The Road to El Dorado

DreamWorks scored big with “The Prince of Egypt” a couple years ago, drawing attention for being the first studio in quite some time to give Disney a run for its money when it comes to producing high-quality animated features.

“The Road to El Dorado” is their second try at competing with the Big Mouse, and they’ve even teamed up “Lion King” musical duo Tim Rice and Elton John to do the songs, apparently hoping to capture some of the same magic (and money) that “Lion King” produced.

Despite top-notch animation and inspired vocal work, though, “El Dorado” doesn’t amount to anything more than a breezy, jaunty story. The magic one feels when watching “Beauty and the Beast,” “Tarzan” or even “The Prince of Egypt” simply isn’t here. “El Dorado” has the same sense of fun and adventure, but it lacks the heart and compelling characters that have made those other animated films true classics.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of enjoyment in “El Dorado,” provided mostly by the two main characters, 16th-century Spanish con men named Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline). They’re a fey, inseparable duo, with Tulio worrying about reality and Miguel keeping his head firmly in the clouds. Their bickering is a combination of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Frasier and Niles, and maybe some Oscar and Felix.

Truly, the casting of those two as the lead character voices adds tremendously to the film’s appeal. Not only is their comic timing in top form, but some of their individual line readings even come off as funnier than they were written (listen for Kline’s pronunciation of “issue” as “iss-you,” for a small example).

Tulio and Miguel find a map that supposedly will lead them to El Dorado, “the City of Gold,” in the New World. Fortunately, they accidentally wind up on Cortez’s ship, and after escaping on a row boat (accompanied by a horse), they get to the island first, finding the city in question and being revered as gods by the natives.

Being con men, they decide to play up the god thing for all it’s worth, eventually intending to take as much gold as they can and head back to Spain. A suspicious high priest (Armand Assante) threatens to expose their fraud, though, and matters are further complicated by a local gal named Chel (Rosie Perez), with whom Tulio falls in love.

(Be glad for that romance, by the way, as it keeps you from wondering too much about Miguel and Tulio, who seem like a married couple themselves.)

Ultimately, as much of a theme as this movie has, it’s about friendship and loyalty, but even that’s pretty half-hearted. The high priest is meant to be the villain — but it’s hard to accept him as evil when Miguel and Tulio are the ones pretending to be gods and he’s merely exposing them. He is given enough really evil things to do to point the villainy compass in his direction, but only barely, and it’s awfully vague just what makes him evil, anyway. Is it Satanic? Is it sorcery? Or what?

That vagueness is what hurts the film most. The famous explorer Cortez is supposedly to be evil, too, but the big showdown with him fizzles like the afterthought it apparently was, resulting in a film that doesn’t climax so much as just ends. The main characters don’t seem to learn anything from their experiences, nor do they become better people.

While no one wants to be preached to, and while Disney films all seem to have the same theme (“Just be yourself”), at least they have one. Watching “El Dorado,” one thinks, “OK, that was fun, but what’s the point?” It’s animated fluff, separated from the eye-candy you see on the Cartoon Network only in its length and high production values.

B- (; PG, mild vulgarity, brief partial animated nudity.)