The Road to El Dorado was produced by DreamWorks and was released in 2000, in direct competition with The Emperor's New Groove, Disney's similar animated film set in Peru. It took 4½ years and cost about $95 million to make but only grossed about $74 million in cinemas around the world. It was directed by Don Paul and Eric Bergeron.
The film starts in Spain in 1519, where lovable rogues Tulio and Miguel gain possession of a map showing the location of the mythical city of gold - El Dorado. A chain of circumstances deposits them next to the gateway stone of El Dorado where they meet Chel, a young woman and fellow rogue. Inside the city, Miguel and Tulio are mistaken for gods and plan to use this status to obtain gold and immense riches before returning to Spain. However, when the High Priest of El Dorado turns against them and the Spanish Conquistadors advance on the city, the pair have to decide where their loyalties really lie.
We first meet Miguel and Tulio on the streets of a Spanish port, gambling surprisingly successfully. They win a map but their loaded dice are discovered, so they run away. They leap over a wall and land in barrels of water that are then lifted aboard the ship owned by Cortes, a Spanish Conquistador. The stowaways are discovered and thrown into the brig but thanks to Cortes' horse Altivo, who brings them the keys when they promise him an apple, they escape the prison and leave the ship in a lifeboat, taking Altivo with them.
The long journey in the boat tests their strength, and at the point when they think they're not going to survive, they tell each other how much their friendship means to them. Just then, they find land, and discover they are in exactly the right place to follow the map. The journey through the jungle is challenging as they encounter rough terrain and dangerous creatures, but they make time for skinny dipping in a hot spring (then have to chase the monkeys that have stolen their clothes in the meantime). A mist comes in and they fall over a cliff, but land next to the gateway stone of El Dorado. They meet Chel running from some warriors. The three are captured (along with Altivo and an armadillo) and taken through a waterfall to El Dorado.
Miguel and Tulio meet Tannabok, the Chief, and Tzekel-Kan, the High Priest, and are mistaken for gods so, with Chel's help, they enjoy the delights of the city of gold (although they are not keen on the culture of sacrifice) and their demands for a boat to leave in are reluctantly agreed to by the Chief. Tzekel-Kan challenges the friends to play a ball game against a team of experienced players, to test their divine skills - they win with the help of Chel, Altivo and the armadillo. Tulio and Chel become close, so Miguel feels left out and wonders if he would prefer to stay in El Dorado, but his thoughts are put to one side when Tzekel-Kan brings a giant stone jaguar to life and the Conquistadors arrive at the gateway to the city. Tulio and Miguel use their favourite trick of pretending to fight each other before turning on their common enemy to defeat Tzekel-Kan, then they make a plan to protect the city from the external threat. Finally they ride off into the sunset1 with Chel and Altivo, having lost a lot but kept their friendship.
The film is rated PG, as there is some mild bad language (although when Miguel and Tulio are trying to escape in the lifeboat but are still in Cortes' path, Tulio yells 'Holy Ship!' rather than anything stronger). There are also suggestive scenes and innuendo, as Chel encourages Tulio to massage her shoulders and then their afternoon activities are left to the audience's imagination. The final scenes of the battle against the stone jaguar are intense, so would potentially be disturbing to young children.
Tulio is voiced by Kevin Kline with Miguel voiced by Kenneth Branagh. Tall, dark-haired Tulio is the more serious of the two friends, who likes to think hard2 before taking action. Short, blond Miguel is the opposite, often rushing ahead without thinking, much to Tulio's amusement and puzzlement.
Miguel, you know that little voice people have that tells them to quit when they're ahead? You don't have one!
The two actors recorded their lines in the same room3, helping to strengthen the chemistry between the friends and ensuring the dialogue is fast-paced and sharp. They had previously both appeared in the cheesy steampunk Western film Wild Wild West with Will Smith. Kevin Kline is a US actor known for A Fish Called Wanda and other comedy films. He provided the voice of Phoebus in Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame. Actor and director Kenneth Branagh was born in Northern Ireland and had roles in films including Shakespeare plays and Peter's Friends. He was also the narrator of the Walking with Dinosaurs TV series before lending his voice to The Road to El Dorado.
Chel, voiced by Rosie Perez, wears skimpy clothes that show off her ample hips and bosom, but she is not just a pretty face as her wily schemes make her a worthy partner of Tulio and friend to Miguel. As keen on gold as they are, she gladly teaches them the ways of El Dorado to help them survive, and plans to share in their riches when they return to Spain.
Rosie Perez is an actor, comedian and choreographer of Puerto Rican origin. She has appeared in documentaries and on talk shows as well as in films such as White Men Can't Jump and Fearless, for which she was Oscar-nominated. She provided voices for characters in an animated TV series based on fairytales called Happily Ever After, but The Road to El Dorado was the first animated film she worked on.
Chief Tannabok is voiced by Edward James Olmos. We first meet him with his family. He's wearing a skirt-like garment as well as earrings and a necklace, and he's holding a baby. His chest is bare, and he has an ample bosom, soft lips and long hair, so he is feminine in aspect, especially when contrasted with the angular features of his High Priest. It is clear he loves his people and nurtures them (plus he has a soft spot for little Miguel).
Edward James Olmos, a US actor of Mexican descent, was known for roles in TV series since the 1970s, including Miami Vice, plus he also provided voices for characters in Happily Ever After. He appeared in films including Blade Runner and went on to appear in TV series Dexter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Battlestar Galactica series amongst other roles. The Road to El Dorado was the first animated film he worked on.
