|Road to El Dorado, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 12 December 2000|
Some theatrical movies play better on home video, or perhaps they’re just more enjoyable the second time around. In the theatre, the animated musical "The Road to El Dorado" was agreeable, but it felt like a live-action script that had been incompletely reconceived for another format. Live, "Road" would have been an amiable, slightly obvious, effects-heavy piece. As animation, it seemed paradoxically daring and tame, tweaking the rules that govern what can and can’t be done in "family" fare without going as far as it might.
Viewed in a smaller, more private setting, the characters are more endearing. Also, the variety of animation techniques employed here appear to blend more smoothly with one another. The effect is charming.
Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s "Road" script borrows quietly from Rudyard Kipling’s "The Man Who Would Be King" (and the John Huston film version), while moving the location to 16th-century Spain and Central America. The adventurers here are Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branagh), a pair of good-hearted (of course) con artists on the streets of Madrid who obtain a map that shows the way to the fabled El Dorado, city of gold. A few near-death scrapes later, the pair (plus a very smart horse) are in the jungle. The map brings them to their destination, which is indeed full of gold. The friendly chief (voiced by Edward James Olmos) and bloodthirsty high priest (voiced by Armand Assante) are at odds with each other, but both revere the newcomers as gods. This would seem like a sure-fire route to wealth, but the danger of being revealed as impostors looms large.
Under the animation direction of Eric "Bibo" Bergeron and Don Paul, "Road" is cohesive and handsome. An animation technique known as Spryticle creates three-dimensional water effects, and an Elastic Reality (ER) warp that allows greater movement in the backgrounds. The piles of golden trinkets in El Dorado look like three-dimensional props that have been integrated into their animated surroundings; astonishingly, the 3D doesn’t make the 2D images in the same frames look flat, but the unusual effect is noticeable, especially in Chapters 25 and 26.
The dimensionality of the artwork is generally rich and persuasive, with vivid colors that are bright and beautiful throughout the DVD. A sequence with a stone monster brought to life in Chapter 22 is impressive (and may prove scary to very young viewers).
The facial and motion animation on the characters is as elaborate as possible. The combination of Tulio’s looks, manner and personality, combined with Kline’s vocal delivery, turns him into a 2D version of a character who might be played by Bruce Campbell. Miguel, while he doesn’t immediately bring to mind such a specific person, is voiced by Branagh and drawn in a way that creates a fluid, goofy persona. Neither are traditionally heroic in cartoon terms, though both are good souls. As we learn in the uncommonly generous liner notes (three pages, with photos) and the making-of short, the filmmakers took the rare step of recording their two stars in joint sessions, so that Kline and Branagh were able to riff off one another in real time.
The DTS 5.1 soundtrack makes powerful use of the surround field most of the time, which is a particular pleasure in a musical. The songs are by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), the same team employed by DreamWorks co-honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg in his Disney days on "The Lion King." John sings five of the six numbers here. The exception – Chapter 11’s "It’s Tough Being a God" – is performed by Kline and Branagh, who both demonstrate potent musical-musical comedy chops in a tune that plays primarily in the mains and center, but creates depth by placing low trumpet tones and ambient sound effects in the rears.
There’s intriguing separation of instruments in the songs, beginning with the Chapter 1 opening, "El Dorado,." that places the vocals and melody up front, with specific music stings and vocal harmonies in the rears. In Chapter 2, the rear speakers remain fairly inactive until they’re employed to augment a bull’s roar so loudly that your instinct may be to flatten yourself against a wall to avoid being trampled. Chapter 4 features some ocean storm waves that are very realistic, aurally and visually. Chapter 9 lets the subwoofer help out on a volcanic rumble that travels through the mains and rears, creating an enveloping sense that the ground below and buildings around are trembling. Chapter 14 has some lovely, subtle sounds, with a plinking guitar in the center and delicate cricket chirps contributing ambience in the rears. Chapter 17 returns to the more-is-more school of effects, shaking the floor as a team of El Dorado athletes stampedes around and past us from the mains to the rears. Chapter 18 upholds the full sense of environment with wonderful crowd sounds that are full in the mains and taper off slightly in the rears, so that there is a convincing spatial relationship among the multitude of voices in the throng.
Visually, "Road" has wonderfully rich colors and meticulously drawn textures. Freezing the frame at any particular moment allows us to study the details of the animation. For example, a harbor in Chapter 2 has shadows that gives weight to objects and characters alike, while we notice threads on ships’ sails.
The audio commentary by the directors is likable. It’s certainly an easier learning arena than the "color script" featurette, which is probably informative for aspiring animators but pretty dry. The making-of featurette is lively and, for those who have the patience to search, there are a number of hidden goodies in the way of games.
"The Road to El Dorado" is a bit like its heroes. It’s not going to rule the world, but it’s warm, good company with a lot of skills going for it.