The road to El Dorado, as it turns out, isn’t that long after all. It may be the film’s title, but it only takes protagonists Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline) the span of a song to find the fabled city. Washed up on the shore of an island, they open a map that’s said to lead them to El Dorado ― a place where the greedy men think they may find treasure. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the rest of the film would follow them on their trek along the map’s marking ― but no. The Road to El Dorado is not about the road after all. At least, not literally.
Miguel and Tulio are con-men. We are thrust into their lives amidst a complicated scam that ends in a street race. Their characters are not built in quieter moments; instead, we get to know them on the job. It’s the perfect way in: we learn who they are through action, because that is how they live their lives ― in perpetual motion. At the start of the film, they are shallow and self-centered, attached to nothing except each other and what little riches they might possess.
In that opening sequence, we learn everything we need to know. We understand how long they’ve been partners in crime because of how smoothly they operate: their plan (mostly) goes off like clockwork, and Miguel and Tulio don’t even need to exchange a single knowing glance to anticipate each others’ moves. They’ve got this down. They know each other better than they know themselves. Branagh and Kline’s rapport is witty and uncommonly quick for an animated film, giving the impression that their scenes may have been recorded in collaboration rather than the typical method of recording voices in separate studios. There’s too much connection between the characters here; you can feel the actors feeding off of each others’ energy.
The bulk of The Road to El Dorado takes place in the eponymous city, where Miguel and Tulio are mistaken for the gods that the native people worship. This pivotal plot point teeters dangerous close to condescension, and never completely lays that issue to rest.
There is someone who doesn’t fall for it though: a local thief Chel (Rosie Perez) becomes their source of information and an object of romantic desire. The film never quite gives her the life that is afforded to Miguel and Tulio, although she does nicely counterbalance their amiable arrogance.
The Road to El Dorado is a musical, but you’d hardly know it. There are a few songs peppered throughout, and while none are bad, none are memorable. Perhaps the film’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t commit to its status as a musical. Stylistically, those elements do not fit in with the rest of the film, so the musical numbers feel like an afterthought.
However, The Road to El Dorado ultimately succeeds at many things. Its animation is lively, and intelligently uses visual comedy. While not detailed, the animation is active and constantly engaging, particularly in action sequences that see the camera swooping around with energy to spare.
Narrative turns are often unexpected and startlingly creative. Above all else, the film lives and dies on Miguel and Tulio’s appeal. Luckily, they strike a nice balance, being clearly arrogant, but never so much so that they become completely unlikeable. Kline and Branagh’s voice work deserves much of the credit for why the film works as well as it does. Their friendship is the heart of the film, and despite the bumps along the way, you’re happy to go with them to wherever they wind up together in the end.
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden