Saturday, June 5, 2021

The Road to El Dorado

The Road to El Dorado has an interesting place in DreamWorks Animation’s history. While not their final traditionally animated film, it was their final pre-Shrek production. Critics gave it mixed reviews at the time and the film bombed, grossing about $76 million on a budget of $95 million, which in turn may have convinced DreamWorks to double down on CG animation. As for my own experience, I remember watching it as a kid, but not too much of it stuck with me, likely because I didn’t pay attention to the plot as much back then. At the start of 2021, however, I watched it through Hulu out of a renewed curiosity from the film’s sudden rise in popularity through internet memes. While the story isn’t perfect, I didn’t think it was as bad as critics initially thought and could even consider it an overlooked film in DreamWorks’ library. It even got me thinking about where DreamWorks Animation would be today if they didn’t completely abandon traditional animation.

The film takes place in 1519, where two con men in Spain, Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), win a map to the legendary city of El Dorado in a rigged dice game. During their escape, they accidentally become stowaways on a ship led by conquistador Hernán Cortés (Jim Cummings) that has set sail for the New World. Once they leave with Cortés' horse, Altivo (Frank Welker), they eventually reach land and follow their map until they reach a stone marker, where they run into a native woman named Chel (Rosie Perez), who is on the run. All of them are stopped by guards and are brought into the hidden city of El Dorado, where Miguel and Tulio are mistaken for gods.

Miguel (Kenneth Branagh; Right) and Tulio (Kevin Kline; Left)
are mistaken for gods when they reach El Dorado.

Although I could see some plot points coming, I still really enjoyed the movie. Miguel and Tulio are pretty likable and have a great dynamic with good rapport, backed by great performances from their voice actors. Several moments between them, as well as some well-timed visual gags, had me laughing out loud and the dialogue is very quotable. The city of El Dorado feels fleshed out, with a good sense of its culture and people from what we get to see of them, including a great sequence with an actual ancient ball game. From the way two natives in particular, Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos) and Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), interact with Miguel and Tulio, there’s a strong implication of a rivalry between them born from a difference in ideals. Where Chief Tannabok is suspicious of the conmen but likes them for how well they treat the city’s people, Tzekel-Kan is obsessed with performing a human sacrifice and will go to any lengths to fulfill his religious beliefs, even if it means manipulating the men he views as gods. Chel is also an interesting character, as she’s not just attractive, but can keep up with Miguel and Tulio as she participates in their con and even outsmarts them at least once.

There are two animal companions, the horse Altivo and an armadillo (whose name is revealed as Bibo in tie-in material), but they are integrated into the plot without feeling too distracting. Altivo is very expressive and fairly intelligent, but still behaves just like a horse would and contributes to some of the gags. Bibo more or less just hangs out with Miguel and Tulio and has his moments, though he’s also a plot point during the ball game sequence, where he helps them cheat and maintain their con as gods.

As for the animation, it’s absolutely stunning, save for some obvious CG, with an expressive and fluid art style that still captures the more realistic aspects of the world. I was particularly impressed with the water animation, which at times looks like actual water, and how they rendered reflections. With how well the animators captured the setting and a striking amount of detail while still maintaining a stylized look, I actually wondered aloud where DreamWorks would be today if they didn’t abandon traditional animation. Considering Disney would eventually abandon traditional anyway, I couldn’t say how long DreamWorks would have kept releasing this style of film, but I think they would easily have rivaled Disney, at least in animation talent.

The animation holds up very well.

That said, if The Road to El Dorado had better addressed some of its own shortcomings, it might have done better at the box office. There is somewhat of an inconsistent tone, with some touches of adult subject matter like death and human sacrifice despite its otherwise kid-friendly nature. While I liked the spirit of the ending, with its open-ended nature and implication of further adventures, it felt muddy and underdeveloped, since it renders one built-up element a little pointless.

Much like Disney’s Tarzan, which released one year prior, The Road to El Dorado is a musical, but the songs are treated as narration highlighting certain moments of Miguel and Tulio’s journey and advance the plot. Only one song, “It’s Tough to be a God”, is animated as a full sequence where Miguel and Tulio sing, but it still moves the story forward rather than stopping the plot to explain their motivations. These songs, composed by Elton John and Tim Rice, aren’t their best work, but Elton John still gives a good performance as the musical narrator.

From my understanding, some of the issues with the finished film originate from a rather troubled production. Reports from a few animators, including one of the original directors, indicate that it suffered from stubborn executives and several rewrites that diluted the film’s focus, including a complete overhaul from a serious adult film to a family-friendly adventure comedy. While this does explain some things, including the more adult elements, it also highlights what can happen when there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

Despite its shortcomings, I would recommend The Road to El Dorado. It’s a fun adventure with incredible animation, great leads and plenty of laugh out loud moments. Even if the overall story doesn’t leave a lasting impression, there are plenty of individual scenes and memorable lines that will.

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