game, the pair comes into possession of a map that allegedly discloses the location of El Dorado. One thing leads to another and before they know it, they wind up as stowaways on Hernando Cortes' first expedition to conquer the New World, and upon discovery are promptly thrown in the brig.
But thanks to the help of a friendly horse, they steal a rowboat and make their way to dry land (which includes an interesting reference to "Jaws"). Following the map, they eventually find the legendary city of gold, where they are mistaken for gods by both resident chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos of "Selena") and human sacrifice-adoring high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante, seen recently in "The Hunley"). Seeing this as a perfect opportunity to take advantage of their god-fearing hosts, Tulio and Miguel conspire to swindle the good people of El Dorado out of their gold and return to Spain to live as kings.
However, they quickly learn that maintaining the charade is much more difficult than they realize, and they find a willing partner in a curvaceous and seductive local maiden named Chel (Rosie Perez of "The 24 Hour Woman"), who wants to get away from the city with a share of the loot. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and pretty soon Tulio and Miguel find their friendship put to the test, not to mention trying to stay out of a power struggle between El Dorado's church and state.
"The Road to El Dorado" seems to have all the requisite elements of success. Cute and cuddly characters, song-and-dance numbers, and a light-hearted story about finding out the true meaning of friendship. Unfortunately, as opposed to the stunning work done in "The Prince of Egypt", both in the visual and narrative sense, this latest animated epic from Dreamworks is somewhat lacking. Though the animation certainly beats "Pokemon" in both detail and complexity, it is hardly impressive in light of more recent Disney fare, such as "Tarzan". The songs are also enjoyable, yet hardly as memorable as anything found in "The Lion King".
But the greatest deficiency in "The Road to El Dorado" is that the run-of-the-mill story demands little emotional investment on the part of the audience, as it is populated by unsurprising revelations, unengaging banter between Tulio and Miguel, and little in the way of true drama. Simply put, nothing interesting happens in this film. Consequently, while children will probably squeal in delight at the animated antics and physical comedy that abound in this film, adults, who are not as easily amused by such baubles, will find "The Road to El Dorado a passable viewing experience, bordering on underwhelming.
Part of the reason may be the troubled genesis of the film. Apparently, "The Road to El Dorado" went through a number of different incarnations during its long five-year development cycle. It started off as a pure drama, evolved into a dramatic comedy, and then ultimately became the buddy movie that was released. According to a recent article in the LA Times, a number of problems arose in the animation and writing aspects of the film from the constantly changing story, and the original vision of the film gradually gave way to a mish-mash of conflicting ideas.
Furthermore, the film was originally meant to appeal to more adult tastes, but halfway through it was decided to target a younger audience. This would explain some of the more adult elements and sexual situations that appear in "The Road to El Dorado", particularly the character of Chel which has already drawn the ire from members of the Latino community who object to the character's excessive curves and sexiness as being stereotypically 'hot and spicy'. However, according to filmmakers, Chel's sexuality had already toned down from the original incarnation of the character. In addition, the middle of the film is also rampant with sexual innuendo, as Chel seduces Tulio, who does his best to resist her womanly charms. Not exactly kid's stuff, which explains the film's PG rating.
"The Road to Eldorado" contains everything you would expect from an animated musical in the tradition of Disney (as well as some things you wouldn't expect), but overall, it is a passable effort that only the least demanding of audiences will find enjoyable. Though it may have the pretty pictures and inspirational songs requisite of the genre, the lack of a compelling story makes this trip less memorable than one would expect.