Rather than gold, the path to DreamWorks SKG’s latest animated feature, “The Road to El Dorado,” was paved with boulders. The story line for the movie changed so often during the five years of production that people close to the project renamed it: “El Dorado: The Lost City on Hold.”
“El Dorado,” DreamWorks’ second animated feature, scheduled for nationwide release Friday, was something of an odyssey for the nearly 500 artists who toiled on it. The film switched directing teams midway through the production and went through several incarnations, going from a drama to a drama-comedy mix before arriving at its final form: a buddy comedy adventure about two Spanish stowaways who unexpectedly land in Latin America at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
“It was challenging to keep your enthusiasm going in the face of having the story change,” said senior supervising animator James Baxter. “This story was a bit more changeable than [past features]. There was a lot of exploration about the kind of movie we were making.”
“El Dorado” was a top priority for DreamWorks--in particular studio co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has made animation his primary focus both at DreamWorks and previously at Disney. Some involved on “El Dorado” say Katzenberg’s penchant for epic, larger-than-life stories (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” at Disney or DreamWorks’ first animated feature, “Prince of Egypt”) was at odds with the film’s more lighthearted elements. Katzenberg reportedly wanted to stress “El Dorado’s” more realistic elements and lose the cartoonish aspects of the story--at least initially.
DreamWorks executives say the story did evolve over time, but they note that all animation features evolve as the production moves forward. They add that the primary idea behind the film--about friendship and honor--never changed. They also point out that they’ve reunited the Oscar-winning musical team behind the mega-hit “Lion King": Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer.
“El Dorado” eventually became a fable-like comedy, based on the legend of El Dorado, about two-bit shysters (voiced by Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline) who stumble upon a “lost city of gold” somewhere in Latin America in the 1600s. Though they initially intend to run away with the gold treasures they find, they come to fall in love with the people in the city. In the end, they help protect the city from Hernan Cortes, who wants to find the gold and conquer the city.
Several sources close to the production said morale was very low during filming, mainly because the story was going in different directions. With animation, it is particularly important to have a solid plot line because the characters are drawn according to the story.
“We kept asking what happened here?” said one source. “The movie went from a vision that was pretty unique to a film that was put together as we were making it.”
Working on ‘Prince,’ ‘El Dorado’ at Same Time
Members of DreamWorks’ top-notch animation crew worked on both “El Dorado” and “Prince of Egypt,” something that made their work even more difficult. In fact, for some animators, “Prince of Egypt” ate into some of the time they could spend on “El Dorado.”
“Prince of Egypt” was a colossal endeavor whose strict adherence to historical accuracy made the film very difficult to make. But because “El Dorado” is a fable, the creative team had a little more wiggle room to make up the story.
As the legend has it, El Dorado became a quest for Spanish conquistadors longing to find a fabled lost city of gold. Though its location is vague, the legend placed the site somewhere near the Amazon River, near present-day Colombia or Brazil. The Spaniards never found such a place; in fact, it is said the native Indians of the area might have lured the Spaniards away from their villages by tantalizing them with tales of the mythical place.
Don Paul, one of the directors who took the project to its final stage along with co-director Eric “Bibo” Bergeron, said he inherited a somewhat demoralized crew. Paul and Bergeron took over production from Will Finn (now at Disney) and David Silverman about two years ago, when the story elements were starting to come together.
“I came on board at a point when a lot of the things were starting to gel,” said Paul, who has been involved in animation since the early 1970s. “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.”
For instance, Miguel (Branagh), one of the main characters in the movie, was initially a raunchy, Sancho Panza-like character who died and was paraded on a horse and cross so the native Indians would assume he was a god. But that narrative was thrown out and the film was put on hold until Miguel’s character and that part of the story were changed.
Another problem was defining who the audience would be.
Initially there were some steamy love scenes and saucy outfits designed for Chel, the love interest in the movie voiced by Rosie Perez.
“We originally thought it would be rated PG-13 and so we skewed it to that group,” said producer Bonnie Radford. “But then we thought we could not exclude the younger kids so we had to tone the romance down.”
In addition to mellowing out the romantic scenes, the animators redesigned the clothing worn by Chel. The movie now has a PG rating.
Because of the film’s Latin American connection, DreamWorks is pushing a strong Spanish-language campaign for the U.S. Latino audience. It has hired veteran marketer Santiago Pozo and his agency, the Arenas Group, to handle the multimedia campaign.
In addition to television, radio and print, the film is being plugged on a grass-roots level with cross-promotional marketing that includes selling tickets at mom-and-pop markets as well as large chains like Ralphs. They have already pre-sold thousands of tickets through these marketing campaigns. They have also organized a raffle contest on the popular daytime talk show “Cristina” on Univision for people to win a tour of DreamWorks’ animation studios.
It is one of the most extensive animation publicity campaigns ever done in Spanish, with a budget of about $1 million earmarked solely for Spanish media. Instead of the usual two or three Spanish-language media reporters invited to preview the film, more than 20 Spanish-language reporters nationwide were invited.
DreamWorks did extensive research on the Mayan civilization in the Yucatan. A team of designers, animators, producers and Katzenberg took trips to Mexico to the ancient Mayan cities of Tulum, Chichen-Itza and Uxmal in hopes of making the film’s architecture look authentic. The studio even hired John M.D. Pohl, an archeologist from the Fowler Museum of Cultural History in Los Angeles, as a consultant.
But what’s presented in the film is a broad mixture of Aztec, Incan and Mayan cultures--all very different civilizations with particular customs and histories. Meanwhile, some in the Latino community who have seen the film have objected to the curvaceous outline of Chel, saying she is yet another example of the “hot and spicy” native.
“There are people who think it is controversial--like some people are saying the Indian girl is too much of a hoochie-mama,” said Jerry Velasco, president of Nosotros, a nonprofit advocacy group for Latinos in the entertainment industry. “I don’t think it’s racist though. It’s history--the Spanish came, they conquered and they took the gold. You know, I took my kids to see it and they loved it. I just had to explain to them that these cute and lovable characters from Spain, well, a lot of them actually came, raped and killed the Indian populations.”
DreamWorks says the film was always a fable, and was never intended to be a documentary on Meso-American culture.
“Because it was mythical, there were really no set of rules,” said Baxter. “The film is just supposed to be silly.”
And the filmmakers say they were careful not to make the Indians look like noble savages or the Spaniards like civilized saviors. In fact, Hernan Cortes is the primary villain. Chel was intended to show a full-figured woman as beautiful, not these faux, skinny Belles (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Pocahontases.
“We wanted to take off from the tall, statuesque gorgeous [ideal],” said Radford. “We wanted to make her a woman who was a rounder shape and make that anaffirmation of being beautiful.”
Despite the problems, the movie could still do well. No other family films are hitting theaters for the next several weeks. Given that, said Velasco: “We should use this as an opportunity to educate our children about what really happened [in the conquest].”
Radford said the legend of El Dorado presented a golden opportunity for DreamWorks. “You get pulled into the mysteries of that world,” said Radford. “Historical animation like this has taken the place of fairy tales.”