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Why Do the Heathen Rage?

Last year, Tarzan chief animator Glen Keane demonstrated that heavily stylized lines, high color, and swift action can be as touching and effective a two-dimensional communicator as the translucent, billowing Disney animation of old. Not surprisingly, other studios want to wade into similar waters. DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado largely eschews the creepy “lifelike” motion of digitally driven efforts like Anastasia, instead using exaggerated endo- or exomorphic silhouettes and dazzling color—and borrowing Keane’s useful ham-sized hands and feet for its heroes—along with zinger-packed dialogue that keeps parents awake. But somehow, the animators, scriptwriters (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio), and directors must have decided that the film (or the audience?) wasn’t worth the effort of making it any good, because they bungled this jungle excursion into a kaleidoscopic mess with an unraveling plot, cringingly racist characterization, and a lazy excuse for a triumphant climax.

It’s a real shame, because there is still much gold—moral, or, more accurately, emotional—to be mined in the far reaches of animated features as well as in the wilds of El Dorado, the fabled golden city; this film takes the viewer up to the gates of something interesting—but then leaves them there to fight the mosquitoes.

It opens in 1519 Spain, a dingy, stone-colored place with rough walls and shadowy passages. Two peppy con men, Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), face down a crowd of unfriendly locals, some of them soldiers with Cortes’ soon-to-sail crew. Fast talk and speedy moves don’t extricate the nimble heroes from their predicament—they win the map to El Dorado but end up in barrels slated to accompany Cortes on his journey. Mechanics and psychology seamlessly dovetail while the film sets itself up—the first laugh-out-loud line is Miguel’s answer to Tulio’s panicked question: “We’re both in barrels. That is the extent of my knowledge.”

One storm and a scary, shark-infested drift later, the men find themselves beached on an island dotted with familiar-looking landmarks. They follow a trail—wisecracking all the way and wondering at the bold, lush island nature—to the great stone slab that marks the entrance to the City of Gold. Although El Dorado keeps its gates locked against most intruders, these vain, chatty fellows are destined to enter and make history: Their likenesses are carved, with supplemental nobility, on the slab—a detail they finally notice has been staring at them from their stolen map all along. The Road to El Dorado is a bit like The Ninth Gate in this way—illustrations make sense only as the heroes encounter them—and also like The Beach—Miguel and Tulio will learn that there is a high price to pay for a glimpse of such a world, even if it’s not to be paid by them.

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But what the film most resembles in its crossing from dim Europe to dazzling exotica is the Peter Arno cartoon in which a cave-chested, chinless, bird-legged dweeb cluelessly tells visiting explorers of his new position among the ranks of African warriors behind him: “They think I’m God.” The idea that a white man’s alien status automatically qualified him for godhood among foolish savages was an example of the laughable hubris of the West in 1937. Sixty-three years later, the superstitious, barbaric El Doradans welcome two prancing, ballet-shoe-clad Europeans as long-awaited deities descending on the city to fulfill a prophecy whose purpose is never made clear.

The heroes’ fatuous dedication to their status and its golden perks shows them to be classics of the greedy and foolish 16th-century-explorer type: gold-hungry and exploitative. But, as drawn, the savages who elevate them deserve such inane leadership. The extravagance of their physical design—flat of forehead (no room for a brain), with flamboyantly eaglelike noses and lushly outlined lips—not only makes them look like racist caricatures of a deservedly extinct kind but also hints at psychological and sexual impediments: They are gullible, feminine, and bloodthirsty. It doesn’t help that Tulio and Miguel seem to be—let’s not mince words—very gay. They really do wear ballet slippers and trade you’re-always-doing-that quips, and until the appearance of an irresistible (but scheming, like all of them) female, they want for no other company. Lavish-hipped, sassy Chel (Rosie Perez) is the girliest of all girls among these primitive and Western girlymen; she will protect the Euros from discovery so long as they help her escape El Dorado.

Children’s movies need strong, clear points and crystalline psychologies that support these points. The Road to El Dorado veers off track when the script cannot decide what it wants Tulio and Miguel to represent. For all their giddy idiocy about the gold that the natives treat like crabgrass, they are heroes of humaneness: The enlightened couple has to keep talking the high priest out of honoring them with a human sacrifice. (Moral lesson No. 1: Human sacrifice = bad.) Early on, they best the stout Cortes, who is drawn as the epitome of the domineering, enormous conqueror, all shadow and rattling steel, but he’s made a buffoon by the end. And the natives are almost prehuman—they have nothing to teach our slick Westerners about the simplicity of values, no matter how cavalierly they treat their gold.

Moral lessons Nos. 2 and 3 are left to rot in the brisk El Dorado sun. The men never ask Chel why she wants to leave what they consider paradise, and there’s a point to be made about the contrast of man’s arbitrary valuing of the material vs. his portable humanity. And, in a film whose plot is ostensibly based on its lead characters’ pretending to be who and what they’re not, the script doesn’t bother to encourage anyone to be himself—for about two seconds it looks as if Cortes’ arrival on the island will unmask our heroes, but he’s immediately forgotten. So the only lessons are: (1) Human sacrifice is bad, and (2) Gold is good, but someone might chase you away from it.

Even at 83 minutes, the film is the very definition of slight; it halfheartedly tries to make a nonspeaking armadillo into a sidekick for Miguel, Tulio, and Chel—but this gag never quite gets going. The songs (by Elton John and Tim Rice) suck, of course, but there are only four of them if you don’t stay for the closing credits. The film does showcase one unfortunate trend in musical numbers that has reared its boring, psychedelic head, long dormant since its hippie heyday (Rankin & Bass were kings of this crap, but they did not rule alone): the surreal, connective-tissue-less, friendly-acid-trip cartoon song in which characters float through morphing, spacey scapes. The numbers are overripe but half-baked, like the rest of this contradictory mix. What starts out as something full of wit and promise is sacrificed to the gods of vivid paint and charmless expediency. CP