The Road to El Dorado (2000)
Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the screenwriters for Dreamworks’s second hand-drawn animated film, have had their hands in kicking off some highly successful movie franchises, such as Aladdin, Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. They’ve also written a number of movies that didn’t do well and of which you’ve probably never heard. The Road to El Dorado is probably somewhere in between. It begins in the year 1519 with two Spanish scoundrels, Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), winning a map to El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold in a game of dice. Through a series of entertainingly ridiculous events, they end up on board one of Hernan Cortes (Jim Cummings)’s ships bound for the “New World.” Through an even more ridiculous series of events, they end up getting there ahead of him in a longboat with a horse. They use the map to find El Dorado and are mistaken for gods by the populace (it has to do with them having a horse), a circumstance they are happy to exploit so they can carry off as much gold as possible.If you’re wondering how they all speak the same language…your guess is as good as mine.
Right there lies my problem with the movie. I just don’t find Miguel and Tulio that likeable. They begin the movie by cheating people out their money with loaded dice and they don’t get much better from there.When they win the map, it’s the only time they’re forced not to use the loaded dice, which, to be fair, is a pretty good way to give the moment a feel of destiny. Watching the movie, I’m not really rooting for them to get found out and executed by the El Doradans, but I’m not really rooting for them to succeed in conning and exploiting all these innocent people, granted that they end up reforming the city’s corrupt religious system of human sacrifice, though I’m not sure if adherents of Postcolonialism are likely to warm to that aspect of the plot. (Those leery of White Savior narratives may want to sit this one out.) There’s not really much reason to care about what happens to them except morbid curiosity and once you’ve seen the movie, there’s not much reason to watch it again. In my last post, I commended Dreamworks for doing things Disney animation didn’t typically do, like have antiheroes as the leads. But watching Road to El Dorado, you can kind of see why Disney typically didn’t do antiheroes.Flynn Rider from Disney’s Tangled actually strikes me as a highly superior version of Tulio, right down to him having an uneasy relationship with an equine supporting character.
Of course, the movie is primarily a comedy and in comedy, funny sometimes counts for more than likeable. Miguel and Tulio are…well, they’re certainly not unfunny! Branagh and Kline are both awesome hams and they make the script about as fun as it could have been. Rosie Perez is also fun as Chel, the El Doradan con artist who helps them pull of their deception. The movie has enough good jokes in it, mainly visual ones, to keep it reasonably engaging. The nice thing about Dreamworks is that their animators have really good comedic timing, and this makes their comedies go down easier when the jokes aren’t actually funny.
The movie’s funny, but it’s not often hilarious. The dynamic between the cheerful, impetuous Miguel and the more pragmatic, long suffering Tulio is nothing new and the movie doesn’t do anything that interesting with it. According to the creators, the film was made in part as a reaction against movies where the protagonists pale in comparison to the more fun comedic supporting characters. Ironically, if Tulio and Miguel were supporting characters, they might well be the most entertaining part of a movie. But they just don’t have the depth to be the center of a narrative and Chel has even less. Despite the filmmakers’ goals, the animal sidesticks still end up largely stealing the show.
Considering what a megahit The Lion King (1994) was, it’s amazing that popstar/composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice weren’t invited to collaborate on more soundtracks for animated films. Amazing but not much of a loss. You see, they’re both artists who are capable of doing great work but can’t be relied upon to do great work regularly. It was a happy accident that The Lion King‘s soundtrack was of as consistently high quality as it was and probably owed as much to others, such as Hans Zimmer and Lebo M.Though, for what it’s worth, Zimmer was also involved with El Dorado‘s soundtrack. The best thing about The Road to El Dorado musically is The Trail We Blaze, a great little song that plays over the montage of Miguel and Tulio making their way through the jungle.Considering that the title is The Road to El Dorado, it’s surprising how little time the journey part of the story takes up. Actually, that’s not true. The best thing might be the ballad, Somewhere Out of the Blue, which plays over the end credits and has absolutely no connection to the movie, thematically or tonally.Seriously! It’s like they just picked a random song. If I concentrate really, really hard, I can hum the title phrase of It’s Tough to be a God and it gets credit for being the only song in this comedy to have humorous lyrics, something which can add to the comedy with some movies but here is a just an oddity. It’s rather odd though that it’s the only song to be sung by the characters rather than a singing narrator and it’s rather baffling that the singers are singing out loud that they’re conning the people around them and nobody notices. If the movie were a traditional musical throughout, I’d have an easier time accepting this as a convention. The rest of the songs are forgettable at best, cheesy and annoying at worst.
