Just before the dark times of DreamWorks Animation, and animation in general, during the mid 2000s, there was The Road to El Dorado, a film that is only wounded by its Disney-isms but not destroyed because of them.
The Road to El Dorado follows two partners, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) in their quest for gold. When they discover the city, they inadvertently become “gods” and must keep up the charade until they can escape back to Spain.
El Dorado’s biggest strength is in the life breathed into Tulio and Miguel, two of DreamWorks most fleshed out characters. While they work best playing off each other, it’s incredible how the screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) kept the two independent of each other. This film easily could have been good if it only featured one of them, and the script wouldn’t be that affected. Instead, something great happens, as Kline and Branagh seem like they were cast together because they’ve been a team for years. The dialogue is sharp and fast, and the animation pushes the “show don’t tell” subtleties of Tulio and Miguel’s friendship.
The other major characters are Chel (Rosie Perez), Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos), Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante). They’re all fairly well-written, and fun, and bring a lot to this film, but Tzekel-Kan is part of where the Disney-isms start.
Besides being a bit of a musical, which wasn’t requested and wasn’t needed, DreamWorks needed to import a Disney villain into this film. As the film goes on, he gets better, but the film is too clear too fast about who this man is. Hearing that he’s basically the interpreter for the Gods is enough of a tip-off for teenagers watching this film, and El Dorado is meant for all ages, but his Scar-like face and manner of speaking feel unnecessary. Having said that, his later scenes may have inspired The Princess and the Frog’s Shadow Man, so that’s a beautiful shout-out from The Mouse nine years later.
Saying the film is meant for everyone cannot be overstated. It’s smart, it dips into the brand of humor has been trying to balance for years (“adult), without going overboard, and El Dorado doesn’t shy away from some tense scenes (human sacrifice) or playing with film tropes and clichés. In fact, the movie handles religion in a very mature way, demonstrating how being a god isn’t all fun and games, but not bashing people over the head with what a responsibility it would be. While it’s fitting from the studio behind Prince of Egypt and Antz, it’s potentially unexpected today, when religion is such a major topic.
The second act may not be for everyone, although pacing in the film is hardly an issue, but the final act and climax are a breath of fresh air compared to what’s been the norm for decades.
El Dorado knows when to think small, and honestly, it could have been smaller. It could have even been a television show or even a radio play, but on the screen just about everything concerning money and time is budgeted just right, (apart from the musical segments that aren’t for everybody) and it shows when these two goofballs, and Chel, are just speaking effortlessly.