With two films under their collective belts DreamWorks Animation tried to tackle Disney head-on with their action/adventure buddy comedy The Road to El Dorado, a film that would try to capture the goofy screwball elements of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road to” comedy series of the 1940s while also updating it with energetic animation and bold visuals that they hoped would bring this genre to a whole new generation, sadly, things didn’t quite work out as they’d hoped.
The plot of The Road to El Dorado fits the right in the mould of those old Hope and Crosby movies as we are quickly introduced to a pair of fun and charismatic con-artists, Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), whose dreams of becoming as rich as the King of Spain leads them on a danger-filled adventure to the New World, and that is where this film differs from those 1940s pictures as those films were mostly contemporary period pieces while The Road to El Dorado is set way back in 1519 with Spain in full conquest mode. Now, anyone who has even a little knowledge of history knows that Spain’s exploitation of the New World was not all the great for its current inhabitants, slavery and genocide being the go-to modus operandi for most explorers of the time – this is why many people aren’t all that keen about celebrating Columbus Day – and one must admit setting an animated comedy amongst such dark settings was a bit of a risk.
The story kicks off when our two con-artists come into possession of a map to the legendary City of Gold, El Dorado, which they had won in a rigged dice gamble, but when their loaded dice are exposed they found themselves on the run from the law and angry locals. Lucky for them, the chase ends with the pair hiding in a couple of water barrels that are being loaded aboard the ship of the notorious conquistador Hernán Cortés (Jim Cummings), who just so happens to be sailing for the New World to get some of that rumoured gold. This kind of happy coincidence is a hallmark of screwball comedies and something you’d expect to happen to the likes of Hope and Crosby but as this is an animated film after our heroes are exposed as stowaways, and sentenced to life as a slave in Cuba, they are aided in their escape by Cortés horse, Altivo (Frank Welker), which is not something you’d find happening in a live-action film. This magnificent warhorse quickly becomes a third member of this comedy troupe and his comedic reactions to the troubles that Miguel and Tulia are constantly getting themselves into makes Altivo a surrogate audience member.
The visuals of The Road to El Dorado move into high gear once our heroes manage to make it to South America and with the help of the map they “won” they have a wonderful and musical trek through the jungle until they finally reach the outskirts of the legendary city, and it’s here we encounter the next member of this fun little band in the form of Chel (Rosie Perez), a resident of El Dorado and a con-artist in her own right. When Miguel and Tulia are mistaken for gods, the two of them appearing on horseback matched the image of a stone carving of the local gods, Chel is quick to take advantage of the situation and promises to remain quiet, that is if they promise to take her with them when they leave the city. Needless to say, things don’t remain quiet for long and wackiness ensues.
Not only did DreamWorks capture the zest and fun of the classic Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” pictures of the 40s with this film animated film they also orchestrated a brilliant remake of the Rudyard Kipling story “The Man Who Would Be King” with Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh providing the perfect amount of banter and fun one could expect from such a classic buddy comedy, but that’s not all, The Road to El Dorado also offers scenes of spectacular animation boasting vibrant colours and dynamic songs that simply explode this wonderful adventure tale off the screen and into our hearts. When the film’s key song number “It’s Tough to Be a God” is launched with a kaleidoscope of colours and stunning visuals we know we are in the hands of master animators and with the likes of Elton John and Tim Rice bringing their skills to the music department this movie has all it needed to become a classic, so what went wrong?
Where the film does drop the ball is in the villains, which for this movie they decided we needed two for some reason, unfortunately, neither of them are all that effective. First, we have the aforementioned Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador who kicked off our story in the first place but then disappears for the bulk of the film’s run time only to show up at the end of the film to do, basically, nothing. Our heroes never even encounter him again after their first abrupt meeting and thus there is no real satisfying payoff for his character, which is a strange way to treat a real-life monster, a man who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and literally oversaw bloody genocide, yet here he barely has any screen time or much of an impact on the film’s narrative as he’s simply an imposing domino that pushes are heroes in the direction the plot needed them to go, unfortunately, The Road to El Dorado’s principal antagonist is even more problematic.
The film’s primary antagonist, at least if we are going by screen time, would be high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) who believes that Miguel and Tulia are gods and that their appearance in El Dorado is a sign that the “Age of the Jaguar” has arrived and that the peaceful days under the kind-hearted Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos) are over and to be replaced by ones that will flow with blood and human sacrifice, and sure, that sounds like a great villain but for most of the movie he truly believes Miguel and Tulia are gods and is only disappointed when they don’t seem as keen on human sacrifices and blood as the legends have foretold. When he finally tumbles to the fact that these two goofballs aren’t gods he brings a giant stone Jaguar to life to kill them and it’s a case of too little too late, and though he does get a proper comeuppance his character never really felt threatening and so his fall from grace has very little impact. Like the Hope and Crosby films, The Road to El Dorado is more a buddy film than anything else and so the villains get short-shifted to provide more time for comedic shenanigans.
Overall, this is one beautiful film and though some elements of the script could have used a little tweaking it doesn’t stop this animated wonder from being truly spectacular, from its amazing art direction to the great songs by Elton and John and Tim Rice this movie is epic, unfortunately, it also bombed hard at the box office and was unable to recoup its $95 million dollar budget and became another nail in the coffin of hand-drawn animation. Indigenous rights organizations quickly criticized the movie for its sexist and racist themes, and for its lack of historical sensitivity, which to fair the film is quite guilty of on both counts but as a bright and silly adventure film, The Road to El Dorado is well worth tracking down.
The Road to El Dorado (2000)
Movie Rank - 7/10
The Road to El Dorado may have been part of hand-drawn animation’s swan song but it was also an amazing achievement that blended the classic techniques with computer-generated backgrounds to give us a truly spectacular world and it’s a crying shame it didn’t get the respect it deserved when initially released.