In August 1994 the Walt Disney Company was responsible for the number one feature film in America (The Lion King), the number one CD in the Billboard charts (The Lion King’s soundtrack), the number one musical on Broadway (Beauty and the Beast) and the highest-rated comedy series on television (Home Improvement). All four achievements were due, in part, to the talent and efforts of Walt Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. In that same month, Katzenberg was fired.
As is often the case with break-ups, it’s a complicated story. Throughout much of the 1980s and into the 1990s, the Walt Disney Company was driven by the efforts of Katzenberg, company CEO Michael Eisner and COO Frank Wells. Both Eisner and Katzenberg were aggressively creative Hollywood executives: high talent, high personal drive, and particularly high ego. Their combative attitudes appeared to be kept in check by the more conciliatory and amiable Frank Wells. When Wells died in a helicopter accident on Easter Sunday 1994, it not only affected everyone at Disney on a base emotional level it also removed the best buffer that guaranteed tension between Eisner and Katzenberg did not grow out of hand.
Katzenberg fully expected to be named Frank Wells’ successor, and when Eisner simply assumed Wells’ duties and positions for himself, Katzenberg was understandably furious. At the same time Eisner had become much more actively involved in Katzenberg’s business: recommending changes to a live-action film here, demanding alterations to an animated blockbuster there. The situation ultimately became untenable, and when push came to shove it was Eisner who shoved Katzenberg out of the company.
Of course as a former Hollywood studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg was well-connected. Within weeks of his firing he had formed a plan with director Steven Spielberg and music industry mogul David Geffen to establish an all-new movie studio. Their proposed studio, Dreamworks SKG, was formally established in October 1994, and was capitalised using US$100 million dollars of their own money alongside a US$500 million dollar investment by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Steven Spielberg concentrated on the studio’s live action film alongside new studio executive Walter Parkes. David Geffen focused on the studio’s musical offerings, including contracts with George Michael, Rufus Wainwright and the Eels. Jeffrey Katzenberg assumed control of DreamWorks Animation. Interestingly, while DreamWorks Music was sold to Universal in 2003, and DreamWorks Pictures was sold to Paramount in 2005, DreamWorks Animation continues to operate today as an independent production outfit, still headed by Katzenberg. As of December 2014 DreamWorks Animation productions have grossed close to US$13 billion dollars from 30 theatrically released feature films. The 31st, Home, was released in March 2015.
The first DWA production was the computer-generated comedy Antz, released in October 1998. This was immediately followed by The Prince of Egypt, a lavish Biblical adaptation released two months later. 15 months later the studio released The Road to El Dorado.
I have a fairly ambivalent attitude towards DWA’s animated films. In terms of overall quality I think the studio’s track record is spotty and unpredictable, saddled by inappropriately cast celebrity voice actors and endless streams of pop culture references in the place of proper storytelling.
There are a few of their films, however, that I absolutely adore, including The Prince of Egypt and How to Train Your Dragon. I also love – sometimes despite its own efforts – The Road to El Dorado. It’s a scrappy, difficult film, plagued with odd story decisions and songs that probably didn’t need to be included, but at the same time it’s pretty much the funniest thing DWA has ever produced. At the time audiences ignored the film. It opened in second place in American cinemas after Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich and took just four weeks to slip out of the top 10. To date it is the only DWA film to cost more than it grossed: they spent US$95 million making the thing, and only earned US$76 million dollars back.
These days The Road to El Dorado appears to be one of those films that you think you are alone in liking, until it comes up at a party or a gathering with friends – and then you keep discovering fellow enthusiasts, all of whom wonder why this funny, beautifully animated film never found its audience.
Shortly before announcing Dreamworks SKG to the public, Jeffrey Katzenberg met with writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio – who had written the screenplay to the hit Walt Disney animation Aladdin – and gave them a copy of the Hugh Thomas book Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. Along with the book came an offer to take the concept of European explorers in 16th century Mexico and transform it into a comedic animated adventure.
Speaking about that first meeting, Terry Elliott recalled that ‘he also said something that appealed to us greatly. He said that the reason animated movies made by studios other than Disney tend to fail is because they try to make Disney animated movies. Of course, Disney already makes those movies, and they make them very well. What he wanted to do at DreamWorks was make good animated movies which Disney wouldn’t make – specifically, he wanted to tell stories which Disney wouldn’t tell.’[i]
Jeffrey Katzenberg explained: ‘Having made these movies for a number of years now, I’ve always thought it would be a great idea to take what would ordinarily be the secondary characters – the dysfunctional losers, the comic relief – and send them off on some big adventure of their own.’[ii]
Elliott and Rossio’s pitch was completed by mid-1995, and was based around a pair of self-interested, greedy anti-heroes: Miguel and Tulio. A series of misadventures would see the pair discover the mythical golden city of El Dorado, where they are misidentified by its people as gods. While the pitch featured fairly edgy characters styled to an extent after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in development they were deliberately restyled after the popular Road to movie franchise of the 1940s that starred Bob Hope and Bing Crosby: two protagonists, plenty of witty repartee, and an adventure to an unfamiliar and exotic location.
