April 07, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh), the bantering cronies in the animated adventure-comedy The Road to El Dorado, are sort of like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in Road to Rio. They’re also a little like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover on a Lethal Weapon outing, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Timon and Pumbaa, or countless other second-banana comedy duos who work the crowd before and after the hero sings a tenor aria in Disney musicals. They’re Everybuddies.

Only this time, they’re the main attraction, they’re DreamWorks creations — and they’re nobuddy special, just a couple of talkative guys with modern, never-grow-up sensibilities, mildly embarrassed by the old-fashioned swashbuckling required of them. Taking off from the classic legend of a lost South American city of gold, populated with gentle natives uncorrupted by their own wealth, this Road is a path never meant to be traveled by a couple of harmless Spanish con men — con boys, really — for whom nothing matters much besides their pleasure in each other’s company.

The amigos are accidental tourists, Marx-brotherly stowaways on a ship run by the ruthless Spanish explorer Cortes (voice-over vet Jim Cummings). They’re rescued from the brig by your standard kind of smart, faithful cartoon horse, and the blinkered pair blunder their way to El Dorado. But once they reach the magic city, they’re hailed as gods by the local populace. They’re heaped with gold gifts. And their allegiance is sought by happy, fatherly, hugely fat Chief (Edward James Olmos), as well as by the one malcontent in the bunch, an angular, bachelor, hugely hawk-nosed high priest (Armande Assante), unsubtly reminiscent of The Lion King‘s Scar and Aladdin‘s Jafar. Life is sweet, but enough’s enough, and the boys, oblivious to the political currents around them, scheme to scoop up gold and beat it out of paradise.

There’s also a cupcake, of course, who comes between the two amigos, as women often try to do in this formula: Chel (Rosie Perez), in the Dorothy Lamour role (and, for emphasis, in a sarong), is wise to the newcomers’ scam, but willing to help them, provided they’ll take her, too. Personal growth takes place — as Chief could probably explain — when each man recognizes and accepts his individual destiny within a larger society. Songs are slotted in — as Jeffrey Katzenberg could probably explain — to describe otherwise inexpressible inner feelings, in this case in wash-and-wear music by Elton John and Tim Rice, the Lion King dream team. The road song is called ”The Trail We Blaze.” The joke song is ”It’s Tough to Be a God.” The boy-boy love song is ”Friends Never Say Goodbye.” The tunes are interchangeable.

In its own unstable way, The Road to El Dorado is the natural love child of its two directors. Eric ”Bibo” Bergeron previously worked as an animation supervisor on A Goofy Movie, director Don Paul did special effects for The Prince of Egypt, and they have made what is essentially a Bible story about a couple of clown princes. (Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are missing their magical Aladdin touch here.) The movie opens in a psychedelic tangle of Yellow Submarine images, but soon reverts to a Lion KingMulan vision inhabited by colorful people of color, some of whom are singled out for particular cuteness. (I’m thinking of Perez’s effervescent Chel, a bouncy little package of wiles.) Among the smaller animals, special care is lavished on a mute aardvark with the ability to curl up into a close facsimile of a basketball.

Tulio and Miguel have been given the faces and physiques of traditional animated heroes, then stretched and exaggerated — Tulio with a long Ben Affleck head and a soul patch, Miguel with hints of Jesus (in the hair), Peter Gallagher (in the eyebrows), and Maynard G. Krebs (in the bebop goatee). The two enjoy roughhousing and bathing together, as well as provoking each other with limp taunts (”You fight like my sister!”) that cry out for exquisite delivery from stars Kline and Branagh, something summoning up the abandon of Robin Williams or Nathan Lane. Over-the-edge Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and beyond-the-pale Branagh in Wild Wild West would do well, too. But this trip down The Road to El Dorado proceeds under the speed limit all the way. Our Tulio and Miguel aren’t big enough, nor strong enough, nor funny enough to buckle any swashes. They’re as lost to us as the lost city into which they stumble.

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