The Road to El Dorado was ahead of its time.
DreamWorks Animation’s third movie, made during the era when the studio was still finding its voice and purpose, is a buddy adventure in the style of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road to” movies. Two decades after its release, the movie has an enduring internet legacy in the form of GIFs and memes. It’s not just the easily packaged screenshots — diving into the El Dorado tag on Tumblr (last week, as its 20th anniversary approached, it crept up on the weekly Fandometrics buzz tracker) reveals fan art of riffing on the film with other characters taking the roles of leads Tulio and Miguel, or with the two of them swapped into the roles of different beloved characters. The movie has transcended itself to become ground for fandom crossovers.
It might surprise some, then, to find that El Dorado bombed at the box office and was mostly panned by critics. The main complaints? That the story was too derivative, the animation too similar to the pantheon of Disney Renaissance movies that came before it, the audience too unclear, the movie too obviously chasing Disney glory.
Watching it now, it’s obvious why it was a miss at the box office back in 2000. El Dorado is the perfect movie for the internet age. Its downfall is that it came just before the rise of the Very Online generation. But it found a second life and a long-lasting legacy, since it came out at the perfect time to make it a nostalgic movie for people who grew up with the internet.
The Road to El Dorado follows two Spanish con artists, the pragmatic Tulio and the idealistic Miguel, who unwittingly land in El Dorado, the City of Gold. Mistaken for gods by the locals, they hatch a scheme to bring back a boatload of gold to Spain and live like kings. Two problems: Conquistador Hernán Cortés is hot on their tails, and El Dorado’s High Priest Tzelkan is beginning to suspect that these two strangers aren’t gods after all. Elton John does the soundtrack, though the movie isn’t a musical. With the exception of one sung-through song (which the movie sets during a party with heavy drinking), all the songs are montages.
It’s a colorful, vibrant adventure-comedy that doesn’t share much with the Disney movies of the previous decade, despite what the critics of the time argued. At the turn of the millennium, Disney had just come out of its Renaissance period, with the international hits The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Any animated movie in the ensuing period was always going to look like a copycat endeavor.
Looking back at how El Dorado compares to the movies of the Disney Renaissance, perhaps the only strong comparison is the animation style, with lush backgrounds and 2D character designs. Unlike the sweeping romances, Broadway-style musicals, and coming-of-age tales under the Disney banner, though, El Dorado is a comedy first and foremost. DreamWorks as a studio was still finding its tonal and stylistic footing. 1998’s Prince of Egypt wove a more mature story meant to eschew the notion that animation was just for children, while the studio’s debut, Antz — infamous because of the controversial public feud between DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steve Jobs and John Lasseter of Pixar — was full of crass humor and pretty grim violence.
El Dorado wobbles a line between these two movies: It’s primarily a comedy, and it isn’t as crass and referential as Antz. It isn’t a Biblical epic, with the limited and specific audience that implies, but it shares the visual style and mature approach of The Prince of Egypt. It’s a movie caught between animated movies past (with its lush 2D animation that heavily features song-based storytelling) and future (with its emphasis on comedy that appealed to adults and kids.) So it didn’t make sense to audiences of its time. But the aspects of El Dorado that alienated viewers in 2000 helped it stay relevant 20 years later.
El Dorado is full of GIFable moments — hilarious scenes and quippy dialogue that transcend well to short visual formats. Even people without fond memories of rewinding a Road to El Dorado VHS to relive the highlights have probably seen the GIF of Tulio and Miguel nodding and going “Both? Both. Both is good.” There are other popular favorites, too: Miguel furiously strumming his guitar, the duo’s terrified screech, Miguel popping up on the screen to say “Not today.” The GIFs are the most noticeable memes, but fans have also created a fair number of screencap memes. El Dorado’s quippy banter and the range of animated facial expressions make it prime fodder to live on in GIFs. This is the aspect of El Dorado that’s most likely responsible for its wide reach across the internet.
While some of its moments have become memes, El Dorado, unlike other DreamWorks movies Shrek and The Bee Movie, hasn’t itself become one giant goof. It’s hard to remember what a great movie Shrek actually is after years of interacting with it primarily through videos and images like the infamous “Shrek is Love” meme from 4Chan. El Dorado hit a sweet spot, becoming the rare internet darling that wasn’t mutated by complex internet in-jokes into something absurd. People still interact with its images without thinking about a bunch of dark offshoots.