The proposed film was titled El Dorado: City of Gold, and tentatively scheduled for a Fall 1999 release. The title was subsequently changed to The Road to El Dorado to acknowledge and to an extent capitalise on the film’s debt to Hope and Crosby. The final storyline drew from Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 novella The Man Who Would Be King, in which two British con men attempt to take over a central Asian nation only for one of them to be temporarily confused with a god.
One of the major creative problems that faced The Road to El Dorado was its historical background. Miguel and Tulio are comic characters, yet the near-complete destruction of the Mesoamerican cultures at the hands of Spanish invaders is a horrifying tragedy. In part to resolve this conflict the decision was made to pitch El Dorado at an older demographic than was traditional for an animated feature. By aiming the film at a PG or even PG-13 rating, the story could have an edge to it than a typical G-rated animation would lack.
To direct the film DreamWorks hired the animators Will Finn and David Silverman. Silverman came to the project from the Fox TV series The Simpsons, where he had been instrumental in developing that series’ visual aesthetic and tone.
As development on El Dorado commenced two research missions were made to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. There, with the assistance of UCLA archaeologist Dr John Pohl, concept artists sketched the ruined cities, flora and fauna and geography of Central America. ‘Standing on top of a pyramid,’ recalled production designer Christian Schellewald, ‘in the middle of a rainforest, you see this eternal jungle, this enormous green ocean. It was breathtaking. That’s something you can’t see in pictures, and can’t understand unless you’ve seen it for yourself. That’s why we went.’[iii]
In late 1996 DreamWorks signed Tim Rice and Elton John to compose a series of new songs for the film, transforming El Dorado from a humorous adventure to a humorous musical. The project reunited Rice and John with the orchestral score’s composer Hans Zimmer, with whom they had collaborated on Disney’s The Lion King. For the score Zimmer was assisted by John Powell. Spontaneously changing the film to accommodate the music proved a frustrating experience.
‘The songs kept moving and changing,’ said Terry Rossio, ‘throughout the entire five-year period. Once the choice was made to tell a non-dramatic story, a huge amount of effort went into trying to prop up that story, and make it work. That naturally involved new songs, moving songs to new places, cutting songs, and changing lyrics. Tim Rice and Elton John constantly came through with great lyrics and melodies. It’s really too bad that, due to poor storytelling and placement, the songs don’t seem nearly as good as they are.’[iv]
‘We didn’t want to follow the traditional song formula,’ said producer Bonnie Radford. ‘This isn’t so much a musical as it is a movie with music. We were trying to break free of that pattern that had been kind of adhered to in animation and really put a song where we thought it would be great… and get us through some story points.’[v] It is interesting that while the El Dorado production team went about separating the musical numbers from the characters, over at Walt Disney Pictures the Tarzan production team were undertaking the same task: both films were released in 2000 and featured songs performed over the action rather than as a specific part of it. In the case of Tarzan none of the characters sing. In the case of El Dorado they sing once, with Tulio and Miguel performing the comedy number “It’s Tough to be a God”.
In 1998, and with the storyline still vacillating from comedy to adventure and back again, Will Finn and David Silverman were fired as directors and replaced by Don Paul and Eric “Bibo” Bergeron. ‘I came on board at a point when a lot of the things were starting to gel,’ said Paul. ‘It was a long [production] and so keeping any crew motivated is always tough… There is a lot of dialogue in this film and that added a huge amount of complexity. With an original story it’s always more difficult to get it down.’[vi]
One of the major changes brought about during the change in directors was a shift in demographic. The film had initially been envisaged as a PG-13 film, but a push was made the shift it back down to a G or PG to make it more appealing to all ages. One particular casualty was Chel, the film’s female lead voiced by Rosie Perez. With the lower age rating, not only were her romantic scenes with Miguel toned down but her costume was entirely designed to make it less revealing and more demure. ‘We thought we could not exclude the younger kids so we had to tone the romance down,’ admitted Bonnie Radford.[vii]
Even once toned down for a family audience, Chel proved a fascinating character. James Williams, the co-supervisor of scene planning and layouts, said: ‘The relationship of the two characters and their relationship with Chel, I think, developed a great deal throughout the production. Chel, of course, is a very different heroine in many respects. She’s very much a mover and a shaker, so that rather than reacting, she’s very proactive. Therefore, her entire aspect changed more than anybody else. It certainly is not really a movie about two guys but about two guys and a girl, which, I think, makes it much more interesting.’[viii]
As was the growing trend among traditionally animated films, computer-generated graphics were used to enhance and transform the hand-drawn artwork. Background paintings, for example, were mostly drawn directly into computers using graphics tablets. Meanwhile computer simulations were used to generate water, billowing sails, large crowds of people and other difficult-to-animate elements. ER Warp, a visual effects application traditionally used for ‘morphing’ sequences in live-action cinema, was employed to enable subtle frame-to-frame changes in action and movement without artists having to hand-draw them.