I once heard this movie criticized for being so relatively realistic in its character designs and not embracing cartooniness. Once I’d heard that, I couldn’t get it out of my head. This movie does so many things with which only a cartoon could get away, such as the incredible coincidence that allows Miguel and Tulio to “prove” their powers to the El Doradans or the bit where they cheat at a game by substituting a rolled-up armadillo for the ball. Why not have the visuals be a little sillier looking to really set the tone?Along similar lines, The Prince of Egypt might have done well to make the character designs for the Egyptian high priests less caricatured since, despite being voiced by comedians, they’re not … Continue reading Ironically, the character with the most cartoony design, of the humans anyway, is the ruler of El Dorado (Edward James Olmos)-who is actually one of the ones played for laughs the least.
This is another area where Dreamworks actually might have done better to copy more from Disney’s playbook. This definitely isn’t true of every decade, but formulaic though they were in the 1990s, Disney employed different visuals styles to suit the specific tones of their animated movies. (Just compare Pocahontas‘s character designs with those of Hercules.) And in the early 2000s, they would get even more experimental design-wise with The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Lilo & Stitch. By contrast, while the four Dreamworks hand-drawn animated movies are very different from each other narratively, they all pretty much look the same. Still, as I wrote above, the quality of the character animation itself is great. The team of artists that worked on Tulio’s facial expressions are the movie’s MVPS for my money.Heh. Money. City of gold. There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere.
But the story just isn’t that good. (If you don’t want the plot spoiled, skip this paragraph.) In the third act, El Dorado’s human-sacrifice-happy high priest, Tzekel-khan (Armand Assante), discovers evidence that Miguel and Tulio are imposters. Instead of doing the obvious thing and sharing this with the people to turn them against the main characters, he conjures up a giant stone jaguar to attack them. This is rather jarring since the only indication that there’s been anything supernatural going on in this story has been a few brief magic tricks on Tzekel-khan’s part. Meanwhile, Tulio and Miguel have a really lame misunderstanding just so they can reconcile and give the movie some kind of heart. After the jaguar has been defeated, we get another less memorable action scene for the climax and the story ends with none of the main characters getting what they want. I suppose it’s inconsistent for me to first criticize the characters for being unlikeable and then criticize the climax which is supposed to be a redemptive sacrifice for them.If you really want it spoiled, Miguel has to give up his new life in El Dorado to save the city and Tulio has to give up all the gold he’s collected. But it really doesn’t feel like the movie has been wanting us to root for these characters to redeem themselves. If anything, it feels like we’ve been supposed to be rooting for them to achieve their goals. The ending would only make sense if it were setting up a sequel. There wasn’t a sequel, and I don’t believe the movie deserved one.
I admit though I may just be biased against the movie since it has an atheistic message and I’m not an atheist. Both the villains, Cortes and Tzekel-khan have religious motivations, something I’ll freely acknowledge has a historical precedent, and the most moral character in the story is the explicitly atheistic/agnostic chief-maybe the only likeable character actually. On the flipside however, I imagine this gives The Road to El Dorado a special appeal for viewers who are atheists and don’t get to see their views represented in these kinds of movies that often. As I wrote in my last post, if you appeal to one group, you’ll usually alienate another and maybe the lesson Dreamworks learned from their first two hand-drawn animated films was not to involve religion at all, either positively or negatively.I’m informed that Happy Feet (2006) has an anti-religion message far more overt than anything in The Road to El Dorado but that one seems like such an outlier. What themes would they touch upon instead? Well…
|↑1||If you’re wondering how they all speak the same language…your guess is as good as mine.|
|↑2||When they win the map, it’s the only time they’re forced not to use the loaded dice, which, to be fair, is a pretty good way to give the moment a feel of destiny.|
|↑3||Flynn Rider from Disney’s Tangled actually strikes me as a highly superior version of Tulio, right down to him having an uneasy relationship with an equine supporting character.|
|↑4||Though, for what it’s worth, Zimmer was also involved with El Dorado‘s soundtrack.|
|↑5||Considering that the title is The Road to El Dorado, it’s surprising how little time the journey part of the story takes up.|
|↑6||Seriously! It’s like they just picked a random song.|
|↑7||Along similar lines, The Prince of Egypt might have done well to make the character designs for the Egyptian high priests less caricatured since, despite being voiced by comedians, they’re not all that funny and they stick out like sore thumbs next to all the other characters who are drawn realistically.|
|↑8||Heh. Money. City of gold. There’s got to be a joke in there somewhere.|
|↑9||If you really want it spoiled, Miguel has to give up his new life in El Dorado to save the city and Tulio has to give up all the gold he’s collected.|
|↑10||I’m informed that Happy Feet (2006) has an anti-religion message far more overt than anything in The Road to El Dorado but that one seems like such an outlier.|