THE ROAD TO EL DORADO: fun but erratic animation lost to the ages (2000 In Film #13)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 31st, DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado

Though containing all of the elements you would imagine might make a rip-roaring, animated comedy adventure, The Road to El Dorado was, surprisingly, one of the biggest initial box office failures of the year 2000.

DreamWorks Pictures, founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, as an arm of his own Amblin studio, had up to this point been on something of an animated roll. Antz did well in the animated battle with the similar A Bug’s Life, from their rivals Pixar. The Prince of Egypt was a prestige animated picture, with a star cast and a blend of animation and musical picture elements in working to recapture the scale of The Ten Commandments for new audience. The Road to El Dorado was very much designed to follow suit in Katzenberg’s eyes – a sizeable rival to Pixar’s almost immediate, revolutionary skill with Toy Story, and part of a challenge to Disney’s long-held animated dominance.

For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, despite the alchemy that one would consider a recipe for success. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, both talented comedic and dramatic actors, voicing the lead characters; a clear and recognisable legend and setting with the 15th century and the lost city of gold; and even songs from Elton John & Tim Rice, who helped define 90’s Disney animation with their music for The Lion King. A sure-fire hit would almost certainly be a safe bet and while The Road to El Dorado opened fairly well, second on it’s debut weekend ahead of Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity while in the slipstream of the rampant Erin Brockovich, it soon plummeted to a worldwide gross twenty million under it’s hefty, near $100 million budget.

This is probably the main reason The Road to El Dorado has ended up forgotten in the annals of recent animated cinema: nobody went to see it.

Part of the reason The Road to El Dorado tanked could be simply because the film wasn’t from the House of Mouse, even if it works to try and replicate the same kind of formula, and therefore audiences didn’t have the brand loyalty for DreamWorks to the same degree, yet this is almost certainly only part of the issue.

DreamWorks, after all, scored big on Antz—with Woody Allen, then feted and now largely disgraced, voicing the lead character—and even bigger on The Prince of Egypt. What they sought for The Road to El Dorado was a different tone, something more akin to a romp; indeed the title itself was inspired by the classic Bob Hope & Bing Crosby Road To… series of films from the 40’s through to the 60’s, which traded off that duo’s immense comic duo charisma. Katzenberg wanted the same for the characters of Tulio and Miguel, a pair of 15th century Spanish rogues who end up stowaways on a ship belonging to legendary conquistador Hernan Cortes, sailing for the New World with a map to El Dorado in their pockets. They are straight up played for comedy from minute one, in a change of style from the slightly more serious The Prince of Egypt.

The casting of Kline and Branagh was a deliberate move to capture a level of on-screen natural charisma, to the point both actors recorded their lines at the same time in the studio in order to trade off one another. You can feel that in the performances of the two, with Kline the more anxious and panicked Tulio while Branagh plays it more relaxed and easy-going as Miguel. The two had recently co-starred in the critical disaster that was 1999’s Wild Wild West, where Branagh was the villain of the piece, but they were recognisable names and should theoretically have managed to draw in audiences. Yet still nobody ventured out. The reason perhaps is that, tonally, The Road to El Dorado never quite settles on quite the film it wants to be.

Ostensibly, it plays everything for comedy. Tulio & Miguel are hapless comic buffoons who end up stumbling into El Dorado, the lost land, and play on the simple natives belief that they are their Gods, returned as prophecies dictate. Miguel slips into this role with greater ease than Tulio but that serves as the nub of the picture – two chancers trading off a mistaken sense of identity, passing themselves off as Gods for their own personal and material gain. DreamWorks enjoy the comedy of this, playing on the idea of a less advanced society being taken in by men from the ‘civilised’ (read: corrupt) world, but taking advantage with a tongue firmly in cheek and a loveable side which emerges once Cortes begins to hover in the distance, and Armand Assante’s villainous Tzekel-Kan, an El Dorado priest, exposes them and attempts to make a power play.

As you might imagine, the result therefore ends up as a fairly predictable story: Tulio & Miguel realise the El Dorado locals are good natives they come to care about, mainly through their relationship with the Dorothy Lamour of the piece, Rosie Perez’s beauty Chet, and ultimately help save them from the dastardly internal and external forces looking to exploit the city for bigger gain than both of them do. There is nothing particularly fresh and original here—even Elton John’s ballad ‘El Dorado’ and ‘The Trail We Blaze’, amongst a soundtrack filled with his and Tim Rice’s numbers, feel like pale imitations of what they achieved in The Lion King. Nothing about The Road to El Dorado is poor, as such, it is rather all just trading off half a dozen previous films and genres that did it better in the past. That’s the other frustration – you never feel much of a sense of wonder from Don Paul & Eric ‘Bibo’ Bergeron’s film.

The Road to El Dorado flirts with a sense of derring-do and Indiana Jones-style adventure and supernatural mysticism but never commits to that road, perhaps concerned with alienating audiences DreamWorks were keen to include. Hence why the intended romantic aspect of Chet with one of the leads—likely Miguel—was toned down to appeal to younger audiences. Yet they might have been more entertained by a deeper sense of adventure and action than the film provides. It never seems to really understand it’s place as a piece of animation, certainly in the Pixar world, as they began making assured films that knew what they were. Perhaps that’s why The Road to El Dorado has ended up as lost in time as the city it features, and why it failed even two decades ago.

If it had been as relaxed and self-assured as Miguel, we might remember it like we do The Lion King or Toy Story twenty years on.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

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  • This was one of my favorite animations back in the day. I was probably 7 or so when I first saw it via the CD player we had. It has been a mystery to me that not a lot of people knew/know about it. I can totally relate to your comment about the film not really “fitting” into the type of story it is trying to be. Informative as always!

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