by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20. In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.
Budget: $95 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%
1999 was a bad time to be anyone in animation not working for Disney. Not in terms of quality, sweet merciful Maker no! 1999 gave us Tarzan, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Fantasia 2000, Doug’s 1st Movie, Wacko’s Wish (the direct-to-video Animaniacs movie that not enough people give due credit to), the Dexter’s Laboratory TV movie Ego Trip, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. That is the kind of embarrassment of riches that proves that today’s animated landscape can do much, much better. Quality-wise, it was a near-untouchable year. Financially… ever been stuck with a group of people in a factory as the place burns to the ground around you but you’re all still working as hard as you can because you just know the boss is going to fire you if you’re not pumping out quality products, even whilst your livelihood is going up in smoke before your eyes? I’d imagine that being somebody who worked in feature-length animation in 1999 was kind of like that.
1999 was the year of bombs. Tarzan made money, Toy Story 2 made money and South Park rode a nice wave of “AN ANIMATED FILM THAT SAYS THE F WORD?! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” to relatively decent financial success. Everything else severely underwhelmed and most bombed hard. Fantasia 2000, primarily hobbled by Disney’s… interesting release strategy, only made a $10 million profit. Doug’s 1st Movie opened in a landscape free and clear of any animated fare and still only made $5 million opening weekend before proceeding, like everything else released in April of 1999 regardless of whether they shared the same target audience, to be crushed by the enormous popularity of The Matrix (although I should point out that its planned direct-to-video nature meant that it actually closed after nearly quadrupling its budget). The excretable The King & I (because even 1999 had to have one outright puke-stain) failed to make back even half of its miniscule $25 million budget. And The Iron Giant, primarily thanks to incredible mismanagement by Warner Bros.’ distribution arm (rushed late Summer release with next to no advertising), crashed and burned at the box office so spectacularly that it all but shut down Warner Bros. Feature Animation (the only reason it didn’t is because the live-action/animation hybrids Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back In Action did even worse).
2000 would end up just as bad and, in addition to a pair of very notable Disney bombs in 2001 and 2002, spelt doom for traditional animation in feature-length films, but we shall address that situation fully in a month’s time when we reach it. For now, let’s return to DreamWorks. 1998 was a very good year for the company with both of their debut films releasing to large box office success, critical adoration and, in one instance, an Academy Award. Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned competitive desires of its CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had left the company without a release for 1999. The plan was for Antz to open in March of 1999 and for The Road To El Dorado to release in late ‘99. Neither scenario came to pass, Antz due to the A Bug’s Life feud which I am officially done referencing in this series as of now, El Dorado because… well… production on this film was “troubled,” let’s put it that way. Reports of changes of directors, changes of tone, changes in intended audience (this started off planned at a PG-13 level) changes of story (which is absolutely killer mid-production in animation as anybody with a brain can tell you) and that many of the people who were working on The Prince Of Egypt were also working on this at the same time paint the picture of a film that had sealed its own fate long before release.
Oh, and then there’s the trailer. Tell me, does this look like the kind of film that you must go and see with your kids opening weekend?
So, unsurprisingly, the film opened soft in the first weekend of April: second place with $12 million. And though it held rather steady over the following month (rarely dropping over 30% between weekends), it wasn’t a strong performer during the week and soft drops mean little if you opened poorly to begin with. It closed at nearly $51 million in the US, half of what The Prince Of Egypt was able to accomplish just fifteen months prior, and took only half that in foreign markets. To date, it is the only DreamWorks Animation film to not make its budget back. Critics, meanwhile, weren’t kind. They lambasted its generic looks, its safe and edgeless humour, its formulaic plot, the fact it it’s lightweight and has little going on thematically and, in one bizarre case from Empire magazine, the fact that the two lead heroes seemed more in love with each other than the woman that comes between them (in fact, it’s actually been rumoured that the original plan was for the film’s leads to be lovers with one another, before being dropped because this was the year 2000 and such a move was, and still is unfortunately, considered commercial suicide). Plans to create a whole franchise out of the film were very quickly scrapped and history would seem to write this one off as complete and total failure.