Digital supervisor Dan Phillips coined the term ‘tradigital’ to describe the film’s production method: traditional hand-drawn animation that was both supported and, where appropriate, supplanted by new digital technologies. ‘The thing that I enjoy about the way the departments are forming here,’ he explained, ‘is that it’s a mixture of traditional people and digital people, and they’re working together to create the shots. What was really interesting about The Prince of Egypt was we had more of the CG artists than the traditional artists on that show. And because they had worked together for so long, this show started to have its hybrid artists, where they were both. You know, it used to be we’d have to hand off to one or the other. But this new type of artist is starting to grow here, and they usually have a couple of tool sets with them. It may be drawing and it may be digital animation.’[ix]
The extensive use of digital animation presented a challenge to many of the film’s animators, who were not only used to animating films by hand but were fiercely protective of that tradition. Co-director Don Paul said: ‘At first, many were opposed. We gave them all three or more months of computer training, and once they started ink-and-painting digitally, most were convinced. They came to see that we could change, extend, or otherwise manipulate backgrounds in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of a couple of years earlier. For example, one shot that came to me for approval showed butterflies flying out of a rock shaped like an animal’s mouth as characters walk through the deep jungle. The butterflies are 3D, and the background was created and painted digitally-flat, billboard style. I decided I wanted to open up the shot a couple of fields, but we didn’t have enough background to do that. So digitally, we duplicated some of the foliage elements, did some paint touch-up, and we were able to reprocess the shot in a few days. In the past, shooting that one shot would have set us back two weeks.’[x]
One of the most difficult CG sequences involved a gondola stacked with treasure being swept away by an enormous rush of water. The live-action thriller The River Wild, directed by Curtis Hanson, provided visual reference for the speed at which the gondola would move, and how much it would pitch back and forth on the way.
2000 marked the first year in which DreamWorks SKG was operating at full capacity, with nine feature films scheduled for release over the year including Gladiator, Road Trip, What Lies Beneath, Meet the Parents and Cast Away. The Road to El Dorado was the first film released for the year. Five days before its release, DreamWorks scored its first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture thanks to Sam Mendes’ 1999 critical smash American Beauty. The film’s strong showing at the Oscars ceremony only pressed further attention and pressure on the studio.
The Road to El Dorado was envisaged from the outset as an ongoing franchise, with successive films taking Miguel, Tulio and Chel around the world in search of treasure. Moviegoers, however, had other ideas. El Dorado opened in American cinemas on 31 March 2000. It launched in second place, behind the popular Steven Soderbergh drama Erin Brockovich. By the end of its first week El Dorado had grossed US$16 million dollars: less than the US$25 million and US$21 million grossed by The Prince of Egypt and Antz respectively in their first weeks of release. By the time El Dorado finished its US theatrical run, it had grossed just US$50.8 million dollars. Disappointing international runs brought its total theatrical gross to only US$76.4 million, less than 35 per cent the gross of The Prince of Egypt. By any sensible definition the film was a box office failure.
Despite the film’s commercial failure Katzenberg remained upbeat about the future of traditional animation, claiming ‘our Glendale studio will always be involved with making what people have called traditional, animated films with a particular style, like El Dorado. I hardly think the era of this art form is over because the uniqueness of hand-sketched characters can’t be replaced.’[xi]
While there is no reason to doubt Katzenberg’s claims at the time, subsequent traditionally animated features at the studio continued to underperform. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, released in May 2002, grossed US$123 million worldwide. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, released in July 2003, grossed only US$60 million. With the 2001 computer-generated feature Shrek grossing US$484 million by comparison it was clear that traditional animation had no future at Dreamworks. Speaking to the New York Times shortly after Sinbad’s release, Katzenberg admitted: ‘I think the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is likely a thing of the past.’[xii]
The failure of The Road to El Dorado was costly enough that DreamWorks was forced to approach Paul Allen, who had invested US$500 million in the company when it started, and beg for an additional billion dollars in credit to ensure that future box office flops would not disrupt the company’s other activities.
