Friday, March 18, 2016

The Road to El Dorado Review

While browsing Tumblr and other social media outlets I'll occasionally see internet memes from Dreamworks' animated feature The Road to El Dorado (2000). I remember enjoying it when it hit theaters 16 years ago, so it put me in the mood to see it again. The animation has aged well, and it's still an amusing animated family film. The Road to El Dorado is not quite as good as I remember, but it certainly is fun.
Con-men Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) get hold of a map to the lost City of Gold, El Dorado. After stowing away onto one of the ships of the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés (Jim Cummings), the pair escapes and eventually do find the city. There, a fanatically vicious high priest named Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) who has a religious fixation for human sacrifices, proclaims them to be gods in a scheme to win control of the city for himself. Meanwhile, they meet a beautiful woman named Chel (Rosie Perez) who helps them in their ruse to escape El Dorado with as much gold as possible.
I've got to give props to Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh for their roles as Miguel and Tulio. Both characters made the movie incredibly fun. The characters are experienced con artists who have well rehearsed "arguments" to distract people who catch on to their ruses, which get them out of trouble. They do this a couple of times in the movie, resulting in staged fist fights, slapping, and sword play which ultimately gives them a means of escaping. These moments are terrifically charming, and they make me wonder if Kline and Branagh were improvising these lines only to have them animated later on. I wouldn't put it past them, since both actors are very skilled and they seem to bounce off of each other magnificently; those scenes do have an improvised comedy quality to them. The characters felt a bit thin, but the actors did a remarkable job working with what they had to make them lovable.
The animation in The Road to El Dorado was pretty great. It's 2D cell animation, which was becoming a rarity then and is even more so now. The well- executed animation in this film gave it a classic feel that is a delight to watch. I remembered there being CGI monster toward the end that Tzekel-Kan had summoned, but as it turned out I was remembering it wrong; it's just a really well animated hand drawing. The animation does some creative things with the lighting and took some interesting creative liberties during some musical numbers. I can't say anything new or innovative was used in terms of the animation, but what it does is some solid, classic 2D cell animation.
It's quite annoying when an animated feature thinks it needs to include a musical number for every single bit of plot development. Yes, musical numbers can be great, but too much of them is overkill and can weaken the overall quality of the movie. The Road to El Dorado teeters on the edge of too much. The music was provided by Tim Rice, who did the musical numbers for Disney classics such as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, as well as Elton John, who provided the music for The Lion King. The music and songs in El Dorado are great, but their incorporation into the movie seemed awkward at times and unnecessary at other times. Most of the music was used to fill in a lack of dialogue during several montages. Few occasions had characters actually singing about something to move the plot forward, and when it did, it felt forced. The music was good, but the implementation didn't feel right, almost as if the producers felt an obligation to include songs for the sake of entertaining kids when the moment in the movie would have been fine without it.
The story in The Road to El Dorado wasn't exactly boring, but it was predictable. In other hands, the story might have centered more on Cortés, whose ship catches up to Tulio and Miguel in the New World. But this is a story of two pals who get caught up in events beyond their comprehension after being mistaken for gods. The story ultimately recycles a lot from The Man Who Would Be King; one likes being a god, the other doesn't. They intend to get away with as much gold as possible, but end up loving the people and try to defend them from harm from within and without the city of El Dorado. The story simply doesn't do a whole lot that you can't see coming from a ways off.
On the plus side the story doesn't suffer from one towering central figure who gets all the screen time (like many Disney animated feature films do). This liberates The Road to El Dorado for goofiness. There aren't any serious themes lurking about or uplifting lessons to learn. It's just a couple of con men in over their heads and their gal pal and a horse that sometimes is smarter than the other three put together. Since the horse doesn't speak, it's able to exploit the miming gifts of the animators. There is a moment where the two heroes and their horse are in a rowboat somewhere in the ocean off Central America. It looks like the end. Then a seabird appears, circles and lands on their boat. This is a good omen. Land must be near. Then the bird drops dead. Bad sign. Then a shark leaps out of the sea and snaps up the bird in one gulp. Piling gag on top of gag is the strategy of the film, not unlike The Emperor's New Groove. It's here for laughs, not to be profound. The movie doesn't take itself too seriously and we shouldn't either. That being said, the less you know about history, the better your chances of enjoying this movie.
The Road to El Dorado is a fun, light hearted romp of a movie that the whole family could enjoy. Most of the characters are flat, but they are in the hands of some fantastic actors who make their characters loveable. The story is hardly profound, deep, or innovative, but it isn't trying to be. It's just here to entertain and create a few laughs. It's a decent enough movie, but I would have thought it would have been forgotten eventually if not for the fact that humorous internet memes keep popping up here and there. It's a fun movie to look up and watch every once a blue moon or so, but unless you have kids that really love this sort of movie, it's probably not worth owning.

The Road to El Dorado took a number of creative liberties in their interpretation of historical events in order to tell a fun story. What are some other ridiculously misrepresented historical events depicted in movies in the effort to tell a fun story? There are good ones out there, right? Comment below and let me know!

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