At least it’s not “Pocahontas”. Jeffrey Katzenberg is now on his third animated feature with Dreamworks since leaving Disney, and at least each is a bit different than what you might expect from the Mouse House. El Dorado, or “the lost city of gold”, has long been considered a myth. Explorers searched for centuries for what may have only been a representation of the limitless wealth Europeans envisioned in the New World. Among those who came to search was Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez. Armed only with 300 men, syphilis, and smallpox, he conquered (and largely killed off) the Aztec Empire between 1519 and 1521.
However, that wouldn’t really be family entertainment so our story is a fictional one about two idiot con men, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh), who accidentally stowaway aboard Cortez’ ship after winning a map to the lost city of El Dorado in a game of craps. They escape in a rowboat with the conquistador’s horse and arrive in South America while Cortez takes a pit stop in Cuba.
Our heroes blunder up to the hidden gate to the city where they encounter a young thief, Chel (Rosie Perez). The ensuing guards mistake them for gods of prophecy and take them into the city. There, everyone speaks English and no one comments on it. Then, they encounter the Chief (Edward James Olmos) and the high priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante). The cheerful, obese chief offers the new gods a tribute of gold and food. The evil priest relishes the thought of human sacrifice. The new gods aren’t so keen on the whole blood sacrifice thing, so life with Tzekel-Kan doesn’t go so well, and somewhere in the jungle is Cortez.
Hmmmm… We got action, comedy, romance, so…what’s the problem?
There is some amazing animation, though the difference between traditional cel and computer animation is still too apparent. Nah, that’s not it.
Did I mention the musical numbers? Elton John and Tim Rice, the perpetrators of the songs from “The Lion King”, have been roped in to provide a couple of ditties. They’re over quick. They’re not it, either.
The conquest and genocide of the native population of the New World is always painful to contemplate. There were a great number more people here before all the Eurotrash turned up with their diseases for which the locals had no tolerance. Still, Cortez is portrayed as a villain, as he should be, so this isn’t it.
How about all the digs at Christianity? No, that sure doesn’t bother me. Too often this religion, with it’s no-tolerance policy toward other beliefs, is used as a tool by the European oppressors to help subjugate native populaces. The Chief and the priest get to play out the whole Cain and Abel scenario with decidedly different results. It’s mightily amusing.
I think my problem is this: The filmmakers want an epic feel to the film, but they provide neither context nor dimension to the people of El Dorado themselves. It’s disconcerting enough when no language barrier exists, but we don’t know why this city is hidden or its relationship with the rest of South America. All we know is that it’s a “lost city of gold”. Their religion is ill-defined. All I could tell is that they sacrificed a lot of people. We don’t really know what kind of gods the people were expecting. Without a feel for the residents or their culture, the audience has little invested emotionally in their loss. THAT is the problem.