Already a major player in the animated-feature business, DreamWorks Pictures is remembered for one-upping genre leader Disney in 1998 by landing its "Antz" on the screen before "A Bug's Life" was released. The studio beats the Mouse House to the punch again with "The Road to El Dorado," an exuberant, lighthearted adventure yarn that features the voices of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. Disney's "The Emperor's New Groove" -- also Latin-themed -- won't arrive in theaters until the fall.
But "El Dorado" doesn't merely revisit history; it makes it. Set circa 1519 and following the exploits of Tulio (Kline) and Miguel (Branagh), a pair of bumbling con artists who travel from Spain to the fabled lost city of gold, the epic includes at least one sequence that Uncle Walt would never have approved. After an exhausting trip from the Old Country to the New World, the duo enjoy some rest and relaxation somewhere within a lush tropical rain forest. As they frolic in a spring, we catch a glimpse of their cartoonish but undeniably bare buttocks. When was the last time male nudity was seen in an animated film intended for kiddie consumption? (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Fast-talking scammers with a penchant for duping the unsuspecting into forking over their cash, the blond Tulio and the dark-headed Miguel are usually able to elude their angry victims, making slap-dash escapes that are downright Zorro-esque in their daring. One such hairy situation, though, results in their accidental berth on a Cortes-led expedition to the Americas. The two, along with a friendly horse, wind up on a slow rowboat to nowhere, with certain doom on the far horizon. "You made my life an adventure," Tulio confides. Says Miguel: "You made my life rich." (Draw your own conclusions.)
The magic, though, has just begun. The initially reluctant explorers stumble onto terra firma, eventually making their way behind the veil of a waterfall, through a cave and straight into the storied land of El Dorado. Pyramids rise into the sky and everything is covered in gold. Even better, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), the local high priest, announces that the two foreigners -- who to us resemble animated, updated versions of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby -- are the two godlike warriors referenced in the civilization's holy scriptures.
Tulio and Miguel are honored with feasts and special ceremonies; villagers regularly bow in their presence. It's all easy street until the arrival of the conniving Chel (Rosie Perez), a shimmying, midriff-baring Latin beauty who appears to have arrived straight from Spanish Harlem. (Stereotype alert!) As was required in the Hope/Crosby "Road" pictures (and the countless buddy flicks that came thereafter), the girl comes between the pals. Thus is the fragile residency of the self-styled divinities threatened.
Will our boys reconcile? Will their consciences come to the fore? Or will greed and selfishness win out over every value that's routinely preached by feature-length cartoons? True, DreamWorks has thus far distinguished itself in the animation arena by alternating between traditionalism and adventurousness. But no matter how much risk-taking a lovingly drawn bottom may represent, let's just say that it better be backed up by a little wholesome male bonding sooner or later. People will talk, even in paradise.