So here we are, at last. My second traditionally animated DreamWorks review! If you’ve not seen my first of these, then go check out The Prince of Egypt review right now. I mean it go on. I’m not starting until you’ve read it….. Read it yet? Well the hell with you then. Let’s get started, as we always do at The Chronic Chronicler, with the obligatory overview.
It’s 1519 and Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) are two con artists in Seville, Spain have just finished getting the last of the thug Zaragoza (Tobin Bell) of his gold when he produces a map to El Dorado, wanting to bet it for all the money he lost. With Miguel believing its authenticity, he gets Tulio to gamble it all for it, using Zaragoza’s non loaded dice. They win, but are soon seen for the con men they are and, after brilliant acting and a chase scene, Miguel and Tulio accidentally get on board a ship to the New World.
The ship is that of Hernán Cortés (Jim Cummings) and he is less than pleased with the stowaways being on board and arrests them with the intention of putting them to work in a plantation in Cuba. Miguel and Tulio escape, with the help of Cortés’ rather intelligent horse Altivo (Frank Welker), but accidentally arrive in the New World.
Recognising features from the map, Miguel convinces Tulio that they must search for El Dorado so that they can make their fortune and return to Spain. And guess what? They find it, but it’s inhabited and they are mistaken as “mighty and powerful Gods”. Now the con men turned deities must keep up the charade of Gods with the help of Chel, an El Doardo native who finds out about their con and joins in, playing the El Dorado Chief Edjo Tannabok (Edward James Olmos) and the High Priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) against each other while trying to load up a ship with all the gold they can get and return to Spain. But are the wonders, and the hidden wickedness, of El Dorado to be the undoing of the con man pair?
Now I must say from the start, I enjoyed this film a lot more than I did The Prince of Egypt. Now one could argue it’s because The Road to El Dorado is more of a generic adventure tale while The Prince of Egypt is an amazing, and brave, piece of cinematography depicting a Bible story, something which is hard to translate to the big screen.
Well that is partially true, as even I admit The Prince of Egypt was a brave piece of cinema for a fledgling DreamWorks that needs to be seen, but with The Road to El Dorado has a feeling of DreamWorks finding its feet with the film being a joy to watch.
Now I’ll admit that The Road to El Dorado does not have the animated refinement that The Prince of Egypt had. The Prince of Egypt had near awe inspiring animation, whereas The Road to El Dorado has animation which is serviceable, but isn’t going to be in the Top 10 Greatest Animation lists anytime soon.
Yet, despite this, it’s still lovely to look at. It’s clean and vibrantly coloured, almost making you forget that it’s not on a par with its predecessor. There is nothing wrong with its animation and, especially in the song “It’s Tough to Be a God” and in the higher octane moments of action, it has a life of its own which one really can’t compare to The Prince of Egypt.
One thing I found slightly weird about the film is its name. The Road to El Dorado. It gives you the impression that most the film will be spent journeying to El Dorado with the ultimate climax being its discovery. Well no, they only spend 24 minutes getting to El Dorado and the rest of the film is spent there. And of that the first 16 minutes are of them accidentally getting on Cortés’ ship and arriving in the New World. So the real actual journey only takes around nine minutes, allowing for a song, a confrontation, and the general jokes in between. OK, no more nit-picking on that scale, that’s just petty. Moving on!
Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh as Tulio and Miguel are brilliant choices for the buddy adventure. Kline gives Tulio a realistic schemer who knows how far they can go in order to pull their cons off while Branagh gives Miguel the feel of almost childish longing for more and believing that they can always go one step further. With an almost sibling-esque friendship, you find yourself wanting Miguel and Tulio to succeed.
Yet, despite being con men, they never seem to be out to hurt anyone. They are presented, in a sense, like Aladdin was eight years previously. They are men breaking the law, but they are characters of sympathy rather than revulsion, something you probably have to do for a family film. Even though they are out to get all they want from the “gullible” El Dorado native, they never want to hurt them.
Chel (Rosie Perez) as Miguel and Tulio’s native assistant also brings humour and romance to the group. Perez makes what could have possible been a typical bimbo character which is solely there for the main characters to fawn upon a character of strength and humour. She has knowledge of native customs and practices and, where Miguel and Tulio (Miguel especially) can come off as a bit naïve, Chel reigns them in with her intelligence on her own people.
