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Nashville Scene The Road to Nowhere

"The Road to El Dorado" is paved with good intentions, but it's less than gold

By Noel Murray

APRIL 10, 2000:  Given the massive level of hype generated by DreamWorks Studios for its previous animated features, Antz and The Prince of Egypt, the relative lack of buzz for its latest venture, The Road to El Dorado, is more than a little suspicious. After all, the film features spectacularly detailed animation--with the particular attention to facial expression and body language that is DreamWorks' signature--so it's clear that the studio spent plenty of money. The Road to El Dorado also has funny voice performances by the likes of Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, and Rosie Perez, and it has a no-doubt-pricey song score by The Lion King team of Elton John and Tim Rice. Why then does the movie feel so shuffled-off, so second-tier?

It all goes back to two lessons that Hollywood should've learned last decade (if not sooner). The first is that you don't always get what you pay for; in this case, that applies to the John-Rice musical numbers, which (aside from the soaring title track) are unmemorable and frequently run The Road to El Dorado into a dead end. The second lesson is that the script is all, especially when dealing with the rigid assembly line of animation development, where there's no such thing as a reshoot.

In fact, if you're looking for what's wrong with The Road to El Dorado, start with its medium. The movie is set up as a simple adventure story, wherein two Spanish con men (voiced by Branagh and Kline) happen upon the fabled lost city of gold and are treated as gods by the natives. The story is meant to ape The Man Who Would Be King and the Hope/Crosby "Road" pictures, with a dollop of smart-alecky Looney Tunes slapstick.

But what made Looney Tunes work, to a great extent, was the flat, non-Disneyfied look of the cartoon artwork. The more elaborate the animation--and DreamWorks is more elaborate than Disney at this point--the less freedom the audience feels to cut loose. Comedy isn't meant to be pretty, and talented animators with a gift for gilding shouldn't be spending years of their lives on light entertainment. Leave that to the TV people, who can give delightful animated shows like The Powerpuff Girls and Spongebob Squarepants the kind of gutter energy that this kind of cartoon needs.

Is The Road to El Dorado entertaining? Yes, by and large. Kline and Branagh make a great, theatrical comedy team--even if their sensuous romping through the jungle reminds one of Mark Rappaport's brilliant dissection of the homosexual subtext to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's on-screen relationship. And there are several breathtaking action sequences, although the movie bogs down in El Dorado itself, where the natives' reaction to our heroes never quite makes sense. It's a good junk-food movie. But when good junk food is being served by four-star chefs, one can't help but feel a little cheated.

A pleasant stroll

It's hard to convince an audience of the modest, skillful virtues of a movie like Walking Across Egypt without overselling it or damning it with faint praise. But this seriocomic adaptation of a Clyde Edgerton novel, a longtime dream project for former Nashville producer Madeline Bell, is the kind of genial, innocuous tale audiences regularly berate Hollywood for not making. The best thing you can say for Walking Across Egypt is that it's much more enjoyable than that description implies.

The movie's chief grace is a delightful performance by Ellen Burstyn as Mattie Rigsbee, a churchgoing lady in a Deep Southern town whose grown children--a stodgy son (Judge Reinhold) and cold daughter (Gail O'Grady)--have left her lacking for companionship. That need is filled when she makes the acquaintance of the town's seedy dogcatcher, played by an unrecognizable Mark Hamill in a scroungy and unexpectedly funny character turn. Through him she makes the acquaintance of his orphaned nephew Wesley (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), a foul-mouthed delinquent doing time for car theft. In the unloved teen, Mattie sees the chance to practice her Christian ideals of helping "the lesser of these thy brethren." In Mattie, Wesley sees access to a bathtub, pound cake, and spending cash before he takes it on the lam.

