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'The Road to El Dorado' (2000)/Directed by Eric Bergeron & Don Paul/Grade: B+

The Road to El Dorado is like a marriage between the old-school adventure serials of yesteryear and a modern-day animated musical, with bright colors, a lush and exotic locale, lots of humor, and a dynamic duo whose friendship will be put to the test, whilst ultimately surviving stronger than ever. It's a tried-and-true formula, but hey, what's wrong with that?

The story follows Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), swindlers who win a map leading to the gold within the city of El Dorado in a game of dice. After a rough journey at sea, the two eventually make it to the lost paradise. However, the inhabitants of the city mistake them for gods. Tulio and Miguel decide to scam their hosts, enjoying the spoils of their mistaken identities, whilst planning to make off with the treasure as soon as possible. Along the way, they meet a con woman named Chel (Rosie Perez), who joins them in their scheme and falls for Tulio. Inevitably, the village chief (Edward James Olmos) suspects the trio are liars and thieves, which causes for serious complications.

This is a pretty standard Liar Revealed storyline, as you can probably tell. What makes The Road to El Dorado consistently entertaining are a few key elements: the trio of leading performances, the stellar animation style (or blend thereof), and the screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio. Kevin Kline, Rosie Perez and Kenneth Branagh all have such a likable, charismatic rapport that never lets up. Everybody's ready to dish it, and takes it just as well. Watching the movie last night, I couldn't help but picture the actors in the recording booth, just having a blast with each other.

That's what happens when you work off a script by the writers of Aladdin (1992) and Shrek (2001). These writers know how to craft a concise, to-the-point, witty screenplay. Every scene, every moment, simultaneously sets up a plot point for later, progresses the story forward, and keeps you laughing as you watch the heroes on their journey. If the story itself is quite standard, it's quite well-handled here.

The film is also spectacularly well-animated. Not only are the characters quite expressive in their facial reactions and physical movement, but the physical landscapes and aquatic animation are incredible. I've seen a lot of jungles in movies, but few have looked as stunning as the one in El Dorado. Additionally, the water in this film, which was computer generated, seamlessly blends with the hand-drawn elements, whilst adding to the larger-than-life scale directors Don Paul and Eric Bergeron were going for. I was genuinely blown away just by the awesome look of any scene that took place out in the ocean.

I don't think the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice (who had previously collaborated on the songs for The Lion King (1994)) were necessary. Not only are they mostly forgettable, they add no substance to the scene that couldn't be supplied by the action and score alone. If the directors wanted it to be a musical, they should have had the actors sing the lyrics. Which feels fitting, considering the only catchy song in the movie, 'It's Tough to Be a God', has both Branagh and Kline do their own vocals.

The movie also lacks any real sense of threat or memorable villains. The village chief, put simply, does not have an original personality, aside from the stereotypical leader who is suspicious of the outsiders. In addition, he doesn't often get sufficient screen time to feel like a genuine threat, which eliminates any potential impact once we get to the third act. It doesn't help that Cortez (Jim Cummings), a dastardly explorer who plans to invade El Dorado, is given even less attention, to the point where I had to remind myself he was a character when the movie actually cut to him for a second. If you want a film with real dramatic urgency in its storytelling, this isn't it.

I think those are the wrong expectations to have, though, for The Road to El Dorado. This is a sufficiently fun, well-made adventure movie with likable main characters. I was carried along through it as much as I was through other pictures of this type, i.e. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and the Indiana Jones series. If you're a fan of the genre, or you just love animated films, this one doesn't break any new ground, but that's not a bad thing at all.

You can rent or buy the movie here:

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