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THE ROAD TO EL DORADO

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, Armand Assante, Edward James Olmos
Directors:  Eric “Bibo” Bergeron, Don Paul
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  89 Minutes
Release Date:  December 12, 2000

Film ***1/2

The Road to El Dorado is a visually stunning and rollickingly hysterical buddy adventure…one that marks technical improvements even over Dreamworks’ animated masterpiece The Prince of Egypt, but with storytelling that focuses less on grandeur and spectacle and more on sheer unbridled comedy.  I laughed harder and more often during this movie than most in recent memory.

Even the title, the more I thought about it, called to mind those classic, irreverent Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road To” pictures…each had the two entertainers playing friends who get caught up in one kind of screwball adventure or another, usually in exotic locales.  The Road to El Dorado seems both a tribute to and an improvement upon those films…mostly because animation could take the leading heroes into worlds, adventures and scenarios that no conventionally made film could do.

The picture opens in 16th century Spain, where partners in crime Tulio (Kline) and Miguel (Branagh) are conning their way through a game with some loaded dice.  Instantly, we see what kind of characters they are:  Tulio is the more grounded one, concerned only with the easy buck and safest route, while Miguel is the dreamer, wearing his heart on his sleeve and opening his mouth a little too wide from time to time.  When their con is discovered, they make a daring escape—not with the money, but with a map to the fabled city of gold, El Dorado.

Accidentally becoming stowaways on one of Cortez’ ships sailing toward the new world, the men steal away on a rowboat with the help of a smart horse named Altivo, and head out wherever the seas may take them.  They soon land in the west, and Miguel becomes convinced that they can actually find the city of El Dorado ahead of Cortez and his men. 

When they finally stumble upon the mythical city, their adventures are just beginning.  They meet up with the people of El Dorado, and are proclaimed the prophesized arriving gods by the tribe’s creepy holy man, Tzekel-Kan (Assante) and the jovial rotund Chief (Olmos).  As always, Tulio is apprehensive, but Miguel sees a great future in godhood, not quite considering that their lack of divinity might cause them some problems with these people down the road.  One of the film’s great running gags is how Tzekel-Kan, the champion of their primitive religion, keeps wanting to offer human sacrifices to the ‘gods’, and how they in turn keep trying to prevent them from happening.  There’s one instance where a human is saved, but the heroes have to watch in horror and dismay as mounds of precious gold are sacrificed in his place!

The duo decides the best route is to use their divine influence in getting the natives to rig them a ship, where they can then load up on tons of gold and break away.  “We’ll go back to Spain!” says Tulio.  “And BUY Spain!” Miguel responds.  With the help of a pretty native girl, Chel (Perez), who wants to get away and go with them, they seem to have everything they need to make their scheme work, provided they proceed cautiously.  But with Miguel’s spirit, that might not be possible.

Soon, Tzekel-Kan discovers their fraud…and without real gods to stop his evil plans to ‘cleanse’ the city, he unleashes power against them, in a scene so spectacular and exciting, it could only be the climax of the film…yet it isn’t.  The real climax comes shortly after, in a real topper involving a harrowing escape from the city via a man-made wave.  The latter is made even more awesome by the creation of new software for the realistic rendering of splashing water, and BOY, does it work.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see this film garner an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects, or even a special achievement plaque from the body’s scientific department.

But what makes the film most entertaining is not so much the story, nor the characters, nor the tremendous visual impact, though all three certainly spice up the brew.  What made the movie for me was the humor.  From the opening scenes where Tulio and Miguel stage a lively (and fake) duel to escape an angry mob, and watching the way the animators worked (particularly with Miguel’s highly expressive face), I knew this was going to be a no-holds barred comedy.  The gags, both physical and verbal, come one after another in rapid fire fashion.  I loved, for example, when Cortez’ boat was about to bear down on the heroes:  “Holy SHIP!!” cries Tulio.  Or the ‘basketball’ game where a ‘living’ ball becomes key to the duo’s success against a team of giants (and naturally, after the other team loses, Tzekel-Kan calls for them to be sacrificed!).  By casting Kline and Branagh as the lead voices, these characters get a real injection of life and energy that serves as the glue that holds the film together…it’s a very safe bet these two veteran actors will look back on El Dorado with more fondness than they will Wild Wild West.

The songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are a mixed bag, but offer at least two memorable ones:  the rousing opening theme “El Dorado” and the beautiful “Friends Never Say Goodbye” (a sure-fire Oscar contender).  Hans Zimmer provides the film with a powerful, percussive and rhythmic score that helps drive the comedy and action along.

All in all, The Road to El Dorado succeeds because it finds the right mix:  good performances, envelope-pushing animation, action, adventure, and most of all, comedy.  It’s not only one of the year’s best animated films, it’s also one of the year’s funniest.

Video ****

Absolutely stunning!  This is an extremely colorful and brightly beautiful animated film that transfers flawlessly to DVD.  A couple of the sequences, including the “It’s Great to Be a God” segment, take plenty of artistic license with flights of fantasy:  the colors are often taken to extremes in terms of vibrancy and contrast, and the results are amazing:  no bleeding, distortion, or other distractions.  Images throughout are crystal clear and superbly sharp…so much so that it’s difficult at times to discern which parts of scenes are computer animated, they match so effortlessly.  I mentioned one of the film’s pioneering techniques, the water animation program—that’s spectacular.  But equally so is the rendering of the gold, which also utilized brand new technical advances.  For the first time in animation, gold isn’t merely a color:  it’s bright, metallic and reflective.  It looks amazingly real.  No question about it, this is a reference quality transfer.

Audio ****

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack (DTS also included) is an equal triumph, beginning with one of the clearest sounding musical scores I’ve heard:  every instrument punches through with singular identity, and the percussion cuts through with cleanness and potency, bringing the .1 channel in cleanly with the remaining channels for a smooth mix.  There is plenty of action that allows for discreet front and rear stage usage, with clean crossovers both front to back and side to side, with plenty of dynamic range.  All in all, mark this disc another triumph for Dreamworks!

Features ****

The features package is quite generous, starting with nicely done animated menus with sound.  It begins with a commentary track by the filmmakers (interesting and informative), but doesn’t stop there.  There is a very nicely done 25 minute behind the scenes documentary, with plenty of interviews with cast and crew and segments on both the music and the technical advances of the film.  There is also a read-along feature for the kids, an Elton John music video (“Someday Out of the Blue”, where Elton becomes an animated figure in scenes from the movie!), DVD ROM extras, a trailer, production notes, talent files, plus some Easter eggs which I haven’t found yet:  brain teasers, mazes, coloring pages, Aztec arts and crafts and more.  A terrific package.

Summary:

Dreamworks continues to raise the bar in the field of animation and make a serious challenge to Disney for their crown.  The Road to El Dorado is a funny, exciting and visually spectacular ride that you will want to take with your family time and time again…especially on this top notch, reference quality DVD.