From its opening moments, The Road to El Dorado looks and sounds oddly out of time, as though it had been removed only yesterday from a time capsule sealed and buried in 1972. With its Peter Max visuals and Elton John vocals, it's a decidedly unhip piece of work -- Starlight Express for kids. Indeed, there's no reason this movie, like The Lion King, another Elton John-Tim Rice concoction, shouldn't translate well to the Broadway stage sooner or later. You can even keep the leads intact: Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh are products of the hardwood, after all. The children will love it, and their parents will convince themselves they've been to an Art Event for the evening. It'll be fun for the whole family, assuming the whole family doesn't own a television and thinks that big ball of fire in the sky is the handiwork of an angry demon.
Aw, but it can't be all that bad, can it? Surely not. It is, after all, just a cartoon, a Saturday-afternoon trifle. How can anything so sterile and inane be awful enough to inspire such revulsion that it grows only more intense in the rearview mirror? But such loathing is easily explained, the result of being forced to endure so many wretched Elton John songs that you almost long for Phil Collins' beat-crazy Tarzan soundtrack. Outside of the movie's visual accomplishments, that soundtrack -- tepid, overwrought, wordy, derivative, clumsy -- seems to be the movie's only reason for being: to sell John's record on DreamWorks' label, yet another brilliant crossover-marketing move by the Holy Trinity of Entertainment (Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen -- the father, the son and the wholly crass).
Otherwise, The Road to El Dorado is just obnoxiously dull, a rich man who dresses in blinding silk and chats endlessly about how much money he burns through in an afternoon. Yet you can see how much expense and effort went into the thing and feel the movie's millions rubbing against you as you sit in the theater. A combination of traditional and computer-generated animation, The Road to El Dorado is what every child imagines (or, at least, should) when he or she falls asleep and dreams of a faraway place -- in this case, the cities of Spain and the golden temples of a mythical land called El Dorado. Only a heartless cynic could deny the film's surface thrills; every frame contains a surprise, a delight rendered with vigilance. One scene involving an overturned rowboat punished by the sea is so sumptuous and thrilling it could actually pass for art.
But the animators' talents and diligence have been corrupted on every front -- by DreamWorks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, who makes movies the way McDonald's makes cheeseburgers; by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the Aladdin cowriters, who have fleshed out a Star Trek episode (the one in which the dim brown natives think the White Man is a god) and turned it into a marketing plan; by Sir Elton and Tim Rice, who apparently made up their ditties as the tape was rolling; and by composer Hans Zimmer, who rips off his own Rain Man score for the New Age incidentals. This is the antithesis of DreamWorks' first ambitious forays into animation, Antz and The Prince of Egypt.
Miguel (Branagh) and Tulio (Kline), two swindling Spaniards (and, from all appearances, life partners), wind up with a map to the mythical city of El Dorado, where, legend has it, everything's made of gold. After a brief tussle with a snorting Hernán Cortés, the pair find themselves in El Dorado -- where they're mistaken for gods, no doubt because of their white skin, well-trimmed facial hair and fashionably loose-fitting garments. The high priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), has awaited the arrival of such gods in order to harness their power and overthrow the kindly Chief (Edward James Olmos). Miguel and Tulio want only to escape El Dorado with a shipload of gold trinkets. They enlist Chel (Rosie Perez), a towel-clad swindler who cons the cons and threatens to bust up Miguel and Tulio. And with that, the movie builds toward a shrug of an ending, complete with a borrowed Iron Giant that serves only to remind you of a far better, far more effective big-screen cartoon. You don't even know it's over until the end credits begin rolling.
Some colleagues have suggested that The Road to El Dorado contains a gay subtext. Subtext? It's the text: This movie could have been based on an article that originally appeared in the Advocate. It displays more male nipples than a night on Fire Island, and one day grad students will write papers about the skinny-dipping scene featuring Tulio and Miguel. There's no mistaking the, uh, subtext: Toward the film's end, when Tulio chooses Chel over Miguel (though, of course, not for long), Sir Elton breaks into "Friends Never Say Goodbye," which is, in essence, the film's love song: "There isn't much I haven't shared with you along the road," he sings over a montage of stifled tears, pouts and hurt looks. "We are, have always been, will ever be as one." It ain't quite "You Got a Friend in Me." But it is, well, adult -- revolutionary, even.
The always-game Kline and Branagh must be in on the in-joke: They scream like little girls and speak in cuddly tones. The two give it their brash Hope-and-Crosby best, only to be overtaken by lines that might better render them mute. And isn't it redundant to cast Perez in a cartoon? No matter how hard she tries to temper her Brooklyn blurt, she, like Assante and Olmos, still sounds as though she's reading off a paycheck -- or from the merchandising contract. They'll all make millions, and we're stuck with pennies on the dollar.
Opens March 31.