Given that his collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice on the Disney animated film The Lion King was Elton John's most popular and acclaimed work of the '90s -- not only topping the charts, but inspiring a Broadway musical -- it made perfect sense for John to find another project for him and Rice. As it turns out, it was another animated film. This time, it was for Dreamworks, the Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg studio that competed with Disney's animated division by offering intelligent, distinctive animated alternatives to Disney's occasionally formulaic work. The film John and Rice wrote songs for was The Road to El Dorado, a contemporary Hope-and-Crosby-styled adventure featuring the voices of Kevin Kline and Kevin Branagh. Since it was a fairly straight-ahead story, it didn't really lend itself to music the way The Lion King did. Yes, characters still sang songs within the film itself, but The Lion King's music seemed organic, an outgrowth of setting and character. With an adventure like The Road to El Dorado, the songs don't fit as naturally into the scheme of things. To the credit of John and Rice, they do their very best, crafting a song-score that is, in and odd way, as classicist as the film itself. However, in this case, "classicist" means a classic Elton John record, not an old-fashioned movie musical. Where The Lion King, with its vague African underpinning, felt as if it was designed for the film itself, the music on The Road to El Dorado never quite evokes the South America of the film. It does hit the right emotional notes for the story, however, with such songs as the fist-pumping, anthemic "El Dorado," the rolling narrative "The Trail We Blaze," the wonderfully wry, bossa-nova-flavored duet with Randy Newman "It's Tough to Be a God," and "Someday Out of the Blue (Theme From El Dorado)," which feels like the perfect song to play over closing credits. Other moments work well, such as the driving "16th Century Man" or the lightly trippy "Trust Me," but they don't quite feel of piece with a soundtrack, and perhaps that's the problem with The Road to El Dorado -- it feels more like a collection of songs than a soundtrack or song score, sort of like a classic Elton John record, then. That's hardly a bad thing, but it may disappoint listeners looking for The Lion King, Part Two. Well, that's their loss, since even though it's flawed -- a couple of tunes sound a little bit pat -- it's a solid latter-day Elton John record, more enjoyable than many of his official albums of the late '80s and '90s. Musically, it's varied, the songs are strong, and Rice's lyrics are pretty clever. If it doesn't have the cinematic sweep of The Lion King or thereby its wide popularity, so be it. In many ways, it's a more satisfying work at least for hardcore fans of Elton John.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: Randy Newman