El Dorado’s memeability isn’t the only thing contributing to its long-lasting impact. The other standout element is the close relationship and quick banter between Tulio and Miguel, which make the characters the most memorable parts of the movie. Tossing actors Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh into the recording booth together was pure electricity. The dynamic of a more cynical schemer and an optimistic idealist is already a great pairing, ripe for comic potential. The fact that both characters are massively incompetent makes the humor even better.
“Together, we form one entire halfwit,” Kline says in a making-of-video.
The two share an easy repartee and a fun relationship. For instance, when they’re tossed in a ship’s brig, Tulio comes up with an elaborate escape plan. Miguel listens attentively, wide-eyed and nodding along. Tulio’s plan to row home afterward sounds ridiculous, which primes the audience to assume Miguel will disapprove. And when he asks “We row back to Spain? In a rowboat? That’s your plan?”, it sounds like the audience is right, and he’s about to point out all the reasons it won’t work. Instead, he takes a beat for viewers to set up their expectations. Then he responds enthusiastically. “Well, I like it! So how do we get on deck?”
Tulio and Miguel’s core relationship is perhaps the most memorable part of the whole movie. The two men care for each other, they infuriate each other, their ideals and motivations clash, but in the end, their friendship prevails. It’s a type of camaraderie that isn’t just fun to watch on screen, but prime for offscreen shipping potential.
There’s a pretty prevalent urban legend that the characters of Miguel and Tulio were originally written as a gay couple, and that the femme fatale co-lead, Chel (voiced by Rosie Perez), was only introduced to appease some higher-ups. The claim remains unverified, but the movie’s subtext is enough. The two banter like an old married couple, change easily in front of one another, strip naked to chill in a hot spring, and talk about how they always thought they’d die together. Toss in Chel, and there are plenty of polyamorous headcanons.
Parts of El Dorado don’t hold up. For one, the concept of white dudes being the heroes of a magical native civilization reeks of colonialist overtones. Chel is the movie’s sole speaking female character, and her design is hypersexualized. With two villains, the pacing suffers, especially at the film’s abrupt climax. On a less drastic note, showcasing the Elton John soundtrack without making the movie a musical means long, winding montages; some, like the “Trail We Blaze” sequence, are full of visual gags and fun moments, while others, like the “Friends Never Say Goodbye” number, just drag with scenes of Tulio and Miguel brooding and making angry faces at each other.
But while movie’s pacing suffers from its descent into lengthy animated Elton John music videos, the characters are dynamic and the story is pleasantly absurd. DreamWorks movies tend to have less straightforward plotlines than Disney films. El Dorado is pretty tame compared to, say, The Bee Movie, where an adult woman leaves her fiancé because she fell in love with Jerry Seinfeld’s bee-sona. The way Miguel and Tulio get through the whole movie by lying, scheming, and just barely managing to pull off great feats isn’t anything like previous Disney heroes, like kind-hearted Belle, fearless Pocahontas, or resilient Quasimodo. Even Disney heroes who lie about their identities either ‘fess up (Aladdin) or do it for the greater good (Mulan). But Tulio and Miguel lie and scheme for riches and adventure — and while they do sacrifice their gold to save the day, no one ever has qualms about the lying and scheming.
The overall message of friendship and adventure taking precedence over gold is true to the tone of the movie. But the lying and scheming is part of what makes the movie so funny and memorable. Miguel and Tulio are so incompetent that they somehow circle back around to being competent. A popular Tumblr post compares the movie to a Dungeons and Dragons campaign where the players only roll 1s and 20s. It’s generally hilarious to watch the characters’ antics unfold on screen. Say what you want about the adventure part of El Dorado, but the movie nailed the buddy-comedy aspect perfectly.
Twenty years after its release, The Road to El Dorado has defied poor critical reviews and bombing box office. Its easily packaged humorous moments weren’t appreciated at its time, but as people who grew up with the movie also grew up with online communities, they took their appreciation to the internet. While the adventure and the plot’s historical aspects aren’t perfect, the characters’ dynamic has transcended the pacing issues and other irritations. El Dorado’s reputation has been reclaimed by generations of people who’ve recontextualized the movie outside of the Disney shadow it was stuck under in 2000.
The Road to El Dorado is available to stream on Hulu.
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