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ROAD TO EL DORADO

THE LOSERS’ ADVENTURE
When producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and the DreamWorks team set out on The Road to El Dorado, they were determined to do things differently: he wanted the losers to have their own big adventure. ELEANOR SINGER reports.

Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted to take a ‘different’ approach. To a degree, of course, setting up DreamWorks Pictures - the company Katzenberg co-founded with director/producer Steven Spielberg and entertainment industry mogul David Geffen - went somewhere along the way to doing that: it was structured as an independent outfit but with the resources of a studio (including its own high-power international distribution operation).

But one of Katzenberg’s passions has always been animation (in his years at Disney, he had been responsible for, among other films, the epoch-making Lion King), and he was determined to move away from the straight hero/comic sidekick structure that had seemingly always been part of animated movies.

"the dysfunctional losers, the comic relief"

"Having made these movies for a number of years now," reflects Katzenberg, "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."

Which is precisely what he did on The Road to El Dorado. Working with writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who scripted Aladdin) and the musical team of Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer (with whom he collaborated on The Lion King), Katzenberg put his plan into action with the third major DreamWorks animation feature to be released. In the film, a couple of small-time Spanish con men, Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh), end up - more by mistake than anything else - discovering the fabulous lost city of El Dorado, where everything is made out of gold. In the process, they not only get within sniffing distance of being fabulously rich: they are also taken for gods.

The story starts in Spain, where Tulio and Miguel win a map in a game of dice. Like everything else they do, the game is rigged, their opponents discover the loaded dice and, making their escape, Tulio and Miguel end up hiding on board a ship in the harbour. By the time they manage to escape from their hiding places, however, the vessel - which turns out to be the flagship for Cortes’ expedition to conquer the New World - is half-way to America. Locked in the brig by Cortes, Tulio and Miguel manage to escape with the help of an unusually gifted war horse called Altivo.

Making their escape in a small boat, the two friends and their new equine pal wash up on the shores of Central America. Recognising one of the features on their treasure map, they strike out for what they believe is fortune but end up hopelessly lost in the jungle. Eventually, they are captured by a group of Indians and carried back through a secret gateway behind a waterfall into the legendary El Dorado, where High Priest Tzekel-Kan (voiced by Armand Assante) pronounces them to be the gods foretold in local legend. In fact, however, Tzekel-Kan plans to used his newly discovered deities as a way of taking power from the Chief (Edward James Olmos).

Tulio and Miguel, meanwhile, enter into an uneasy partnership with the young Aztec girl, Chel (Rosie Perez), whom they had earlier rescued and who is desperate to escape from the closed city of El Dorado. She agrees to preserve the fiction that they are gods, while they in turn promise to take her along when they go, carrying with them a fabulous cargo of gold ‘offerings’ befitting such divinities.

"Ken is very dry and witty, and Kevin is a natural comedian"

But making two distinctly unheroic characters the heroes of the story was not the only innovation for Katzenberg (who executive produces The Road to El Dorado) and his team - producers Bonne Radford and Brooke Breton; and directors Eric ‘Bibo’ Bergeron and Don Paul. They were determined to break the mould in other areas, too.

The first changes came about when Branagh and Kline were recording their lines. As with every major animated movie, the voice work for The Road to El Dorado was done well in advance: that way, the animators can match the characters’ mouth and other movements to the dialogue track. What was different here, however, was that Branagh and Kline recorded their voice tracks at the same time, giving them a more than usually large input into both the characters and even their dialogue.

"Kevin and Kenneth are such great talents, and each has an incredible sense of humour," says Katzenberg. "Ken is very dry and witty, and Kevin is a natural comedian. They had such terrific chemistry, and it was marvellous to put them together and see what happened. We were able to incorporate a lot of their personalities in their characters because, like Tulio and Miguel, they are something of an odd couple."

French-born director Bergeron, whose animation track-record includes such films as The Adventures of Pinocchio and The Goofy Movie, found the process especially helpful. "Kenneth could go to the microphone and immediately give me 15 separate interpretations of a single line," he says. "He’s amazing. Any nuance we could possibly have needed was in the performance he delivered. For his part, Kevin would constantly try variations on his lines and came up with some wonderful gems. In some cases, we ended up using his ad libs, which are some of the funniest lines in the film."

"the technical aspects didn’t exclude imagination and invention" Kenneth Branagh

"Everyone agreed our dialogue should have a more spontaneous feel," adds Branagh, "so Kevin and I had a lot of fun bantering back and forth. In theory, that off-the-cuff quality might be harder to achieve in an animated movie, where the process is so technical. But one of the most impressive things about this production was that the technical aspects didn’t exclude imagination and invention from the process."

The result, though, is far from being just an animated version of Branagh talking to an animated version of Kline. "I can see where the animators dovetailed certain expressions or gestures into the character," points out the latter, "but I never feel like I’m watching myself when I’m watching Tulio. He has a life of his own... he’s just sort of borrowed my voice!"

Equally innovatory was the combination of traditional and computer animation. "Normally," explains digital supervisor Dan Philips, "your main and middle-ground characters are traditionally animated, and only the background characters are computer-generated. In this film, we have brought CG characters centre-stage, which is something I’m really proud of. We were very meticulous in modelling them so they would appear identical to the traditionally animated characters, and not look like they exist in different formats. The facial expressions and the performances of the CG characters are so much better than what was done in the past. They are all stepping stones to bringing the 3-D character animation to the forefront."

"Having Elton, Tim and Hans together again on a movie is a dream for me." Jeffrey Katzenberg

The score was approached in much the same way. "We wanted the songs sung by Elton to be the heart of the movie," says Katzenberg, "not only helping to tell the story but revealing what’s happening beneath the surface. Having Elton, Tim and Hans together again on a movie is a dream for me. To get to work with these guys is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I feel extremely lucky that it’s happened to me twice!"

The film boasts six new songs: El Dorado, The Trail We Blaze, It’s Tough to Be a God (performed by Branagh and Kline), Without Question, Friends Never Say Goodbye and Someday Out of the Blue (Theme from El Dorado), plus a score composed by Zimmer in collaboration with John Powell, who also worked (this time with Harry Gregson-Williams) on DreamWorks’ other summer animation release, Chicken Run.

But the real jewel in The Road to El Dorado’s crown is the city of gold itself. A magnificent, tiered metropolis rising out of the jungle, it was scrupulously researched on trips to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, with UCLA-based authority on American-Indian civilisations, Dr John Pohl, as the filmmakers’ guide.

Making the trips to Yucatan provided production designer Christian Schellewald with the key to the film’s look. "Standing on top of a pyramid in the middle of a rainforest," he says, "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."

Using the lush green of the jungle as a backdrop, Schellewald went on to create a riotous colour scheme, using the jungle birds and the Indians’ costumes to contrast with the muted colours of the Old World that Miguel and Tulio have left behind.

"We wanted Spain to be almost monochromatic," explains Biberon. "Then, as Tulio and Miguel find their way through the jungle, we integrated more colour as the characters discover a new world. Finally, when they come to El Dorado, we see every colour of the rainbow."

"It’s a world that once was"

"One of the most important things for me in making an animated movie is to take the audience some place they’ve never been before," adds Katzenberg. "The inspiration for this story is a magnificent culture of which only the tip of the iceberg still exists. It’s a world that once was. But maybe, if we could find that waterfall and make our way through it, we’d find El Dorado is still there and waiting for us..."

p> (Published September 7, 2000)

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