Early Dreamworks was an odd beast wasn’t it? I mean, let’s look at their first five movies. You had the worse version of the worst early Pixar movie starring Woody Allen which was a selling point in 1998. They then followed that up with the SINGLE MOST BEAUTIFUL TRADITIONALLY ANIMATED MOVIE EVER MADE BY A NORTH AMERICAN STUDIO FIGHT ME. After that was Road to Eldorado which we’re reviewing today and then a Claymation remake of the Great Escape with chickens. And then you had something called Shrek. I have no idea what Shrek is, but apparently it was a big deal at the time. Shrek. What is that? Sounds like a Care Bears villain from the eighties.
Sorry, where was I? Right, the wildly inconsistent early lineup of Dreamworks. And here’s the thing, I know I rag on Dreamworks a lot, but today I want to rag on us. I think we failed Dreamworks. I think we messed up. Dreamworks was like a little boy who came home from school one day and said “Look! I wrote a concerto!” and we were all “You idiot! You’ll never amount to anything writing concertos!” and the next day he came home and said “Today I sold some meth!” and we were all “That’s our boy! You keep selling that meth!”.
The kid had talent. The kid had potential. But we encouraged the wrong behaviour and now we have a meth dealer. Yay us.
And here’s the thing. We’re still doing it. We’re still rewarding bad behaviour and punishing good work. There’s a growing consensus among movie critics that sites like Rotten Tomatoes are a cancer on the craft. I’d never really bought into that until I casually checked Road to Eldorado’s RT score for this review.
I know, I know, everything’s subjective and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but COME ON. This is Road to Eldorado people! ROAD TO ELDORADO. RTED. I’m starting to think I’m the only one who understands the significance of that!
The film was originally conceived by Jeffrey Katzenberg, a man who specialises in films that make you go “Hmmmmmm…”
So stop me if you’ve heard this story. An animation studio plans a big, epic drama set in a reimagined Incan civilization. A big time rock star is brought on to write the songs. But then, oh noes! The studio decides to go in a radically different direction and turn the whole thing into a comedy, the story has to be reworked from scratch, directors come and go like Trumpian wives and everyone involved has a thoroughly miserable time. That’s right, Katzenberg was so dedicated to ripping off Emperor’s New Groove that he even ripped off its troubled production history.
I kid, I kid. Seriously though, the production was a hot mess and the first director, Will Finn (an animator with a “holy shit” list of credits that includes NIMH and the entire Disney Renaissance) talks about the movie the way Ahab talks about the white whale, as an eternal nemesis who took something from him he’ll never get back. Also, he doesn’t think it’s a good movie. Which brings me back to my earlier point.
BECAUSE IT’S ROAD TO FRICKITY FRUCKING EL DORADO.
Let’s do this.
Our story begins in Spain, that famous Spanish land. Hernan Cortes, voiced by Jim Cummings…
…is preparing to launch his expedition to the New World. Now Hollywood has a rather disreputable history of portraying the early European explorers as dashing adventurers rather than psychopaths who thought that dismembered human hands were a solid basis for a currency system so I appreciate that, while Cortes is only in four very short scenes, those scenes make clear that he is a really, really bad dude. I mean, this is a guy who is literally plotting something evil in every single portrait of him you can find.
We now meet our two heroes, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh), two conmen who are hustling a local dice game in the back alleys of Seville. Tulio is a lithe, swarthy streak of smoulder and Miguel is what happens when you cross the Jack of Hearts with a yellow lab that just wants to be your friend.
So Katzenberg wisely noted that, since everyone’s favourite characters in the films of the Disney Renaissance were the comedy relief characters, your Sebastiens, Iagos and Genies, why not just ditch the lead characters and make a movie about those guys? It really works too, in big part thanks to Kline and Branagh who recorded their lines together and generated a fantastic rapport. But I mean c’mon, what would you expect? With two actors of that calibre any movie would succeed.
