Take a famous John Wayne movie, cross it with a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope picture, and what do you have? Not this movie. This is the latest animated sacrifice to the cinema gods from DreamWorks. Will their prayers and offerings bring to an end the Mouse House's reign of terror over the animation field? Read Judge Norman Short's decision to find out.
They came for the gold…they stayed for the adventure.
Dreamworks tries to take a big swipe at Disney's stranglehold on animated feature length films with The Road to El Dorado, a well crafted and executed piece of filmmaking that will be entertaining for kids and at least some of the adults who watch with them. They had a great shot at success, considering that Dreamworks got Jeffrey Katzenberg, producer of The Lion King, and the musical team of Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer from the same film for their new effort. Though the box office did not come near the success of The Lion King, they still made a fine film that was overlooked. You don't need to overlook it again, now that Dreamworks has presented us with a superb special edition DVD.
Facts of the Case
Kevin Kline (Dave) and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) provide the voices for Tulio and Miguel, a pair of 16th century Spanish con men with dreams of riches and adventure. After their latest con nets them a map leading them to the fabled City of Gold in the New World, they stow away on the ship of Cortez and his conquistadors. With the help of the remarkably intelligent war-horse Altivo, the pair escapes from that ship and row for the shores of South America, where they eventually find their prize. Luckily, they have unwittingly fulfilled a prophecy and appear to the natives as gods, though the astute street-wise girl Chel (Rosie Perez) quickly recognizes another fellow con artist. Now, the pair is embroiled in a power struggle between the beneficent chief (Edward James Olmos) and Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), the high priest of the temple with a penchant for human sacrifice, all the while hoping Cortez doesn't find them before they can get away with the gold. But friendship and adventure are unwilling adversaries to the dreams of avarice, and the partners must make a choice.
I'm at best a casual fan of this type of film, since I really don't like when characters break into song for no apparent reason, whether they are human or animated characters. But even I was won over by the rollicking adventure story, and found the characters credible, especially the main pair voiced by Kline and Branagh. The two worked together during the recording so they could better bounce off each other and the camaraderie between them shows. It doesn't hurt that I'm a big fan of both actors, though neither should give up their acting job to become lounge singers. I found the story engaging, and enjoyed the scenes where the two young men are mistaken for gods immensely. It is quite a fantasy to have a whole people consider you divine after all.
The animation is first rate, especially the new techniques that made gold look more shiny and real than I've seen before in such films. Though I'd have to say Disney's Tarzan still has an edge in the smooth motion department, few other animated films have impressed me as much. It is often difficult to combine traditional animation with computer graphics, but I felt they succeeded in this case. Even better is the absolutely flawless anamorphic transfer that brings it all to life.
As we've come to expect from Dreamworks, both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 soundtracks are included. Considering Spielberg's financial interest in DTS this isn't surprising, but I still welcome it. Both tracks are outstanding, with only the DTS boost of the subwoofer giving it an extra punch. Both tracks have a very active mix, extreme clarity, and added a great deal to the immersion into the film, which I find is even more important with animation.
As we expect from a Dreamworks Special Edition, there is plenty to choose from among the extra content. First up is the 25-minute feature "The Making of the Road to El Dorado," which shows behind the microphone work of the stars doing their voice work, along with the typical promotional interview clips where the actors tell you about their part you just saw them perform. Half good, half what you'd expect. Better is the 40-minute feature "Basics of Animation: The Color Script" which goes into the nuts and bolts of development of the animation. Directors Don Paul, Eric Bergeron and Raymond Zibach narrate the process while showing the color storyboards used to determine how the scenes are to be animated. Paul and Bergeron also provide a full-length commentary track. For the kids, there is a read-along feature, a 20-minute piece that moves with a storybook version of the film. Moving along, there is a music video of "Someday Out of the Blue" by Elton John, a trailer, production notes, and thorough cast and crew information. For DVD-ROM content there are brainteasers, mazes, and games for the kids as well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've only a couple complaints to lodge here, and one of those is purely from my own personal preferences. One thing I really liked about Tarzan was the lack of characters bursting into song, although that film was the exception rather than the rule. While the music was certainly fine, if a bit too reminiscent of The Lion King, I really don't like stories where people burst into song and everyone around them doesn't think they've gone insane. So much for my personal gripe. If there were a weak point in the acting, it would be Rosie Perez playing an Aztec vixen and thief. As I hope all directors will learn in the future, the New Yawk accents of a Rosie Perez or Rosie O'Donnell (Tarzan) don't mix well for characters who grew up in the jungle.
Despite those small complaints, I feel this film was an overlooked gem in the rough during its theatrical run, and would make a fine rental or purchase now that it is out on DVD, especially for those readers with children. The DVD is first rate all around, the film is fun, and I enthusiastically give it my recommendation.
Though the court takes a dim view of con artists using loaded dice and impersonating gods, I'm releasing the protagonists on the promise that henceforth they will be on their best behavior. Dreamworks gets another commendation for fine work, and the case is dismissed.
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