The Road to El Dorado
by Jason Morrison
Dreamworks deserves serious praise for what it tried to do with its first feature-length animated movie, The Prince of Egypt. They went against the Disney formula by dealing with Biblical themes, leaving out the cute animal sidekicks and dealing with human suffering and death.
But while The Road to El Dorado shares some of the previous film's visual innovation, it's also a bit of a rebound back toward a more Disney-esque story. No one dies or really gets hurt, there's two animal sidekicks (at least they don't talk), and in general the film glosses over big issues with song and dance numbers.
On the other hand, there are some ways in which El Dorado is so strange it's almost pure anti-Disney. There's no moral to the story, or at least there's no one-liner to sum it all up. And there's some really, really obvious sexual innuendo most animation producers, and the religious right, would shy from.
So which one is it? How can a movie be both unfortunately formulaic and oddly groundbreaking? This cuts to the center of the film's problem-there's a lot of potential, but it fails so miserably in a few key aspects that it's almost more disappointing than enjoyable.
The plot is an illustration of the point. Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline) are two con men caught with loaded dice. They distract the crowd by pretending to fight but make off with a supposed map to the legendary city of gold. They end up captured on Cortez's ship on its way to Cuba and midway through enlist the help of his horse and all three escape to a rowboat. They hit shore and follow the map, eventually making it to a stone and no city-when a native girl, Chel (Rosie Perez) runs out of the mist with a gold idol.
Guards come and the two white boys on horseback are taken for gods. As Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante), the city's religious leader, and the city chief (Edward James Olmos) compete for their attention, Chel finds out about their deception and bargains with them-she'll help them stay godlike if they'll take her with them when they leave.
The two begin trying to plan a way out but are caught between the two officials. Tzekel-Kan, in particular, is constantly trying to sacrifice people to them. Miguel begins to wander about the city, falling in love with the architecture and the people. Meanwhile, Tulio begins to fall in love with Chel, or at least she seduces him.
Hijinks ensue. The two think of excuses to stop sacrifices (of people and gold), play a basketball-like game and win by, of course, cheating, and in general wreak havoc until Miguel is forced to stop Tzekel-Kan from killing people.
Tzekel-Kan figures out the ruse and attacks with a powerful stone jaguar-the pair survive, but now Cortez himself is coming to town.
So what's the message? Cheating seems to be a consistently good way to go. Chel, obviously and overtly using sex to get her way, seems more like an animator's wet dream than a character, really. The chief's secular humanism seems to win out over the priest's religious devotion, and the natives never seem to take the whole gods thing too seriously to seem backward. Tulio and Miguel's friendship is a strong theme, but so is unrepentant greed. Near end, they leave the city with a boatload of gold, only to lose it in a tidal wave. So the equation is, people are nice, but people < gold < saving our own lives.
Such moral ambiguity is not a problem in and of itself-"Prince of Egypt's" plague scenes revealed a nasty side to God's will and made the movie that much more powerful. But El Dorado fails, again and again, to really capitalize on what's going on. The jokes about being taken as gods (Hi-fiving "You da god!" "No, you da god!") are there, but most are halfhearted and don't make the natives look too foolish. Go with it! Make the characters have real changes of heart by then end, and you'll have a much better movie.
Some scenes succeed brilliantly. At one point a giant rock-jaguar is tearing through town and picks up a guard by the mouth. He ends up being thrown up and out, landing beneath it. "I'm okay!" he shouts, right as the jaguar's back foot slams down. "I'm still okay," he said, muffled under the stone. At other points in the story we get hints that the pair's relationship is more than just friends-as they think they're going to die on the sea, Migues says to Tulio (more or less)-"I just wanted to tell you-you know that guy in Barcelona?" Tulio, aghast, says "You didn't!"
But then it fails in other parts. One failure is the music. Elton John and Tim Rice are responsible for this one (for the first time since the Lion King, which won a godawful number of awards) and manage to spew out hokey lyrics and uninspiring melodies throughout. Who keeps dragging these aging, pasty rockers from the adult contemporary stations and putting them in movies set in the wild? And they're really stretching on this one-at least "it's the circle of life" was somewhat original. El Dorado's sound track is filled with crap about the path we paved together, friendship, etc., etc., crap.
Another failure was the animation of one of the two main characters, Miguel. The blond, adventurous one of the pair, he is also oddly and inexplicably disfigured. It's not that he has scars or dents in his head, it's just that the lines making up his face just didn't look like a face. Each time the camera came in for a close up, my mind failed to recognize exactly what the picture was for a few moments. And Branagh teeters annoyingly between having a British accent and not.
While at the same time the animators successfully adapted Aztec-style art into the picture, beginning with a beautiful opening sequence and reappearing through Tzekel-Kan's magic. They have received some criticism for emphasizing certain of the natives' features. In all fairness, they emphasize features on Europeans, too, so it doesn't seem particularly racist. And the most glaringly emphasized features in the film, of course, are Chel's-man, they have really stopped pretending on this one. Her chest, waist and hips reach Japanese anime proportions.
The Road to El Dorado could have easily been a much better movie, and that's terrible. The story and characters only scratch the surface of some rich thematic soil. Hopefully, Dreamworks will learn its lesson and be a little more uncompromising next time.