Do you remember when the DreamWorks Animation department made 2D cartoons? Probably not. It was a different time then. A new animated film didn’t necessarily mean it was going to be in 3D and made entirely from computers. Animated musicals were also more common. Oh well.
Back in 1998, DreamWorks was responsible for The Prince of Egypt, an animated film adapting the story of Moses. It’s still a very good movie and received critical acclaim. The natural next step was to try and reproduce that success with a quality that would set them apart from Disney and their other competitors like Pixar. At the time, Disney’s animated movies hadn’t had the same impact, critically or commercially as before and in a lot of ways, this film is DreamWorks’ way of attempting to recreate the magic of the Disney megahits of the early ‘90s. They got name actors to play the leads, they hired Elton John (of The Lion King) to do the musical numbers, and they even included cute animal sidekicks (something that was thankfully missing from The Prince of Egypt). Even with all this, did they succeed? Or is The Road to El Dorado exactly where it belongs, with its only mention being a footnote in the DreamWorks animation filmography?
The movie opens introducing us to the setting and heroes of the narrative. The setting is Seville, 1519. Hernán Cortés is just about to embark on his infamous voyage to the new world where many a native are awaiting slaughter. Then we see our heroes, two homosexual con artists named Tulio and Miguel (played by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, respectively). They swindle a map that will lead them to the fabled city of gold and are chased onto the ship of Cortés. Through some wacky shenanigans (that involve them getting flogged offscreen), they wind up on an unknown shore with the horse of Cortés. It’s pretty lucky for them that they landed in the exact spot they would need to be to follow the map (or “trail” as they say in the movie). Of course they find the city and, as if you couldn’t guess, are immediately seen as gods.
Let’s begin with the animation and the look of the film. The characters are wonderfully expressive and often quite humorous, thought it benefits from the solid voice acting. Branagh and Kline bicker and make wise-cracks constantly, and for the most part they’re pretty funny. Aside from the character animations, the backgrounds and setting is very nice to look at. The jungles and the city of El Dorado are widely colorful, varied, and interesting, and a lot of the movies’ charm comes from the vibrant feel everything seems to have. It's presented in a way that's entirely exaggerated and fantastic, even including giant monster fish swimming around in the river. There’s some early use of computer animation (for the strangest things) in the environment, but it’s easy to forgive and hardly detracts from the otherwise vibrant style.
|Okay, they're not supposed to be gay, but they are so gay.|
Where the movie gets sort of strange is in its handling of history and the odd presence of the very modern humor in the 16th century. First off, the inhabitants of El Dorado are mostly based off other real South American cultures like the Mayans and the Incans. They play the same sports and the fashion and architectures are clearly similar. Forgetting that they all magically speak English (or Spanish, since the heroes are from Spain though one of them is clearly British), the city of gold’s culture feels artificial and dumbed down. For instance, with the idea of human sacrifices it’s all put entirely on the High Priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), as if he’s the only person who’s into that sort of thing. The ruler of the city, Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos), seems like he’s not interested at all in sacrifices, as do the rest of the inhabitants. It all feels like a forced effort to make it kid friendly, by placing the blame entirely on the villain and not the ancient customs of a culture. They keep everything on the surface, maintaining the lighthearted tone that the film is so desperate to keep. Characters don’t die, and Hernán Cortés (and everything that he inevitably represents to the cultures like this one) are pushed to the side and ignored. It’s almost as though this isn’t the right subject for a family film. Would things really have been so different if they set it in modern day? This could just have easily been an Indiana Jones-style adventure story.
Tzekel-Kan is a prime example of the flat and uninspired characters that make up the bulk of the film’s cast. He’s the mystical right hand to the king that’s been villainized in so many movies. In a fantasy, chances are if the King has an advisor, sorcerer, vizier, mystic, or friend with a goatee, then that character is evil. The evil of this particular character seems unnecessary to the plot and often out of place. His grand battle with the heroes comes almost entirely out of left field and escalates to a scale that does not belong in this story. The heroes themselves are a pair of quip machines more than they are defined characters, and that includes Chel (Rosie Perez), who is shoehorned in as the pointless love interest.
Elton John and Tim Rice did the music for this movie and…let’s just say that it’s not quite the soundtrack for The Lion King. There’s only one song that the main characters actually sing, while the rest of them play over montages with Elton John himself singing. It’s not very memorable and I couldn’t hum the melody for a single one, even after having just watched it.
While they tried to differentiate themselves from Disney with the humor skewing slightly more adult (there’s even an overtly sexual scene between Tulio and Chel), it clashes with the really basic characterizations and the inclusion of cutesy animal buddies as even more comic relief. While the movie certainly looks good, there’s just not enough there to make a lasting impression. Is it terrible? No. But it’s not particularly memorable.