It's a Dreamworks animated movie. This means it's going to be rubbish. This isn't an absolute rule, but personally I'm not wild even about the Dreamworks animated movies that are popular. I don't really like Shrek, for instance. This one I'd never even heard of, which was surely a bad sign.
However when I put it on, in certain ways I was pleasantly surprised. It's not CGI! It's hand-drawn animation! Wahay! Obviously it's computer-assisted, but that's to be expected these days and in any case it all looks good. Furthermore it starts out in Spain in 1519, which for me is like catnip. Historical settings? Bring them on. It makes a change from talking animals, anyway. I think I lasted about half an hour without strong feelings either way, but then a certain plot development pushed me into browsing emails and checking bridge hands as a distraction activity. I let the film continue, but it would be a lie to say I was watching. It wasn't visible. I was listening instead, although not with much attention.
The problem is simple. Our heroes are scum. We first meet them stealing gold from sailors, with the help of some loaded dice. They get into trouble, but escape with a feat of sheer derring-do and audacity that unfortunately doesn't get them killed. There are two of them: Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline. Branagh's the likeable one, being optimistic and cheerful to the point of mental deficiency. Kline on the other hand is the kind of guy whose last regret when marooned in a boat with no food or water is "not enough gold". Anyway, these people are not "lovable rogues" or anything like that. They're bastards. They're con artists and they don't even pretend otherwise to themselves. Lying and cheating is what they do for a living and they love their job. They're not even clever about it. Note the mess they get themselves into by not giving a horse the apple they'd promised it, for instance. An apple. Please.
However Kline and Branagh have good chemistry together and for a while they're kind of fun to watch. Stand them on the open ocean with a horse. Torture them (please). I had no objections to any of that.
However when they find the legendary city of El Dorado and get hailed as gods by the locals? And lo, the bullshit did splatter down! Their first act is to pardon a thief who's been caught red-handed because... um, because she's a thief, I think. This is where I checked out. I didn't see what was supposed to be entertaining about watching self-satisfied scum ripping people off and being regarded as heroes by the movie for doing so. From what I heard later on, it eventually started sounding similar to The Aztecs (i.e. the William Hartnell story). You've got the heroes pretending to be gods in a South American culture that believes in human sacrifice, etc. The difference of course is that John Lucarotti's version of the story had cool protagonists. In fairness Kline and especially Branagh have enough energy and charm that I wasn't actually throwing things at the screen, but even so I'd have been delighted to see them captured by the Spanish Inquisition and executed for their crimes.
Imagine the film as a cross between The Aztecs and The Emperor's New Groove
, except for being vaguely dull and unpleasant. Like the latter, it's a fast-paced Hollywood animated movie with a buddy movie structure, set in a lost civilisation in South America.
Apparently it had a troubled production. Dreamworks was pouring all its effort and attention into The Prince of Egypt (which I thought turned out okay), leaving this as merely the studio's back-up animated feature. During its five years of development, it went through being a pure drama and then a dramatic comedy, before becoming a buddy movie that draws on the Bob Hope "Road to..." series of the 1940s. The script degenerated into a mish-mash of different drafts and ideas. Furthermore the tone was going to be comparatively adult-oriented before they changed their mind and went for the kiddies, which can be seen in various bits of age-inappropriate content. Kline and Branagh are surely homosexual lovers and we see them bathing naked together. The Rosie Perez character is, um, fleshy. It's more in the hips than the bosom, unusually, but you could wrestle crocodiles with those thighs. (This is apparently toned down from the original version of the character.) There's a bit of psychedelic intake. I've also seen it said that in one scene Perez seems to be fellating Kline, although that presumably comes after I'd stopped watching and so I can't verify for myself.
There are songs, by Elton John and Tim Rice. They'd done The Lion King, you see. Their musical numbers here aren't brilliant, but I quite liked them.
It's Dreamworks-y. They've stuffed the voice cast with famous names, which is always annoying, and there's an early action scene in Spain that seems to have cut every single shot a second too short. The sequence doesn't breathe. It's trying for a kind of Looney Tunes energy, but all it achieves is bad editing.
On the upside, the animals don't talk. That's worth something, right? However if you're looking for (ahahaha) realism, there's no language barrier between Spaniards and their amalgam of Aztecs, Mayans, Incans and Atlantians. There's no violence with Cortez and his men. This film is less historically accurate than Disney's Pocahontas and that's a laughable farrago.
Dreamworks had been planning lots of sequels to this film, as with Shrek. However it failed at the box office and the sequels never happened. In fairness, looking at other people's reactions, it seems that this is one of those slightly off-putting films whose fans really love it. It's full of energy, it looks pretty and Kline and Branagh aren't slowing down for a moment. If you're looking for something a bit edgy and anti-Disney, you might find this film ticking your boxes in a big way. However for most of the audience, I think it just wasn't emotionally involving. Even if you're not actively repelled as I was, there's no real attempt at innocence or even audience sympathy from the film at any point. What I personally find wrong is the idea that it's a children's film, since I'd sooner find them watching horror films. It's not the supposedly adult content. It's the message of the movie. A Nightmare on Elm Street
teaches you that it's scary to be cut up with knives. This film teaches you that stealing, cheating and gloating about it is heroic behaviour. I don't hate this film, but I certainly don't like it either.