Tzekel-Kan the High Priest of El Dorado, is a master of brewing potions, the most powerful of which require human sacrifice (and a cocktail umbrella). He also made prophecies and recognised Tulio, Miguel and Cortes as features of them, so he hopes to use this knowledge to take over the city.
Armand Assante, who has played roles in films including Judge Dredd and the animated film Rashi: A Light After the Dark Ages, is well cast as Tzekel-Kan, providing a voice that is intense and cunning.
Cortes the Spanish Conquistador has a relatively small role, mainly being required to loom menacingly at dramatic points in the story. His voice is provided by Jim Cummings, a veteran of animated films and TV series including Who Framed Roger Rabbit (in which Jim played Bullet Number 2), two minor roles in Disney's Aladdin, the title role in various Winnie the Pooh adventures, and Ed in The Lion King amongst many many other roles. He provided several voices for DreamWorks' first animated film Antz, too.
Altivo is a sensible horse, and a good friend to Miguel and Tulio, not letting them get away with their promises to him but also looking out for them - it is Altivo who recognises the approach of Cortes and warns everyone about the threat. He is 'voiced' by Frank Welker, another veteran of animated films and TV series whose roles include Fred in Scooby Doo adventures, Dr Claw in Inspector Gadget, and Abu the monkey in Aladdin amongst numerous other roles.
There was a suggestion early in the development of the film that Miguel and Tulio would be a gay couple, which would have been pioneering for an animated film. In the end the main inspiration for their relationship was the 'Road to...' movies starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby with Dorothy Lamour. The main characters are just good friends who look out for each other and are comfortable together, whether naked or clothed (although Miguel and Tulio do occasionally indulge in smouldering glances). Smouldering glances are also exchanged between Miguel and the Chief, in counterpoint to the relationship between Tulio and Chel. Thus the film can be enjoyed as more than just a 'buddy movie' and has attracted a cult following over the years since it closed in cinemas.
Historical details of Mayan culture influence the story and events in the film. High Priest Tzekel-Kan consults a book of legends that includes stylised pictures of Cortes and Miguel, Tulio and their friends (plus the DreamWorks logo of a child sitting on a crescent moon with a fishing rod). The Mayans' myths and legends were documented in the 1550s in a book called Popol Vuh. In particular, the legend of the Hero Twins is about two brothers who travel to Xibalba the spirit world, play the ball game and defeat the Xibalban lords through trickery. In The Road to El Dorado we see a whirlpool that is the gateway to Xibalba (pronounced Shivalva) and the people of El Dorado sacrifice people and gold into it. Miguel and Tulio can be seen as representing the Hero Twins and hence they are worshipped as gods.
There are various other influences on the film. The directors liken the banter between Tulio and Miguel to that of Joey and Chandler in the sitcom Friends. The film also has similarities to other animated films of the time, but instead of having one hero with amusing sidekicks, the sidekicks are the heroes here. A key plot point is when the friends are identified as not being gods after Miguel bleeds from a cut he sustained in a ball game - this is similar to The Island of Doctor Moreau which features a hidden world and gods who are revealed to be men when one of them is scratched and bleeds.
Tulio and Miguel are roguish but ultimately good, as they often cheat in games (such as gambling with loaded dice and using the armadillo to help them in the ball game). They ultimately win the prize through fair means, using unbiased dice to win the El Dorado map, and a real ball to beat their opponents at the game (although Altivo's hoof created a vibration that helped to tip the ball in their favour). They are also opposed to the human sacrifice that is practised in El Dorado, saving the life of a man and sparing the losing team after the ball game.
Colour is an important theme. At the start of the film Miguel and Tulio are more colourful than the beige of their surroundings and fellow townspeople, indicating how they don't fit in. Grey-blues and misty greens are associated with Tzekel-Kan and his mysterious potions and prophecies. The colours of El Dorado are very vivid, emphasising the allure of the city of gold.
Humour of various kinds is a key feature, especially farce, as the friends find themselves in numerous implausible situations, such as when they fall from a height and land safely in barrels of water. There is also visual humour, such as when Tulio splashes through some water, Miguel has to help him pull leeches off his skin, and then a fish bites Tulio on the bottom. Some humour would appeal more to adults than to children, such as when Chel picks Tulio's pocket and suddenly presents the loaded dice to him. Tulio asks how she did it, but Miguel asks where she had been keeping them, as her outfit didn't seem to leave enough to the imagination. There is plenty of humour in the banter between Tulio and Miguel, too, as Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline often ad-libbed to find the funniest phrases.
Tulio: Any last words?
Miguel: I will cut you to ribbons!
Tulio: Fool! Such mediocrity! Let your sword do the talking!
Miguel: I will, it will be loquacious to a fault!
After the success of Disney's The Lion King, Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer were keen to compose music for another animated film. Six of their songs feature in this film, alongside guitar music by Heitor Pereira (who later provided music for Despicable Me) and string music by Triology. Hans Zimmer and John Powell composed the rest of the soundtrack. The songs fit in well with the story. Sung by Elton John, the song 'El Dorado' sets the scene, and 'The Trail We Blaze' accompanies Miguel and Tulio's journey through the jungle. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh sing 'It's Tough to be a God' as the friends enjoy the party the Chief throws in their honour. 'Without Question' is sung by Elton as Miguel starts to fall in love with the city. 'Friends Never Say Goodbye' indicates that even when they are upset with each other and threatened with being separated, Miguel and Tulio's friendship is still important to them. The main theme 'Someday out of the Blue' and a reprise of 'Without Question' accompany the closing credits.
The Road to El Dorado was released on VHS and DVD in 2000. It was re-released on DVD in 2015. Extras include audio commentary by the directors, 'making of' features and the music video for 'Someday out of the Blue' featuring an animated Elton John.