History would be wrong to do so, though. See, 90% of the time, films that are both critical and financial duds are duds for a reason. But, on that rare other 10% of the occasion, they end up unfairly maligned and being bewildering passed over at the box office. They’re gems that never really got a chance to prove themselves. And I think I know why such a fate befell El Dorado. See, critics adored Antz because it tackled weighty themes and they adored The Prince Of Egypt for being an epic realised in animated form with a tone befitting such ambitions. Past DreamWorks Animations were, in a way, making a purposeful play for critical praise. El Dorado instead was aiming to be a swashbuckling adventure throwback, a sort-of road trip flick, a buddy comedy and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, all mashed-up and fed through the lens of a kiddie-fied version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. It’s not trying to be deep, it’s not trying to be weighty, it’s just trying to be fun. Of course, DreamWorks had proven themselves to be more ambitious than this, so critics were going to see this as a step back. No wonder they were so hard on it. Marketing, meanwhile, took the lighter tone to mean a license to aim at the youngest kids only, despite the film’s humour hemming closer to buddy comedies that are more enjoyable by older kids and especially parents. No wonder most people stayed away.
It’s all especially a shame because The Road To El Dorado is a really good movie. Fun is a rather undervalued commodity by a lot of people, but El Dorado has it in spades. Real fun, proper fun, not the kind of “fun” that Transformers and its ilk traffic in. This is a film that moves fast, where barely a minute goes by without something funny happening in some way, where proceedings are kept super lightweight and anything that threatens to bring that mood into something darker is near-immediately distanced and the party is back on. It’s a film that wants to show you a good time, for you to sit back and let the witticisms, chase scenes, cons and overall silliness just wash over you. And it owns that totally, which is why it works so well. Plus, you know, the buddy dynamic is dead-on and excellently pulled off.
If you’re a regular visitor of the site, you’ll be aware that I saw and reviewed The Nut Job this past weekend. I bring this up because El Dorado’s leads are rather similar to the lead in that film: they’re selfish, jerk-ish criminals who only look out for one-another and have little time for performing good or heroic deeds, but who eventually grow consciences for various reasons (Miguel due to bonding with the people of El Dorado, Tulio due to falling for a young native woman by the name of Chel who wants in on their scam) and end up risking their big scores to do the right thing. In The Nut Job, this approach fails totally and just ends up creating an unlikeable dill-weed whose late-game change-of-heart rings false. But it ends up working for El Dorado. Why? Well, one of the reasons comes from the fact that the two don’t remain jerks until the 80% mark, the film does a very good job of showing them slowly developing a genuine care for the city they plan on robbing. If you’re going to do character work, you need to actually keep at it throughout the film, make it a thing whose progress you can actually track, and El Dorado does that very well.
The other reason is because El Dorado’s leads, despite being con artists attempting to swindle a mythical city out of their riches, are extremely likeable and entertaining guys. You can do less-morally inclined lead protagonists, but if you want us to actually like them you need to make them entertaining (there is a very good reason why Guardians Of The Galaxy just made all of the money, after all). El Dorado was created with the intention of making the show-stealing wacky, witty, and less clean-cut sidekicks that you normally see in animated films the lead characters and it works gangbusters. These are two extremely funny guys whose frenzied life-partner dynamic is nailed totally, by both the script and their voice actors. Tulio is Kevin Kline, so this outcome should surprise no-one who has seen A Fish Called Wanda, Miguel is Sir Kenneth Branagh which, again, should mean that this outcome surprises no-one. They, in a rare case for animated movies (schedules and all that), recorded their dialogue together at the same time in order to better sell the rhythm, cadence and delivery of the material, improv in places and, overall, just better capture the chemistry the pair are supposed to have. If you’re wondering as to whether it worked or not, here is the second half of the first scene the duo appear in.
They are a fantastic comic duo whose every bicker-filled interaction is hilarious, so the fact that they don’t start the film as paragons of virtue doesn’t matter. They’re selfish and terrible, but they’re endearing. They’re entertaining, and the fact that they’re entertaining is what makes it easy to care about them and to enjoy spending time in their presence long before their character arcs and development kick in. If a character is entertaining or interesting to watch, the audience won’t mind the fact that they’re not stand-up folks and, thusly, your attempts to get them to care about the character will work superbly. And so it goes here. The dynamic the duo share is expertly conveyed, that sense of how much their partnership matters to one another being why its eventual crumbling carries some actual emotional heft and why its eventual rebuilding leads to a finale that can leave viewers with smiles for days on end.
