I have to admit, I miss the DreamWorks of yesteryear. With all due respect to recent successes like the Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon franchises, I occasionally feel a bit nostalgic for the days when DreamWorks wasn't trying to mimic Pixar and Disney. I'm not talking about the Shrek era, when everything was filled with sassy characters and instantly-dated pop culture references. I'm talking about those first five years or so, when DreamWorks was trying to find its voice and carve out a place for itself in the cinematic landscape. The first handful of DreamWorks animated flicks didn't feel like regular animated movies – they just felt like movies that happened to be animated. Antz was essentially a Woody Allen comedy set within the confines of an ant colony. The Prince of Egypt was a musically-charged Cecil B. DeMille epic. Chicken Run was a gloriously silly riff on old-fashioned prison movies like The Great Escape.
The Road to El Dorado was the most poorly-reviewed film of this early bunch, and it struggled at the box office. Even so, it's held up rather well over time, because it's a handsomely-crafted, energetic, classical adventure movie that often feels like it could have been a live-action film in the 1940s (minus the giant rock monster, of course). The film is loaded with cheerful energy, which can be said about many animated films but feels different in this case. I'm talking about the sort of cheerful energy offered by The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Man Who Would Be King and Raiders of the Lost Ark, not Madagascar 3. To be clear, it isn't as good as either of those live-action classics (not even close, honestly), but it's in the same spirit.
Our lead characters are Tulio (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh, Henry V), a pair of 16th century Spanish con men who get their hands on a map to the fabled city of El Dorado. Cortes and his vast army of men are currently on a similar quest, but our lovable scoundrels have the benefit of speed and dumb luck. Sure enough, they find El Dorado, and it's as loaded with treasure as they hoped it would be. However, to their surprise, the city is still home to a thriving society. In an attempt to swindle the natives out of their gold, the two Spaniards claim to be gods.
It's this scenario that inspires much of the film's humor, as Tulio and Miguel learn that actually backing their grandiose claims is an extraordinarily difficult task. Branagh and Kline offer a charming comic rapport, which helps overcome the fact that the characters are too indistinguishable (the only substantial differences between them seem to be hair color and the fact that Kline's character is less comfortable with the whole “pretending to be a god” thing). Before long, they find themselves accidentally delivering commandments, inspiring human sacrifices (“Wait! The stars are not in position for this tribute!”) and making empty threats (“Back mortal, before we strike you with a lightning bolt!”). It's a testament to the filmmakers that The Road to El Dorado manages to avoid turning these characters into insufferable jerks – it's always clear that their over-the-top behavior is rooted in self-preserving panic, not smug superiority. As the title hints, Tulio and Miguel are goofballs of the Hope/Crosby variety.
Additionally, the natives aren't treated in condescending fashion. Yes, the people are swindled into believing these buffoons are gods, but only because it's their first glimpse of someone from the outside world (indeed, Miguel and Tulio would hardly be the first foreigners to make such claims to an unsuspecting group of indigenous people). The authority figures, however, are suspicious of these claims. El Dorado's chief (Edward James Olmos, Battlestar Galactica) shrugs off the Spaniards' behavior as harmless foolishness and welcomes them with open arms, but the wicked Tzekel-Khan (Armand Assante, Enemy of the State) sees their arrival as an excuse to engage in a horrible religious “cleansing ritual” designed to purge the city of all wickedness (translation: anyone who isn't on board with Tzekel-Khan running things).
Elton John and Tim Rice penned the film's songs, which range from generic-but-pleasant to flat-out delightful. Critics panned the soundtrack for failing to meet the standard set by the duo's work on The Lion King, but c'mon: how many animated movies have delivered a song as terrific as "The Circle of Life"? The rousing, exposition-filled title tune is a winner, as is the breezy "The Trail We Blaze" and the pensive "Without Question." The best of the bunch is the witty, catchy "It's Tough to Be a God," a Kline/Branagh duet which also happens to be the only song actually performed by the characters (the rest are sung by John as musical narration, Phil Collins-style). The score is even better, sporting several instantly memorable, flavorfully orchestrated melodies penned by Hans Zimmer and John Powell.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not making the case that The Road to El Dorado is an undersung classic. It mostly follows the beats you expect it to follow, tacking on a predictable love story and concluding with a great big action sequence (albeit a well-choreographed one). It fails to provide a memorable female character (the attractive Chel, voiced by Rosie Perez, is merely depicted as "the girl"), and the "hey, maybe being a decent person is better than a bunch of gold" message is nothing worth writing home about. It captures the spirit of old adventure movies, but doesn't transcend or even tinker with their conventions. Still, I'd much rather sit through another dozen movies like this than another Shark Tale, Chicken Little or Rio 2. If DreamWorks had stuck with its original identity and worked on refining it, I suspect we might have gotten some real gems. Alas, that version of the studio is now as lost as El Dorado.
The Road to El Dorado
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Year: 2000