Rated PG - Running Time: 1:25 - Released 3/31/00

There is no doubt that Dreamworks SKG, the production company founded in 1997 by entertainment giants Steven Speilberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, is making a serious bid to outstrip Disney in the cartoon feature market. Their three full-length animated features released so far (Antz, The Prince Of Egypt, and now The Road To El Dorado) have been epic and spectacular, equal in every way to the Mouse Club's most dazzling output. What's interesting to note, however, are the ways in which the Dreamworks cartoons differ from Disney products. Despite accusations levied against Disney a few years ago for lacking "family values" because of their tolerant policy on homosexuals, the company's cartoons always seem to be teaching. The main theme of almost every Disney cartoon can be expressed in some simple Aesopian moral lesson.

But the producers of Dreamworks cartoons do not seem so concerned about grinding axes, nor about pitching to the child market. Their films, while not inappropriate for kids, are more adult in nature — geared less toward keeping a grip on the little ones' fleeting attention spans and more toward impressing grownups and, perhaps more importantly, the lucrative but cartoon-unfriendly teen market. While Disney films are aimed at kids and may also please adults, Dreamworks cartoons speak to adults and hope the kids will keep up.

The Road To El Dorado is a clear example of this philosophy. While its action, color, and occasional bits of slapstick humor may keep the kiddies entertained, its subject matter and superior artwork appeal primarily to their parents. In 16th-century Spain, the explorer Cortés prepares to leave on his historic voyage to the New World. As his ships are being loaded, two local swindlers accidentally hop on board while eluding some angry swindle-ees. Miguel (voice of Kenneth Branagh), the charmer, and Tulio (Kevin Kline), the brains of the duo, wind up unwitting stowaways bound for America. After escaping the ship (along with a horse named Altimus), they row the rest of the way to what is now Mexico and find the legendary city of gold. There, they are mistaken for the gods who have been expected by local high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), and are welcomed by the tribe's Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos). Amazed at their incredible luck, they assume the roles of gods with vigor, planning to amass huge amounts of gold (mostly spitoons and flower vases) and leave in a few days. But a young woman named Chel (Rosie Perez), being an opportunistic crook herself, is onto their plan. Threatening to expose their fraud, she blackmails them into promising her a percentage of the loot. In return, she will help them with the local customs. Soon, however, Tzekel-Kan gets wise and vows to bring them down.

This film, under the freshman directing team of animators Bibo Bergeron and Will Finn, and visual effects specialist Don Paul (Pocahontas, The Prince Of Egypt), immerses the viewer with vivid color and awe-inspiring artwork from the first frame. The gold-bedecked panoramas are rich and beautiful, matched by the amusing characterizations of the two leads. Branagh and Kline click together perfectly, even though their characters (and that of Chel) are not exactly role models. The political incorrectness of their being crooks, bilking an unsuspecting native population out of its precious metals, is balanced weakly by their disdain for the ritual sacrifices offered them by Tzekel-Kan. This script, penned by the established team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Small Soldiers), would have been seriously revised if it had just been intended for kiddies. It's a bit racy at times (sex is not shown, but hinted at) and quite political, without the traditional fairy-tale romance. With two male friends as the leads, it more resembles one of those old Hope & Crosby "road" movies, even to the point of including a gag used repetitively by that famous team.

Another aspect of this film which seems intentionally geared toward the over-21 portion of the audience is the collection of instantly likable songs penned by Elton John and Tim Rice (the team responsible for the music of The Lion King). In this film, Elton actually sings most of the selections himself while the characters do their respective things illustrating the song's theme. Many children may not recognize Elton's voice; few of their adult companions will fail to notice the sound of one of their generation's favorite singer/songwriters. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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