Since it so effortlessly nails the buddy dynamic of the equation, the rest of El Dorado basically falls into place without much of an issue. The whole movie, which lasts a brisk 90 minutes with credits, moves at a phenomenal clip, enough to let the fun of the whole adventure easily take one over but not so much that it screws up the pacing of the character arcs or the quieter scenes. Action scenes are breezy and filled with fun little character cues to keep them from just being spectacle. The comedy is of a very high standard; most of it, after all, coming from anything our two leads say or do but still finding time for some great pieces of physical comedy or silent eye-rolling snarking from Altivo, the horse that ends up inadvertently tagging along with Tulio and Miguel. Chel (voiced with maximum sass and snarkiness by Rosie Perez) doesn’t get much to do but is a very fun compliment and foil to the dynamic of the two leads, and El Dorado’s high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) is a good villain because the film knows how to pitch him; threatening when necessary but with a pathetic-ness and radical-to-a-fault devotion to human sacrifices that it can mine for comedy.
That being said, there are two little snags with El Dorado that can’t be traced back to its intended “Hey, folks! We’re here to help you have fun! Let’s all have all the fun!” nature. The first is the animation. It’s not bad, a large quantity of laughs come from a fantastic set of choices in regards to facial expressions, character poses and well-timed movements and framing. What it is, though, in terms of raw quality, is average. The colour palette is a bit muted, the scale never seems to be quite as big as the film wants it to be, there’s a lack of detail going about the backgrounds and props, and character designs themselves (with the exception of the lead duo and the “yes, they really did manage to get away with a PG for this” design for Chel) are rather uninspired and flat. More problematic are the CG enhancements which are frequent and most have not aged well at all; the one decent one is early on with the barrels that the duo hide in. Almost all of the gold is rendered in CG, with the team apparently writing an entirely new piece of software because they wanted the gold to look gold instead of a shade of yellow, and it just looks phoney. Again, the film doesn’t look bad, especially where it counts for the comedy, just average and it’s especially bewildering since the film cost $25 million more than The Prince Of Egypt did and that still holds up as, in my opinion, one of the best looking animated films ever released 15 years on.
As for the other snag? Well, this may get me lynched by some people, but the songs aren’t great. I know, I know, “How DARE you insult the work of Elton John and Tim Rice!” Look, their songs for The Lion King are iconic and exceptional, some of the best ever committed to a Disney film (and we all know that is saying a lot), I am not disputing that. Unfortunately, that means that I have high standards for them, especially so when all of the ads heavily trumpet the fact that El Dorado has six new songs by the duo, and the songs in this film aren’t even in the same country as those standards. They’re all just really, really forgettable and they really break up the pacing of the film. Most of the time they back montages, which is understandable, but they end up causing the montages to run for way too long, as they kinda just kill time until the song finally winds itself up. “Friends Never Say Goodbye” is a particular offender of this and also isn’t helped by being very noticeably on-the-nose lyrically. They’re not terrible, they’re just highly unnecessary, over-long and not good enough to make up for those facts.
The Road To El Dorado, like many actually great films that go unappreciated by critics and the general public at the time of their release, has managed to attain a sort of cult classic status on the Internet, where the art of animation and cartoons are taken very seriously indeed, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved at that development. It really does deserve a fairer re-evaluation by people, people who realise that a fun rollicking buddy-focussed adventure romp isn’t something to look down on and who haven’t been turned off by poor marketing (it even seems like some people at Disney were paying attention; think of Flynn and Maximus the horse in Tangled). It doesn’t set any worlds on fire, it’s about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool, and its animation isn’t exactly world-class, but The Road To El Dorado is damn great at what it aims to do: be fun. It perfectly nails down the core relationship between Tulio and Miguel and, as a result, the rest of the film and the fun effortlessly slot into place to create a silly, breezy and highly entertaining 90 minutes. It has no pretensions at being anything more than it is and I really appreciate and admire that kind of honesty in my films. Honesty that I’m going to borrow because, frankly, the reason I really enjoyed this movie, and why it is way better than reputation suggests, is simply the fact that it is a tonne of fun and, sometimes, that’s all that one wants. It’s a shame that audiences and critics circa 2000 didn’t seem to.
An undeserved failure with critics and the general public, El Dorado may have caused Katzenberg and the staff at DreamWorks Animation to get a little hot under the collar about their possible long-term staying power. Fortunately, this was not the only film that they were involved in in the year 2000 and their next film, co-produced with a cult British animation studio, would give them the financial and critical praise that El Dorado lacked. The animation studio: Aardman. The film: Chicken Run. Next week, we’ll take a good long look at the first of DreamWorks’ three collaborations with the creators of Wallace & Gromit.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!