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For the last decade, each year has brought a handful of animated features. A formula has evolved, and we’ve reached the point where the cartoons are becoming indistinguishable. The Road to El Dorado sets itself apart — slightly — by being funnier than many of the recent offerings.

Scoundrels

The heroes are two fifteenth-century con men, Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh). Miguel is the more open and freewheeling of the two. His purpose in life is adventure. Tulio, on the other hand, wants to be rich and successful. He is easily excited, particularly when Miguel gets a little too freewheeling, which gives Kline the chance to do his frantic schtick.

The two are nearly caught with their loaded dice in a Spanish alley (their rehearsed bickering creates enough of a distraction for them to escape). They flee the scene of their crime, only to find themselves on a ship bound for the New World. They’re thrown overboard with only a longboat, a horse, and the treasure map they won back in Spain. After a couple of time-compressing montages, they find themselves in the mythical city of El Dorado, where gold is plentiful, the surroundings are beautiful, and Tulio and Miguel are treated as gods.

Drawn That Way

The main characters are drawn with surprising resemblance to the actors who provide their voices. You might not say Tulio looks like Kevin Kline, but when you see him move, the resemblance is there. Chel (Rosie Perez), who guides the heroes in El Dorado, has the same seductive, hippy figure Perez showed off in Do The Right Thing. When I didn’t recognize the voice of Miguel, I was able deduce who it was by the blond hair and youthful face of the cartoon character.

Gratuitous Pop Songs

Like most animated features these days, El Dorado is a musical. Gratuitous pop songs speckle the movie. Elton John and Tim Rice, who teamed up on Disney’s The Lion King, collaborated on the soundtrack to El Dorado. Many of the songs are standard fare: “On the Trail We Blaze” is obligatory cartoon montage music, “It’s Tough to Be a God” is the comedic number performed by the actors. But the theme song was pretty catchy, and it even seemed to have challenging, mature lyrics. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay it is to say I wouldn’t have known it was written for a cartoon, had I heard it on the radio.

Faith or Fervor

Tulio and Miguel are mistaken for deities in the city of El Dorado. The film’s central conflict involves a dispute between the chieftain Tulabuk (Edward James Olmos), who welcomes the visitors with the laid-back hospitality of paradise; and the priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), who welcomes them with the holy bloodlust of a cult.

Conservative columnists and future film students deconstructing the cinema of 2000 will find pure gold in the fight between priest and politician. Tzekel-Kan, the priest, believes the holy scriptures are the literal truth. He wants to convert nonbelievers. He takes religion seriously and does not fear divine wrath. He is also a bloodthirsty, power-hungry villain. Tulabuk, on the other hand, takes the religious writings lightly. He is a glutton, and he smokes. He freely shares the state’s money with strangers. His domestic policy is liberal, if not downright socialist. Tulabuk is one of the film’s good guys, a wise friend and kind leader.

Deconstruction aside, The Road to El Dorado is not as message-heavy as most movies in its genre. I’ve come to expect some of an animated feature’s energy to be spent on sober lessons about love, family, or respect. I expect to roll my eyes several times while the kids consume their dose of morality. In contrast, El Dorado skips the preaching and focuses more on the comedy. Kevin Kline’s frenetic presence helps immensely. The Road to El Dorado doesn’t completely break from the formula, but you’ll probably notice the difference.

Viva la difference!