It’s doubtful that the world has been waiting patiently for
an animated version of one of the old Hope-Crosby buddy movies,
but that’s what Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks animation unit
has created in its second feature effort (the first, if one
sets aside the technically distinct “Antz,” being the
visually impressive “Prince of Egypt”). As with “Prince,” the
look of “The Road to El Dorado” is sumptuous; this is really
fine contemporary animation–rich, detailed, and especially
impressive when it comes to the many sequences involving
rushing water, which are splendidly done. On the purely visual
level it’s clear that the DreamWorks team is right up there
with the best working in the U.S. today.

But by comparison the plot of the picture is disappointingly
old-hat. It centers on two colorful con-men adventurers
(Tulio, voiced by Kevin Kline, and Miguel, voiced by Kenneth
Branagh) who, in fleeing their most recent marks, inadvertently
stow away on the ship transporting Hernando Cortes on the
trip that will eventually take him to the empire of the
Aztecs. Escaping the wrath of the cruel Cortes, our two heroes
(along with a horse they befriend) make their way (via a map
they’d conveniently acquired prior to their departure from
Spain) to the fabled city of gold. There they are taken to be
gods by the portly and kindly chief (Edward James Olmos); fall
afoul of the cruel high-priest (Armand Assante), who’s
addicted to the human sacrifices they forbid; and become
entangled (in Tulio’s case, romantically) with a servant-girl
(Rosie Perez), who’s the stand-in for Dorothy Lamour. Needless
to say, the duo’s plan to steal the city’s gold and return to
Europe is derailed by their growing attachment to the paradise
they’ve found and their determination to save it from Cortes’

Now perhaps something inventive and amusing could have been
made of this storyline, but writers Ted Elliott and Terry
Rossio don’t manage the feat. The script is far below the
level of their earlier “Aladdin,” and more akin to their
mediocre live-action efforts (“Little Monsters,” “Small
Soldiers,” “The Puppet Masters” and “The Mask of Zorro”). The
lead team is especially problematic. Kline and Branagh try
to breathe life into Tulio and Miguel, but they remain
obstinately uncharismatic and, with their hyperkinetic energy,
unpleasantly grating characters. What the makers seem to have
forgotten is that, in doing the old “Road” pictures, Hope and
Crosby brought their own, already well-known personas to the
party; they were instantly recognizable and effortlessly
charming, in spite of the staleness of the material they were
given, on the basis of our past acquaintance with (and
affection for) them. That’s not the case with this animated
duo, who wear out their welcome rather quickly.

None of the other human characters take up the slack. This
is probably the first instance in which all of Rosie Perez’s
lines are actually decipherable onscreen, but as a personality
the servant Chel is pallid. Assante’s Tzekel-Kan is a
standard glowering villain, and Olmos’ obese ruler pleasant but
little more. In fact, it’s only the animal companions of the
lead adventurers that make a really positive impression–
especially the horse Altivo, whose mute asides to the audience
are consistently amusing.

The score doesn’t help matters much, either. Elton John (who
also narrates the piece) and Tim Rice won kudos for their
“Lion King” tunes, but the songs they provide here are of the
sort one would find in a Broadway musical that lasted only a
few nights. No one is going to come out of “The Road
to El Dorado” humming them.

Perhaps most unfortunate of all, it seems unlikely that
children will be much taken by the film. They might enjoy the
more impressive feats of animation, but they’ll hardly identify
with the bickering Tulio and Miguel, and they’ll probably be
bored by most of the remaining characters (except Altivo, of
course). Like “Antz,” “The Road to El Dorado” seems more
geared to an adult audience; but unfortunately, unlike in that
delightfully sophisticated Woody Allen vehicle, the humor in
the present flick is too juvenile to appeal to the more mature
viewers for whom it’s apparently intended. “El Dorado” may,
therefore, wind up attracting neither age group.

Still, despite its major flaws, the film does look ravishing,
and admirers of contemporary animation will want to check it
out on that basis alone. Unhappily, as is true in so many
areas of life, looks aren’t everything.