Anyway, the sailors they’re playing offer to bet them a map which they promise will lead them to the fabled city of El Dorado in South America, which is obviously a fake because as we all know El Dorado isn’t in South America.
Anyway, Miguel really wants the map and Tulio can’t say no to his best gal so they bet it all on one roll of the dice and win. But when the sailors realise that they’ve been playing with loaded dice they call the guards and everything’s all “riff raff street rat scounderel take that” until Miguel and Tulio hide in some barrels and get loaded onto Cortes’ ship.
The pair break out of the barrels and are captured by the crew.
Cortes tells them they’ll be flogged, thrown into the brig, flogged some more and then sold into slavery in Cuba. Later, in the brig (where our heroes seem remarkably unphased about being flogged) they work on an escape plan. They enlist the help of Altivo, Cortes’ war horse in a hilarious scene where Miguel tries to bribe the horse with an apple to bring them a pry bar while Tulio tries in vain to explain that Altivo’s a dumb animal who can’t understand the concept of “pry bar”…only for Altivo to actually bring them the keys to the cell.
Because Miguel forgot to give Altivo his apple, the big horse follows them as they steal a long boat and get washed up on a tropical shore. Miguel consults his map and realises that they’re on the trail to El Dorado and convinces Tulio to go look for it and Tulio agrees because he can’t say no to his best gal.
We get a roadtrip montage of the boys having all kinds of fun in the Amazon rainforest despite the fact that the jaguars are literally the least lethal thing in there. Along the way they also pick up Bilbo, an armadillo who just kind of hangs around as a mute animal sidekick and only impacts the story once. They reach the end of the trail which is just a big rock with a carving depicting two gods riding a serpent. Tulio is furious, telling Miguel that “El Dorado is apparently native for GREAT BIG ROCK!” and ordering him to get on Altivo so they can ride back the way they came. But suddenly, a woman carrying a pot runs into them. This is Chel (Rosie Perez).
You learn a lot, doing a blog like this. Sometimes you learn really cool and interesting things. Sometimes you learn really, really stupid things. For instance, in the early days of the internet there were people who hated Chel so much that they actually created fansites dedicated to hating this one cartoon character. Yes. “Chel Haters” were a thing (I’d a gone with Chaters, but hey, ain’t my weird-ass hate boner.) Why all the chatin’? Okay, fandom 101. You have two male characters, A and B.
Now, onscreen, A and B are two straight men who are just GOOD FRIENDS. However, a large segment of the fandom (mostly female, sorry guys, but let’s be honest here) will be very invested in the idea of A and B smoochin’ and holdin’ hands an’ such despite the fact that they are clearly just GOOD FRIENDS. Which means that when Character C shows up as a love interest for either A or B?
Oh mercy. C is in for a whole world of hate. In Chel’s case its made even worse by the persistent rumour that Tulio and Miguel were originally intended to be an openly gay couple and that Chel was only introduced after the studio got cold feet. But of course, this rumour is not true because.
- Chel was part of the concept for the film almost from the very beginning.
- Dreamworks were not going to spend almost a hundred million dollars on an animated kids movie about an openly gay couple exploring the Amazon rain forest on vacay almost twenty frickin’ years ago which you’d realise if you thought about it for like, five seconds. Like, just five.
