It kind of feels hard to place these traditionally animated films in the DreamWorks pantheon, partly because they’re greatly outnumbered by their 3D counterparts, but also because, having been produced in the studio’s infancy, are kind of sporadic in tone. But while The Prince of Egypt was decidedly more serious, this one feels a bit more like the studio’s territory, filled with sharp dialogue and an overall air of irreverence. I remember as a kid loving this movie. Back then I seemed to have a penchant for fast-paced dialogue and vocal deliveries… for some reason; I loved The Angry Beavers too for many of the same reasons. Very specifically delivered and random lines from this film have stayed with me for one reason for another. It’s more than a little bizarre. But anyway, this movie definitely doesn’t feel like a Disney-like epic, but it is grand in scale. Its off-beat humor style gives it a distinction, and continues with the decidedly more mature themes as DreamWorks’ films have had so far, but a lot of them fly mostly under the radar.
In 16th century Spain live Miguel and Tulio, two comical con men and hetero life mates who wind up prisoners on Cortes’ ship to the New World. They manage to make their escape with the “help” of apple-loving horse Altivo, and upon hitting land, the idealist Miguel suggests they follow a mysterious map they won earlier in a rigged dice game, that allegedly leads to the fabled city of El Dorado. Tulio, the more sensible one, is hesitant at first, but eventually gives in, if only for the promises of heaps of gold. Well, the map was accurate after all, as the two eventually find themselves in El Dorado, but turns out that they greatly represent the figures of a foretold prophecy of the gods returning to the sacred city. This triggers the ultimate con: Miguel and Tulio pose as gods while they plot how they’re going to get the hell out with as much gold as they can, with sexy, savvy native girl Chel as their go-between. The two must deal with the wicked high priest Tzekel-Kan, who has a penchant for dark magic and human sacrifice, and a wedge drives them apart when Miguel develops a love for the city and decides to stay behind.
I really do enjoy the leads here, even with their moral ambiguity; if nothing else, it’s very entertaining to watch them bitch and squabble. Though I’m not quite sure why they got Kevin Kline, an American, and Kenneth Branagh, an Irishman, to voice two Spaniards, but whatever. The beginning with their fake fight preceding their getaway sets them up perfectly; these guys have been in this game for a long time and they know how to bullshit. Their relationship is pretty straight forward, with Miguel being the more daring, outlandish one, leaving Tulio the cautious straight man, but it works for the film, and the performances elevate the characters a bit above these archetypes. Miguel becomes a man of the people, while Tulio’s focus on the plan quickly crumbles in the arms of Chel. And goddamn, she has got to be, hands down, the hottest animated character in film history. Not to sound like a skeevy perv or anything. Also great is the butting heads of the high priest and Chief Tannabok, who have two completely different ideologies, who Miguel and Tulio initially try to pit against each other for their own purposes.
The film is pretty damn gorgeous, going from the drab streets of Spain to the dank, dreary seas to the gorgeously technicolor city of gold. Speaking of, the gold is all rendered in CG, along with other elements, which for the most part merge with the traditional animation seamlessly. Doing the gold that way is kind of neat, making it seem even more awe-inspiring and accentuated, all the more enticing for our two leads. Many sequences are wonderfully choreographed and executed, like the fight with Tzekel-Kan’s stone jaguar, and the grand finale of smashing the pillars and sealing El Dorado for the world forever. The film also features many songs written by Elton John, DreamWorks obviously trying to have lightning strike twice with John off of The Lion King. Well, the songs are fine… but that’s about it. The only ones that stick out to me are the opening (“EL DORAAAAAAAAAAA-DOOOOOO!”) and “It’s Tough to Be a God,” mostly because of the ridiculously surreal party sequence, which descends into multicolored drunken madness.
With Miguel and Tulio’s snappy bickering purveying the entire film, there definitely is a light air here, which at times seems to clash when the movie tries to be more serious and epic. Also slightly bizarre are the use of cartoony sound effects: every now and then there’ll be a bell ringing or a record scratch that comes out of nowhere, used for comedic effect. When your leads are quipsters, it’s kind of hard to play things completely straight; the film succeeds for the most part in balancing the comedic with the serious, but at times it seemed to go overboard with the snarky commentary.
I still really enjoy this movie, definitely the most entertaining of the three so far. It’s sort of like an off-brand Disney epic with wise cracking heroes and more adult content pertaining to human sacrifice, betrayal, and lots of sexual tension (did I mention Chel is smoking hot?) But even with all that, the film still worked for me as a kid, and it works even better for me now. Though I wouldn’t really say there’s anything particularly spectacular here, all the elements come together and work to make an enjoyable adventure picture.
Also, quick bit of trivia. The man who Miguel and Tulio get the map from at the beginning of the film is voiced by… Tobin Bell, best known as Jigsaw from the Saw movies. Didn’t catch it at first, but you can definitely hear it’s him. Odd. “I want to play a game… of dice.”