The animated feature may be as close as modern America will ever come to having an indigenous folk art. A case might be made, anyway, that the "moving picture," as marketed to perfection by Disney, has always aspired to a certain folksiness. Think of Disney perennials like Snow White or Bambi; here are the natural descendents of the nineteenth-century fairy tale, gently instructing children in cultural mores while charming them with stylized illustrations. And Disney itself, which learned early on to balance between folk art and big business, showmanship and salesmanship, played its role as America's corporate parent with the expected gravity.
But something has happened during the recent revival of the animated form. After Disney's string of breakout hits in the early 1990s (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, et al.), it occurred to studio powers that animated films, if reasonably well-made, could gross on the same scale as live-action fare. At the same time, the advent of digital technology allowed filmmakers to transcend the labor-intensive process of traditional cell drawing. If Disney had defined the golden age of animation, the market had, by the mid-Nineties, inspired a renaissance of the genre. In 1999 three of the year's most innovative films--Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, and Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke--were animated. And none was a product of the Magic Kingdom.
DreamWorks, a relative newcomer to the fray, also scored a minor hit last year with its DeMillean biblical spectacle, The Prince of Egypt. Yet for all that film's visual energy, it was clear that DreamWorks intended to invade Uncle Walt's territory from the ground level. Here were all the Disney conventions: a-list voice talent (Val Kilmer and Ralph Fiennes), musical accompaniment by not one but two pop stars (Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey), and a sort of noisy spectacle awkwardly peppered with Important Messages about self-reliance, familial responsibility, etc. DreamWorks' only significant deviation from the Disney form was, in fact, the absence of dancing crabs, scatting monkeys, and other grating anthropomorphic oddities.
The latest DreamWorks offering, The Road to El Dorado, was directed by two Disney expats, Eric Bergeron and Don Paul, and, not surprisingly, it also has the mark of the Mouse upon it. The voices, in this case, are supplied by Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Rosie Perez as, respectively, a pair of bumbling Spanish adventurers who stow away in a ship to the New World and stumble upon the fabled City of Gold, and a cynical native girl (although to judge by Perez's slurred delivery, her character must hail from the Lower East Side of El Dorado). The music is supplied by Elton John and Tim Rice, the same duo responsible for--"guilty of" might be more appropriate--the tunes from Disney's The Lion King. Things do not bode well in the lively opening pastiche of Mayan runes, when John's voice enters, singing the film's main theme. It almost makes one ache for "Hakuna Matata."
For all its derivations, however, El Dorado is also somewhat refreshing in that it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: unadulterated kids' stuff. The story, unlike Disney's edifying entertainments, is pure fantasy, paying homage to both adventure radio serials and the caper films of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. The natives, who live in prelapsarian splendor, are depicted as wise, peaceful folk with enormous, squash-shaped noses. (It's an unfortunate truism in the industry that nonwhite characters must be both patronizingly ennobled and physically grotesque.) Wisely skirting history--syphilis-spreading conquistadors might not fly so well with the kiddies--El Dorado turns the rape of the Americas into a ride through the Magic Kingdom: It's a small New World, after all.
If El Dorado isn't always fun to watch, it is undeniably fine to look at. The shift toward "cinematic animation," most evident in the painterly backgrounds of last year's Tarzan, here produces stunningly textured vistas and junglescapes of green and cerulean blue, captured by a wildly kinetic camera. The film's most apparent technical innovation, though, is a 3-D "particle system" used to simulate the action of wind and gravity on water. This digitized naturalism is applied to magnificent effect throughout; yet, like most of the recent computer-generated innovations in animation, the logic behind it approaches a reductio ad absurdum: Why use million-dollar computers to create an image of water that undulates realistically, when real water would do the same for considerably less? For now, it seems, the pure technical challenge of animation has conquered the impulse to explore new thematic territory. Brave new world or not, we're still in Disneyland.
The Road to El Dorado starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.