I love Chel. Possibly one of my favourite animated female characters. Really unique, appealing design (look at those little chipmunk cheeks), great voice performance, fantastic facial animation. Sexy? Well, duh, but in a way that’s very interesting and worth talking about. In his review of Mulan, Tim Brayton noted the scene where Mulan, as Ping, watches Shang strip off right before We Are Men and what a watershed moment that was for the Disney canon. Because here is a Disney princess admiring the male form in a way that is not “Oh mercy, he is so dashing” but “Damn boy”. It’s the first time a Disney movie actually admits that its heroine might actually…y’know…have sexual desires. Chel, however, not only clearly has those desires but acts on them and in a way that’s not simply pandering to audiences but is both appropriate to the character and drives the plot by creating a wedge between Miguel and Tulio Great and Powerful Gods. There’s one scene I absolutely adore where Chel brings the boys some new clothes and then, instead of giving them some privacy is just waiting for them to change like…
That’s new. That’s actually kind of groundbreaking. Although, I gotta say, the movie movie walks right up to the line of what’s appropriate for a kid’s movie. You may already know about the infamous “kissing” scene between Tulio and Chel where she is obviously nowhere near his head (well, actually)…
But there’s another scene where Tulio and Miguel are talking about Chel while Tulio is holding his pants and…well…
This movie is pure filth. I love it.
Chel is soon followed by some soldiers who take all of them prisoner and bring them behind the waterfall to the hidden city of El Dorado.
So the two most powerful men in El Dorado are Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos) and the High Priest Tzekel-kan (Armand Assante). Tzekel-kan welcomes Tulio and Miguel as gods who will usher in the Age of the Jaguar. Tzekel-kan sees Chel and orders her to be executed for stealing from the temple but Chel claims she received a vision from “the gods” and went out to meet them. Tulio and Miguel, feeling a kinship with this lying con-artist, back her up and Chel is released. Tzekel-kan asks the gods to demonstrate their power, and while Tulio and Miguel argue furiously over what to do a nearby volcano erupts which convinces the locals that they really are gods. That might seem crazy lucky but it’s actually not that different from what happened in real life. Cortes was able to topple the entire Aztec Empire purely because he happened to arrive the very year the Aztecs were expecting Quetzacoatl to mount his big comeback.
So if I described this movie to you and said “Two white guys find a lost native civilisation, are worshipped as gods and then save it from being destroyed” your first reaction would most likely be “Yikes!” but as in all things it’s not what you do with a story but how you do it. El Dorado avoids the usual White Savior tropes by very consciously putting its…El Doradoan? El Doradon? Anyway, it puts them on the same level as Miguel and Tulio. It never makes them seem like dupes or naïve children in need of saving, all of the main native characters are given their own personalities and agendas. We have three main El Doradan characters, Chell, Tannabok and Tzekal-khn. Even though he was the one that proclaimed Miguel and Tulio to be gods, Tzekal-kan sees through them pretty soon. Likewise, Tannabok has obviously figured out that Miguel and Tulio aren’t gods but he goes along with the ruse because it helps him in his power struggle against Tzekal-kan and conveys legitimacy to his efforts to reform El Dorado into a more just society. And Chel? Chel has them sussed out from minute one.
The point is, all three character are active, distinct participants in the story, rather than passive objects to be saved by the white main characters.
I don’t like Tzekel-kan nearly as much as a I should, though. I really enjoy Assante’s vocal performance, he’s got some great lines and he sits in the sweet spot between entertaining and genuinely threatening. That said, I just can’t dig the character’s design. I get what they were going for, he’s modelled on a Pirahna and sure, that fits thematically and with the setting. But it just looks weird to me and I just have difficulty focusing on the character and not on the fact that is nose is higher than his eyes.
Anyway, Tulio and Miguel are brought to the temple and they can’t believe their luck. They decide to play the part of gods, fleece the El Doradans of everything they’ve got and then head back to Spain. But they don’t decide to enslave them, torture them and kill them all with smallpox meaning they are probably the most morally upstanding Spaniards in the history of the continent. Chel pops her head in and invites herself in on the con, saying that they’ll need someone who knows the local culture to help them pull off their heist.
For their first night in El Dorado, Tannabok throws the two a kick party that rapidly goes weird and technicolour because of course El Dorado was built on the site that one day become…
Of course, even after a crazy bender like that, you still have to go mass in the morning and the next day Tzekel-kan has the whole city march up to a cliff overlooking a whirlpool to offer a sacrifice to the gods.