Walking Across Egypt is most likable when Mattie's prickly, crusading idealism butts heads with Wesley's unrepentant hell-raising streak: I'm glad Wesley holds out as long as he does and sorry he couldn't hold out longer. (The casting of bright-eyed, shiny-toothed Taylor Thomas as Wesley makes redemption a foregone conclusion.) The movie has the glossy look and conventional uplift of a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation--which makes sense, given that director Arthur Allan Seidelman is a four-time Emmy winner--and those limitations are evident in some of the obvious supporting performances and the pat resolution. At worst, the movie dabbles in the toothless TV-movie eccentricity that passes for character and incident in most recent movies about the South.

What you respond to, though, are the ornery quirks and rough edges in Edgerton's material, as adapted by screenwriter Paul Tamasy. Edgerton is a shrewd observer of Southern mores, down to the rueful affection all buttoned-down belles have for rough diamonds, and his details of small-town Baptist life are as precise as the status attached to chairing the Lottie Moon offering drive. The movie's funniest episodes--a collapsing rocking chair, a rotten ladder, a mishap involving a handgun and bubble bath--have the lackadaisical, unwarranted urgency of a tale told over a neighbor's fence when there's nothing else going on.

Granted, I'm probably inclined to cut the movie some slack because it reminds me so much of growing up in Murfreesboro. But by the same token, considering how regularly Hollywood screws up the details of small-town life (e.g., The Runaway Bride), it's amazing to find some stray observation or character detail that reminds you of real life at all. Walking Across Egypt plays through Thursday night at Green Hills Commons 16. --Jim Ridley

Too much talk

A chop-socky flick in the middle of the cinematic arid season between Christmas and Memorial Day is like the first robin of spring. Soon, the flying kicks and punches promise, there will be nonstop action on the movie screens of America! Unfortunately, Romeo Must Die, the harbinger of adrenaline rushes to come, only lets us bask in its summer sun for a few glorious moments. Weighed down with a fatal excess of plot and seriousness, this vehicle starring Hong Kong action hero Jet Li delivers all-too-short scenes of kung fu mayhem.

It's been a couple of decades since martial arts collided briefly and memorably with the blaxploitation genre in films like Three the Hard Way and Black Belt Jones. The kicked-up nostalgia that has led to the current craze for Hong Kong action has finally caught up with this interracial flava: With its Shakespearean hook, Romeo Must Die centers on the romance between the daughter of a black gangster and the son of a Chinese mob boss. Han (Jet Li) busts out of a Hong Kong prison after his brother is killed and makes his way to San Francisco to find the perps. While he's charming Trish O'Day (soulstress Aaliyah), her dad Isaac (Delroy Lindo) is angling to go legit by selling waterfront property to a would-be NFL owner. But Han's dad Ch'u (Henry O) is about to precipitate a gang war over the murders of each family's scion.

Bringing an NFL expansion franchise to Oakland--apparently the Raiders have moved out again--is an unlikely plot point for a Jet Li picture, and director Andrzej Bartkowiak makes the most of the juxtaposition. In one memorable sequence, Han learns to play football in the park with some of Isaac's henchmen. But the football plot is far too complicated, involving a third "gang" of white businessmen led by Edoardo Ballerini. All the talking that it takes to explain what's going on, let alone make us care, cuts the fighting window down to the bare minimum.

What fighting remains, however, is choice--both traditional kung fu set pieces and high-flying "wire fu" battles royal. Bartkowiak, a veteran cinematographer, brings some jazzy new tricks to the table, notably an animated "X-ray" view of what's happening to the fighters' innards. It's also amusing to watch how the director handles Li's severe language difficulties. The film only contains a couple of scenes where Li and another character exchange dialogue while in the same shot. The bulk of Li's lines are fed to him off-camera while he's working alone in close-up.

Romeo Must Die is really Li's first Hollywood starring role; his previous appearance in Lethal Weapon IV was a supporting turn, and last year's Black Mask was a hastily repackaged Hong Kong film produced by the inimitable Tsui Hark. Like Chow Yun Fat before him, Li needs to improve his English if he wants to break into the American big-time. But when he's allowed to speak with his fists and feet, he's as welcome as the flowers in May. --Donna Bowman

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