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Fool's Gold 

Just what we need: an animated buddy film.

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From early on, The Road to El Dorado looks and sounds oddly out of time, as though it were removed only yesterday from a time capsule buried in 1972. With its Peter Max visuals and Elton John vocals, it's a decidedly unhip piece of work -- Starlight Express for kids, animated and lit up like a sinking Yellow Submarine.

Aw, but it can't be all that bad, can it? How can anything so sterile and inane be awful enough to inspire such revulsion that it grows only more intense in the rearview mirror? (Indeed, I didn't mind the film 10 minutes after seeing it, but two days later, I felt so worked over, I was still a little sore.) But such loathing is easily explained, the result of being forced to endure so many wretched Elton John songs that you almost long for Phil Collins's beat-crazy Tarzan soundtrack.

Otherwise, The Road to El Dorado is just obnoxiously dull: a rich man who dresses in blinding silk and chats endlessly about how much money he burns through in an afternoon. Yet you can see how much expense and effort went into the thing and feel the movie's millions rubbing against you as you sit in the theater. A combination of traditional and computer-generated animation, The Road to El Dorado is what every child imagines when he or she falls asleep and dreams of a faraway place -- in this case, the cities of Spain and the golden temples of a mythical land called El Dorado. Only a heartless cynic could deny the film's surface thrills; every frame contains a surprise, a delight rendered with vigilance.

But the animators' talents and diligence have been corrupted on every front -- by DreamWorks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, who makes movies the way McDonald's makes cheeseburgers; by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the Aladdin co-writers, who have fleshed out a Star Trek episode and turned it into a marketing plan; by Sir Elton and Tim Rice, who apparently made up their ditties as the tape was rolling; and by composer Hans Zimmer, who rips off his own Rain Man score for the new-age incidentals. This is the antithesis of DreamWorks' first ambitious forays into animation, Antz and The Prince of Egypt.

Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), two swindling Spaniards (and, from all appearances, life partners), wind up with a map to the mythical city of El Dorado, where, legend has it, everything's made of gold. After a tussle with a snorting Hernán Cortés, the pair find themselves in El Dorado -- where they're mistaken for gods, no doubt because of their white skin, well-trimmed facial hair, and fashionably loose-fitting garments. The high priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), has awaited the arrival of such gods in order to harness their power and overthrow the kindly Chief (Edward James Olmos). Miguel and Tulio want only to escape El Dorado with a shipload of gold. They enlist Chel (Rosie Perez), a towel-clad swindler who cons the cons and threatens to bust up Miguel and Tulio. And with that, the movie builds toward a shrug of an ending.

Kline and Branagh give it their Hope-and-Crosby best, screaming like little girls and speaking in cuddly tones, only to be usurped by lines that might better render them mute.

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