When animated shorts and features first hit the big screen decades ago, there were plenty of reasons for their existence, but two of the more prominent ones dealt with their target audience and the sheer practicality and expense of moviemaking long before the advent of computer-generated special effects.
Obviously, such films, with their often bright color palettes and usual cast of traditional animals or otherwise fantastical characters, easily appealed to children and thus proved another way for the studios of the time to expand their audience. Animated features also provided filmmakers the possibility of creating movies that would otherwise be cost prohibitive - for special effects, set construction or location shooting - and often artistically unacceptable to adult audiences of the time. After all, one didn't - and still doesn't see too many films featuring talking animals.
With the seemingly endless possibilities available with today's special effects, however, that second reason is pretty much a moot point. Thus, and notwithstanding experimental work and the whole field of anime, the only notable reason to make such films is to entertain the youngsters. Those not aimed at that audience demographic face limited box office viability. While financial returns certainly aren't the only reason for making a film, it is the driving force behind the industry.
Of course, none of that's meant to imply that Dreamworks' second foray into the traditional animated world, the PG-rated "The Road to El Dorado," won't make a lot of money and/or entertain the little ones and some or many of their parents. Like their first effort, the similarly rated "The Prince of Egypt," this is a more "mature" work than most of what rival Disney pumps out nearly every year.
Yet, one has to wonder about the reasoning behind including enough material to bump the film up to a PG rating. In "Prince of Egypt," one could see why - what with all of the occasionally harsh Biblical incidents - but there's no reason that this film needed views of animated men's bare butts or the suggestion of some hanky panky between characters of the opposite sex.
Notwithstanding all of that, this is a moderately entertaining if certainly less than spectacularly constructed film that comes off as something of a cross between a "road movie" and films along the lines of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." Featuring its share of Disney-like elements - the daring hero (or heroes, if you will), the feisty and buxom heroine, a few animal side kicks and the typical nefarious and scheming villain - the one special ingredient the film is missing along those lines is the lively spirit often found in Disney's better efforts.
Sure, the film is visually impressive and features the much-touted musical reunion of Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer whose last animated collaboration was on a little film called "The Lion King." It also features a decent amount of lighthearted humor and adventurous moments. Yet, for all of that, the film often feels rather flat in overall execution, as if the computer that helped render some of the animated effects also assembled the film, all without the much needed human touch.
That doesn't mean it's bad by any means, but that it's simply missing that extra something special to make it a classic. Some of that could be related to the less than spectacularly constructed plot - penned by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio ("Aladdin," "The Mask of Zorro") - despite it containing and/or borrowing elements from the screenwriters' previous films.
While the kiddies might be transfixed by what occurs, adults may find themselves less than completely overwhelmed or captivated by the proceedings that end up following a familiar trajectory and rather predictable, and occasionally convenient plot (that includes the characters just happening to wash up on the shores of their intended destination).
If there's another partial fault related to the script, it's that the characters are a bit too contemporary for the story's setting. While that's obviously done to make them and the story appealing and accessible to kids - and many animated features are guilty of the same to some degree - it gives the film a bit more of a cheaper feel than it deserves.
As with most expensive, studio financed animated films, the vocal work, however, is quite good with Kevin Kline ("In & Out," "Dave") and Kenneth Branagh ("Celebrity," "Hamlet") imbuing their characters with the appropriate tonal qualities. The voicing by Rosie Perez ("Fearless," "White Men Can't Jump"), while appropriate for the way her character is drawn, is often a bit distracting, though, since her clearly distinctive voice makes one automatically think of her and not her character.
The result is that the illusion of her character is somewhat broken, thus removing the viewer from the proceedings - at least the first few times -- when she speaks. Armand Assante ("The Mambo Kings") and Edward James Olmos ("Selena") supply the rest of the major vocal work and do a decent job playing their characters despite their stereotypical construction.
The songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, along with the score by Hans Zimmer ("The Prince of Egypt," "The Thin Red Line") and John Powell ("Forces of Nature," "Face/Off") all sound good, but aren't particularly outstanding, let alone memorable. The film's animation, that utilizes the now standard mixture of traditionally drawn artwork along with that spit out by computers, is often very impressive. Even so, the mixing of the two forms doesn't always quite mesh that well as the differences between the two within the same scene are occasionally quite apparent.
While first-time directors Don Paul and Eric Bergeron deliver a competent picture that adequately achieves its goals of simultaneously entertaining kids and some adults, the film nearly always feels as if it's missing that extra something to make it as enjoyable and well-regarded as the best the animated film world has to offer.
Although some or perhaps many viewers won't have the same problems, I found "The Road to El Dorado" to be the equivalent of a "lite" beverage. It may have the same great visual taste, but it's certainly less filling than many of its animated competitors. While that's a good thing if you're a calorie-laden liquid, it's not if you're a film. As such, this picture - with its unnecessary material that warrants the PG rating - gets just a 6 out of 10.