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There's gold in DreamWorks' "El Dorado"

By Jeffrey Gantz

APRIL 3, 2000:  It's the Age of New World conquest, when adventurous young men journey to the Americas in the hope of making their fortunes. Our hero has his heart set on finding gold; instead he discovers a Native American people who are noble and honest, and he even falls in love with one of their women. He winds up defending his new friends from the rapaciousness of his fellow Europeans, for he's come to realize that the only true treasure is the treasure of the heart.

Walt Disney's Pocahontas? Well, yes, but now it's also the premise of the latest animation from DreamWorks. Jeffrey Katzenberg's Disney spinoff has shuffled the formula a bit: we get two heroes, buddies; there really is gold, tons of it; and our guys have a minor falling-out over both the loot and the attractive native lady who muscles in on their scam. But the result still looks like a Disney knockoff, right down to the trademark smarty-boots horse and the (undistinguished) music by The Lion King's Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer. Boasting more attitude than Pocahontas and less insight, El Dorado is a hip entertainment (for adults as well as kids) that doesn't quite rise to the classic level of Beauty and the Beast or Pocahontas or Hercules.

It's 1519, and a couple of Spanish con artists named Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline) are, as usual, on the run from the victims of their latest loaded-dice crap shoot. Their flight lands them on the flagship of explorer Hernán Cortés, who's headed for Mexico. With the help of a non-talking charger named Altivo, our heroes blow the brig, cross the Pond in a lifeboat, and wind up in the Mayan civilization of the Yucatán Peninsula, where they're mistaken for the gods who will inaugurate a new era. There's more gold than they've ever dreamed of -- all they have to do is keep up the deity gig. Standing in their way is curvaceous cutie Chel (Rosie Perez), who's wise to their act; high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), who grows suspicious when he sees that the new arrivals are uncomfortable with the idea of human sacrifice; and "The Chief" (Edward James Olmos), a portly, cheerful leader who lives for feasts but isn't as naive as he pretends.

DreamWorks' digitalized golden Eden looks fabulous, but there are a few serpents in the garden. The studio's goodhearted Mayan city is about as realistic as the Whoville of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Worse, the casting has caste system written all over it: our two Hispanic heroes are played by a pair of white WASP types, whereas the genuinely Hispanic actors -- Perez, Assante, and Olmos -- are given the second-class Mayan characters. And whereas Disney created a believably Native American Pocahontas (and cast a real Native American, Irene Bedard, as her voice), DreamWorks' idea of a Mayan woman is Chita Rivera in West Side Story. No question that Perez's Chel is a sly, sexy, street-smart lady (and her facial expressions are terrific), but she's a sly, sexy, street-smart Hispanic lady. Not that she has that big a part -- like DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt, this is a buddy movie, a throwback to those live Disney stories of the '50s where the two towheaded boys teamed up to foil the bank robbers but let the girl next door tag along.

As for Tzekel-Kan and the Chief, they're standard-issue stereotypes, one bad, one good, that get upstaged by the animals: the jaguar-like creature of destruction that Tzekel-Kan conjures; the armadillo who helps Miguel and Tulio win at Mayan basketball; and of course Altivo. Back on ship, Miguel's plan for getting himself and Tulio out of the brig calls for persuading Altivo to bring them a crowbar in exchange for an apple; while Tulio is explaining to Miguel that a dumb animal can't possibly understand him, Altivo fetches the keys and drops them in. (Altivo has another hilarious moment right at the conclusion; I won't spoil it, but keep your eye on his horseshoes.) In the end Cortés is diverted to the Mexican interior (where he'll conquer the hapless Aztecs) and Tzekel-Kan is punished (apparently for behaving like a real Mayan). Except that there isn't an actual end -- Miguel, Tulio, Chel, and Altivo head off in search of further adventures. Does this mean that the road to El Dorado is paved with sequels?

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