I remember hearing about The Road to El Dorado in 2000 during my senior year of high school. It looked too juvenile for me. However, I did hear that it had some adult stuff in it, like characters getting naked and using swear words. Still, it was a cartoon. I know, animation isn’t purely the realm of children’s stories. But the animation style seemed deliberately aimed at a younger Disney audience. So I avoided it for many years.
My wife recently wanted to watch old DreamWorks movies she had seen long ago. So we found a copy of The Road to El Dorado and sat down and watched the thing. I was right about what I had expected to find in it. But at the end, I was left with a burning question. Who was this movie made for?
Not Childish Enough
If it were aimed at children, why did the filmmakers throw in sudden moments of grown-up language and nudity? They feel so out of place in a movie whose tone seems to be going for something similar to The Emperor’s New Groove.
The two main characters are fun and wacky 16th century Spaniards, and they rely on unbelievable amounts of luck to scrape by in the New World. The trouble is that the story is too adult for its own good.
For example, those two characters are pretending to be gods to a bunch of natives in order to steal their gold. That’s off-putting enough, yet they have to keep hammering that point home because the movie is stuck once they reach El Dorado halfway through its runtime. There’s nothing else for them to do, and there aren’t any creative situations for them to think their way out of. They just rely on dumb luck to win the day.
Also, one of the guys falls in love with a native girl, and the pair get awfully distracted lusting after each other. Meanwhile, the other guy gets antsy about all the human sacrifice going on in El Dorado. That is some heady subject matter for a movie aimed at kids. Not that it’s impossible to pull off something like that. 1998’s Mulan had a lot of these elements, and it worked beautifully. But this movie doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing, so its efforts at childishness and seriousness constantly fall flat.
Not Adult Enough
If it were aimed at adults, why would this film have so many unnecessary songs and goofy montages? And of course it had to involve silly animal side characters. Like I said, nothing about this movie called out to me as a young adult. Even in my youthful ignorance I could see this film’s lazy attempt at appealing to a Disney audience. And I didn’t even realize to what extent they were desperately trying.
The songwriter and lyricist for The Road to El Dorado were none other than Elton John and Tim Rice, respectively. The very same musicians who worked their magic on a little film called The Lion King in 1994. Oh, and Tim Rice? He also wrote the lyrics for half of the songs in 1992’s Aladdin.
Speaking of Aladdin, who wrote The Road to El Dorado? Why, Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, two of the writers of Aladdin. I could say a lot about their genius in crafting The Mask of Zorro and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. But that’s a whole other discussion. In this case, their talents are wasted.
Why didn’t The Road to El Dorado appeal to adult audiences? Because it was trying to recreate some of Disney’s most iconic films by bringing together talented people seemingly without a plan. All of that in an attempt to copy their previous success. No song in this film stands out as terribly memorable, and the dialogue doesn’t pop the way it should.
A DreamWorks Film That Gets It Right
Thankfully, my wife and I didn’t just check out The Road to El Dorado. We also found another obscure DreamWorks film. A little 2003 gem called Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Now that’s how to appeal to both children and adults. That movie is really good. Not a classic or some genre-defining work of art, but a surprisingly solid adventure tale.
Like The Road to El Dorado, it’s about a thief with a secretly soft heart who goes on a long journey by sea and winds up saving a whole city from certain doom. But it’s the way it tells its story that makes all the difference. The titular Sinbad is jaded and self-centered, but that’s all on the surface. The film actually takes the time to put him into different scenarios that test his character in interesting ways.
If he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, how would he react? If the woman he secretly loves stowed aboard his ship and demanded he help her, what would he do? And what if he had to choose between saving his own life and saving his best friend?
All of these yield fantastic results as layer after layer gets peeled away until we get to see the naked essence of Sinbad’s character. It leads to one of the most satisfying climaxes I’ve seen in a long time. Sometimes you don’t need a giant battle at the end to cap off a superb adventure. All you have to do is logically connect the dots you’ve been tracing the whole time. X marks the spot.
Know Your Audience
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas succeeds because it has plenty for everyone to enjoy. It hits that sweet spot of appealing to older children by being cool, while also appealing to parents like yours truly with a compelling change-of-heart story. I don’t think I’ll ever watch The Road to El Dorado again. It’s just a waste of time. But Sinbad is a delightful film I wouldn’t mind revisiting.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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If you’d like to support the Deja Reviewer, please consider donating a few dollars to keep this site going strong. I’ll even send you an original joke if you do! Try it, and prepare to enjoy a good chuckle.