The Road to El Dorado (review)

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Mining Gold from the Past

Hollywood’s campaign to strip-mine native cultures for entertainment purposes continues apace in The Road to El Dorado, DreamWorks’ latest foray into the Disney territory of the animated musical. From Chinese history to African myths, Native American legends to that Middle Eastern book of fables known as the Bible, it has become traditional, in the last decade, for animated movies to draw on the past for their inspiration. More often than not, the results, while raising the ire of purists, are fairly enjoyable. With The Road to El Dorado, though, this tactic may finally be running out of steam.
Spain in the Age of Exploration — and the soon-to-be-culturally-devastated peoples of Central and South America — are up this time around. The year is 1519, and famed maniac Cortes is about to set sail for the New World for some raping and pillaging. His delightful tale is, not surprisingly, all but glossed over in favor of an old-fashioned buddy flick featuring the adventures of Miguel (the voice of Kenneth Branagh: Wild Wild West, Celebrity) and Tulio (Kevin Kline: The Ice Storm, In and Out), two charming rogues who’ve won a map to the legendary city of gold, El Dorado, in a fixed game of dice. Through a highly improbable series of coincidences, they unwittingly find themselves: 1) stowed away aboard one of Cortes’s ships, far out into the Atlantic Ocean, 2) prisoners of Cortes, 3) escapees from Cortes, and 4) washed ashore on a remote island, the very one their treasure map details. Disgusting riches, here they come!

The animation, the now typical mix of hand-drawn and computer generated imagery, is lovely, although it never approaches the majesty of something like The Lion King or The Prince of Egypt. From the realistic wood-grain of the beautiful Spanish galleons to the verdant jungles of El Dorado, with its dripping vines and hidden grottos, the film is always gorgeous to look at — the impressive finale includes both a gigantic stone jaguar brought to life by magic and a spectacular shipwreck. But the songs, written by Elton John and Tim Rice, are half-hearted, and feel more like cuts from an “inspired by the motion picture” adult-contemporary album than the signature character tunes that are usually the highlights of these kinds of movies. The only song that comes close to replicating the showstoppers we’ve come to expect is the one sung by Miguel and Tulio (Kline and Branagh provide the vocals themselves, and do a nice job), in which they whinge about how tough it is to be a god. That it’s the only song sung by the characters — instead of by Elton John in a narrator’s role — is probably part of why it succeeds, but the palpable chemistry between Kline and Branagh (who recorded their dialogue together, which isn’t the norm for animated films) has to take some of the credit as well.

The Road to El Dorado ends up being a lot livelier than it deserves to be, in fact, thanks to the considerable talents of Kline and Branagh. Miguel and Tulio are more like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope than Elizabethan-era Spaniards, but the actors are having so much fun with the characters that their joy is infectious, and most of the movie’s admittedly silly laughs come from their wonderful performances of what, in retrospect, is pretty lackluster dialogue. (Plus, as the friend I saw the movie with noted, there’s no gay subtext here, none at all, so you can have fun picking apart the gay subtext that isn’t here.)

But even Kline and Branagh couldn’t overcome the itchy, sorta annoyed feeling the movie left me with. Anachronisms and other unlikely plot contrivances abound, and any semblance of historical accuracy is tossed overboard early in the film, but animated features have been getting away with that for years, so no real problems there. But when The Road to El Dorado starts to violate its own story covenants, that’s when I start to squirm. Near the hidden jungle entrance to El Dorado, Miguel and Tulio encounter a fleeing Chel (Rosie Perez), who’s being chased by mounted soldiers and the El Doradoan high priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), for the crime of stealing a gold statue from a temple. Mistaken for gods, the white guys are able to demand that she be excused from punishment — which they probably do because she’s really cute and round and ripe and voluptuous and barely dressed — and she ends up becoming their partner in the scam to take El Dorado for all the gold they can get and hightail it back to Spain. She’ll help them pretend to be gods for a third of the haul.

The question — the very pressing question that never even gets broached and makes absolutely no sense within the context of the movie — is: Why does Chel want gold? She comes from a city, an insular little world, in which gold is as ordinary as gravel. The buildings are gleaming with it, the people bedecked with it. Anything that abundant is by definition not valuable in a financial sense, and we have no indication that Chel has ever been anywhere else but El Dorado, where she might have realized the wealth the city possessed. (We get no indication that the El Doradoans have any concept of money, for that matter.) Indeed, the city is hidden deep in the middle of an island, with no other tribes or people around. So where was Chel going with the gold statue she stole? And why would anyone in El Dorado care that she had stolen it?

Gee, the unthinking imposition of European values on a native people? It’s cultural imperialism, Hollywood style! Fun for the whole family!

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