What I really like about this scene is that it establishes that, while Tulio and Miguel might be shady conmen, they have a very clear sense of right and wrong. As soon as they realise what Tzekel-kan is about to do they’re all “Hard NO!”. They don’t even hesitate, even though they’re risking their own lives by halting the sacrifice. Tannabok seizes his chance and offers an alternative tribute, mountains and mountains of gold…which the El Doradans then proceed to throw into the whirlpool while Tulio and Miguel look on as sick as dogs.
As the days go by, Miguel starts to get more into the role of being a god and falling in love with El Dorado and its people, while Chel and Tulio start becoming closer too.
When Tzekel-kan sees Miguel playing ball with some local children, he arranges for the two gods to play Tannabok’s entire retinue of warriors. At first they get their sses handed to them but Chel hits on the bright idea of using Bilbo the armadillo as a ball and they cheat their way to victory (man, Chelsea pull that kinda shit all the time). Of course, Tzekel-kan orders the losing team to be sacrificed and Miguel is all “Okay buddy, that’s enough outta you.” and has Tzekel-kan banned from the city. TK then notices that Miguel is bleeding from where he was hit by the ball and is all “Waaaaaaait a minute…” but pretends to play nice and skulks away.
Meanwhile, Tannabok has finished building a ship for Tulio and Miguel so that they can get their gold home.
Tannabok, who has by now figured out that Miguel and Tulio are mortal, invites them to stay in El Dorado. Miguel decides to take him up on this offer when he walks in on Tulio and Chel making out and realises that he’s no longer Tulio’s best gal. Later that night at a party to bid farewell to the gods, Tzekel-kan attacks with a gigantic stone jaguar monster (man, ‘member when villains used to turn into giant monsters? Mouse ‘members). TK is about to kill them but Tulio and Miguel are able to distract him by faking an argument (aka, how Ms Mouse and I get out of paying the cheque) and then punch him so that he falls into the whirlpool. Unbeknownst to them, he survives and gets washed outside the city where he’s found by Cortes. Cortes sees Tzekel-kan’s gold earrings and growls “Where did you get these?”
Back in El Dorado, Tulio is getting ready to leave with Chel, and Miguel is getting ready to stay behind in El Dorado and they’re saying they’re goodbyes and I’m screaming at the screen “JUST KISS HIM YOU FOOL!”
But a scout arrives and warns them that Tzekel-kan is still alive and leading an army of mean looking white dudes who look like they’re just BRIMMING with smallpox. Tulio and Miguel realise they have to save the city by collapsing the passageway that leads to El Dorado by crashing their ship laden down with gold into the pillars holding the passage open. They pull it off just in time and when Cortes arrives he thinks that Tzekel-kan was lying to him and orders him to be taken away (yay!) to be sold into slavery (yikes!). And the movie ends with Tulio, Miguel, Chel and Altivo riding off to their next adventure in what was supposed to be a long series of profitable sequels. It would have been awesome.
Pretty high on the Mouse family’s rainy day rotation, the Road to El Dorado is a joyous, hilarious, colourful riot of a movie. Don’t listen to Rotten Tomatoes, don’t listen to IMDb or MetaCritic, don’t listen to the people who made it, listen to me. Mouse ever steered you wrong?
Exactly. See the damn movie.
Okay, it’s not Prince of Egypt but it’s got some sumptous visuals, lovely character designs and some spot on comedic timing.
Miguel and Tulio! Tulio and Miguel! Great and powerful leads!
Okay, my weird hang-up on the design aside, I do think Tzekal-khan is a great villain.
Supporting Characters: 17/20
Chell and the Chief are the reason why this thing doesn’t devolve into dodgy white savior tropes.
What’s the matter Mouse? Don’t like Elton John?
FINAL SCORE: 83%
NEXT UPDATE: 29 March 2018
NEXT TIME: A horse is a horse is a horse, of course…