‘Unfortunately,’ said Katzenberg, ‘we knew that we had El Dorado before the rest of the world knew we had El Dorado. That was much harder for me than asking for some help to bridge us over a spot that we had – to have a failure unlike nothing I’ve experienced in 20 years. I’ve never had anything like that. That’s more humbling and humiliating than anything else that can happen.’[xiii]
Co-writer Ted Elliot blamed the characters on the film’s lack to find an audience. He said: ‘Stories which hinge on a character who has to make a decision – instead of having to change and take an action – are inherently dull stories for a movie. And The Road to El Dorado is ultimately just a dull movie.’[xiv]
It is true that Miguel and Tulio do not change between their initial entrance in Spain and their riding off into the sunset in South America. As comedic characters, however, they are not as obliged as their dramatic counterparts to learn and change over the course of the story. It seems an odd thing to blame, since generally speaking the funniest comedic characters never change. Their constant capacity to make the same mistakes is part of what makes them funny.
In fact it is Miguel and Tulio who are ultimately the film’s biggest creative drawcard. They are impeccably performed by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, whose choice to perform their scenes together in the same recording booth gives the characters a sharpness and a spontaneity often missing from characters in animated films. There are a lot of jokes in the film, and the majority belong to Miguel and Tulio. They are also quite remarkably homo-erotic; there is an odd frission between the two characters that certainly qualifies as romantic, and regularly borders on the actively sexual.
Chel is also a very strong character, showing a great amount of agency and drive. She is, in fact, more active than the film’s intended protagonists. Rosie Perez performs the part very well; this is a great film for vocal performances.
It is all of the other elements of the film that do not quite pull together. The songs feel generic and unmemorable. The storyline is relatively slight and hits overly familiar narrative beats. The tone, so hotly debated within the production team, is inconsistent and uncertain. Some scenes feel unnecessarily bright and child-centric. Others feel utterly inappropriate for a general audience. There is discussion of human sacrifice, and a couple of murders. One scene even comes with a fairly strong implication of oral sex.
The end result is a film that seems a bit of an unholy mess. It is wedged awkwardly between two viable positions: it could have been a generic yet reasonably effective mainstream animation, or it could have been a quirky, slightly adult-oriented comedy. Instead it half-attempts to be both, jumping back and forth until it simply seems confused.
In the end it is likely the massive expansion of animated films in the USA that signed The Road to El Dorado’s fate. Back when Jeffrey Katzenberg oversaw the release of The Lion King, it was one of just four such films released to cinemas. The other three – The Swan Princess, Thumbelina and A Troll in Central Park – were not significant competitors. In 2000, The Road to El Dorado was one of seven, and the other six were significant competitors: Dinosaur, Chicken Run, The Emperor’s New Groove, Rugrats in Paris, The Tigger Movie and Titan A.E. In the end El Dorado was out-grossed by five of those films, only beating Titan A.E., which was a disastrous flop for 20th Century Fox.
Despite its failure, The Road to El Dorado really is a pretty funny film. The design work is bright and striking. The characters are entertaining. It even boasts one of my favourite animated animal sidekicks – a small armadillo that arrives without explanation in the middle of a musical number and does not even get properly named for the rest of the film.
It’s a shame that we’ve never seen Miguel and Tulio again. Despite the film’s failure they were a double act with a lot of future potential.
[i] MJ Simpson, “Interview: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio”, MJ Simpson: Film reviews and interviews, 27 April 2013.
[ii] Quoted in The Road to El Dorado production notes, DreamWorks SKG, 2000.
[iii] Quoted in The Road to El Dorado production notes, DreamWorks SKG, 2000.
[iv] MJ Simpson, “Interview: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio”, MJ Simpson: Film reviews and interviews, 27 April 2013.
[v] Sharon Schatz, “Paving the musical road to El Dorado”, Animation World, April 2000.
[vi] Lorenza Munoz, “Bumby road to El Dorado”, Los Angeles Times, 29 March 2000.
[vii] Lorenza Munoz, “Bumby road to El Dorado”, Los Angeles Times, 29 March 2000.
[viii] J. Paul Peszko, “El Dorado: The old world meets the new in tradigital animation”, Animation World, March 2000.
[ix] J. Paul Peszko, “El Dorado: The old world meets the new in tradigital animation”, Animation World, March 2000.
[x] Michael Goldman, “The digital road to El Dorado”, Millimeter, Vol 28 No 4, April 2000.
[xi] Michael Goldman, “The digital road to El Dorado”, Millimeter, Vol 28 No 4, April 2000.
[xii] Laura M. Holden, “Animated film is latest title to run aground at DreamWorks”, New York Times, 21 July 2003.
[xiii] Peter Kafka and Peter Newcomb, “Q&A with Jeffrey Katzenberg”, Forbes, 20 February 2003.
[xiv] MJ Simpson, “Interview: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio”, MJ Simpson: Film reviews and interviews, 27 April 2013.