One thing I must be a little critical of though is the writers’ failure to give her a proper reason for joining Miguel and Tulio. When asked why she wants to join in on the con, Chel say it’s because she wants to escape El Dorado. When Miguel, a little confused on why someone would want to leave the city of gold, Chel just responds “Think you’re the only ones who dream of better things? Of adventure? You’ve got your reasons…. and I’ve got mine. Let’s not make it personal, OK?” The way she delivers this lines really implies something has gone on in he life to want to leave El Dorado, but it is never expanded upon, which was a really poor decision.
One thing I’ll quickly mention though is the handling of Chel’s relationship with Tulio (trust me; this doesn’t really spoil the film). For a family film with a focus on adventure and humour, this romantic subplot is handles really well because it isn’t made oh so sappy like many other films would have done it. Chel isn’t fawning over her love for Tulio nor vice versa, they seem to fall for each in almost a natural way, though Chel does use her femininity, and other physical features, to woo Tulio.
Even that seems to be a bit of a breath of fresh air as it is the woman chasing the man, and not vice versa as is usual in these films. But the thing I thought they handled best, and remember this is a family film, is the implication of sex. It’s pretty obvious that Tulio and Chel go all the way, but they handle it well, underplaying and also using it for comic effect. To do that in a sensible, almost adult way that doesn’t make it seem erotic (for lack of a better word) in a film children will watch is a sign of a pretty good film in my books.
But now we’re coming to the end of this review, so let’s just quickly go over some things rather briskly shall we? The music is well done, and not surprising seeing as how it was done by Elton John and Tim Rice, the same team that composed the music for The Lion King. The upbeat and positive nature of most the songs, like “The Trail We Blaze”, “Without Question” and, of course “It’s Tough to Be a God” making use of Spanish tunes as well as bombastic beats. Not only that, but Hans Zimmer gives great compositions for the music which has been really underappreciated.
Well, it was inevitable wasn’t it? Religion raises its head again in something which I think is going to be a theme for these reviews. I had no idea how much religion played a part in these traditionally animated films. I think it was quite brave of DreamWorks, after the fairly religious film The Prince of Egypt to cast the fanatical high priest Tzekel-Kan (who has a slight fixation for human sacrifices) as the villain.
But yes you could argue that the fact that a non-Christian religious figure is the villain, not help by his dark magical abilities, while the Christian Miguel and Tulio (as they are in all probability are) save the day is just another cheap jab at non-Christian ideologies. However, I must say that is nonsense as Cortés is a definite Christian and is portrayed as merciless and most definitely villainous, with Jim Cummings doing his trade mark villainous voice brilliantly. Miguel and Tulio, although as I said would have been Christians historically, are portrayed pretty much as secular, as they do not demean other people’s religions in favour of theirs. Indeed, even their act of being “Gods” isn’t really showing that their religion is wrong; rather it is solely used to for the purposes of the con and the fallibility of men. Also, DreamWorks does well to avoid the racism controversy Aladdin had suffered from as Tzekel-Kan does not have what may be considered a racist accent or stereotyping facial features which Jafar, as well as other characters, were said to have against the pale skinned, Anglo-American sounding protagonists.
Seeing how far I’ve gone I’ll end it there by saying that The Road to El Dorado is an unappreciated film that had a hell of a job to do. It had to follow up The Prince of Egypt, a blockbusting, star-studded, beautifully animated film on the Moses story. The Road to El Dorado has less attention paid to it because of The Prince of Egypt, in terms of staff and because of it, despite having more money in production costs, made a loss of $19 million.
But The Road to El Dorado is friendly and fun. It puts me in mind of some of Disney’s underrated films like The Emperor’s New Groove or Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It even puts me in mind of Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, a film we will be getting to in the course of this review series. They’ll never be remembered as classic, but you’ll probably be still watching them years later and still finding fun in them. So there we go, nothing awe-inspiring, but a fun film that satisfies while it’s around, and still will when it’s gone. Now I’m off to listen to “It Tough to Be a God” again, I can’t get it out of my head.