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Cults of Personality: The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove at 20

"Changing Legend into Fact/We will ride into History..." Tim Rice

History is often complicated by nostalgia. The prevalence of meme culture within online discourse accentuates the inextricable relationship between the two, particularly when enough time has passed for a media text to resurge in popularity. Take, as two examples, a double bill of films released at the dawn of the millennium: The Emperor’s New Groove and The Road to El Dorado. Celebrating their twentieth anniversaries, these films from Disney and DreamWorks, respectively, emerged in a landscape where mainstream American animated films faced a crisis of identity following the end of the Disney Renaissance era. Informed by South and Latin American aesthetics, both films heralded the future more clearly than their box office performances might indicate by capturing a past rooted less in Mesoamerican or Incan mythology than the comedy of Looney Tunes and the Hope/Crosby Road To… movies. Indeed, it is the eschewing of both cultural and historical verisimilitude which makes the transfiguration of these films into reaction gifs seem like a foregone conclusion.

As noted, New Groove and El Dorado have a surprising amount in common. Aside from their aesthetic similarities, both films were in development roughly during the same period of six years and gradually transitioned from being epic in scope to more farcical in nature. In a frank interview on the prolonged production process of the DreamWorks film, co-writer Ted Elliott described the protagonists, a couple of 16th Century Spanish swindlers (voiced by the emphatically non-Spanish actors Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh) as “more Butch and Sundance than Bob and Bing” in the original draft scripted by him and Terry Rossio. Both writers were fresh off the success of Aladdin when Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg gifted them a copy of Hugh Thomas’ Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico, hoping to make a film from the material after leaving Disney. The premise of the film, of two stowaways who wash up on the shore of the New World and discover the eponymous lost city of gold, remained fundamentally identical to its finished form, yet Elliot and Rossio’s original script was purportedly more ambivalent, undercutting its adventurous spirit with the impending arrival of Hernán Cortés (played in the film by Jim Cummings). As Elliott put it, their version looked like an animated iteration of David O. Russell’s Three Kings, but with Elton John showtunes.

the road to el dorado miguel tulio chel still dreamworks
Good as gold: The Road to El Dorado. Courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures.

Even so, there remains an uneasy balance between pathos and slapstick in the final version, particularly when Miguel and Tulio finally stumble upon the city and pose as deities returned from the heavens. Stabs at social commentary on institutional religion manifest in the dynamic between the benevolent Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos) and the fanatical high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante). The latter’s predilection toward human sacrifice is greeted with grim dismay from the people, though his sway over the social order of the city is never fully developed. This is partially due to the story’s structural mistake of rendering most of the citizens as a nameless, homogenous entity around which things happen to yet are rarely instigated by. Indeed, the sole indigenous figure who retains a relatively complex characterization is the chief, whose own rivalry with Tzekel-Kan gestures toward a nuanced political dialectic between fundamentalism and liberalism. It is the question of fallibility complementing, rather than undermining, ethical responsibility in roles of leadership which provide the film its strongest moments, including the realization from both leaders that the visiting Spaniards are anything but divine. Tannabok’s revelation of Miguel’s subterfuge through a citation of an Alexander Pope quote the latter invoked earlier comes closest toward articulating the film’s thesis in a wry, genuinely poignant fashion.

The lesson imparted in this scene echoes the pitch Roger Allers presented to Disney of a film about “a common man teaching an arrogant man how to rule”. His tale was called Kingdom of the Sun, a parable set during the height of the Incan Empire about a peasant who switches roles with an arrogant despot. The film was intended to incorporate elements of Incan mythology, notably Viracocha, in its dramatization of a struggle between the peasant/emperor and an evil advisor who seeks to extinguish the sun for vanity’s sake. Weaving these components together would be a musical score written by Sting, populated by an all-star cast.

Kingdom of the Sun concept art walt disney pictures
Concept Art from “Kingdom of the Sun”. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

To recount the troubled production of what would become The Emperor’s New Groove would fill an entire article, and indeed you’d be better off watching Trudie Styler’s The Sweatbox (if you can find it; Disney owns the rights but has refused giving it an official release), which chronicled the tumultuous transition from Allers to Mark Dindal as director. Dindal’s 1997 animated musical throwback Cats Don’t Dance painted Hollywood’s Golden Age with rosy-colored pop-out glasses, like a pint-sized Gene Kelly on a sugar rush. It was that vein of elasticity which Dindal brought to New Groove, something a crew member succinctly likened to “an Incan version of Las Vegas” (this description is only reinforced by an inexplicable Tom Jones cameo). Indeed, New Groove ping-pongs through vaguely recognizable staples of Americana processed through a Rube Goldberg machine. When it was unleashed upon the world in time for Christmas, The Emperor’s New Groove didn’t resemble the traditional Disney model so much as it did something like Chuck Jones’ Duck Amok and Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch in its anarchic, metatextual aplomb. For antsy child audiences (including yours truly), it provided giddy nirvana.

the emperor's new groove fourth wall walt disney pictures
Breaking the fourth wall. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

If The Emperor’s New Groove excelled in extolling the virtues of anachronism, its ultimate conventionality betrayed its more daring flourishes. The story is simple to the point of perfunctory, wherein the titular monarch (David Spade) is taught humility by a kindly and patient peasant (John Goodman) as they are pursued by his evil advisor and her bumbling lackey (Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton, who handily steal the show), yet the film’s greatest oversight is its casual deracination. Any references toward Incan mythology in the film’s earlier incarnation are now gone, and arguably more glaring is the total absence of a single Latinx performer within the cast. Disney’s troubled legacy with diverse representation has yielded more egregious examples, yet the release of Lilo & Stitch eighteen months later only emphasized more pointedly the antiquated elements of New Groove. Dindal’s assertion that “you can’t be making this farce about a specific group of people unless we are going to poke fun at ourselves” is well-intentioned, yet the film’s omission of anyone from this very community has the unfortunate implication that such tales of representation cannot simultaneously implement culturally specific comedy.

The mixture of comedy and pathos in El Dorado arguably makes that film more distinctly intriguing, if no more successful. The film strives for greater diverse casting with Olmos as the Chief and Rosie Perez as Chel, yet the latter ultimately functions as a plot device which threatens the friendship of the main duo. As the only female character in the film, her sexuality stands out even more as a weaponized asset utilized for self-preservation, at least until the promise of a character arc becomes subsumed by Miguel and Tulio’s own spat over godhood. The overriding theme of male camaraderie in both films cement heteronormative stereotypes, even as New Groove attempts to undermine a strict gender binary through comic scenarios involving homoeroticism. These instances resemble the comic effect of Bugs Bunny’s use of drag and, at worst, reinforce toxic tropes of male discomfort with intimacy, as is evident in an instant of attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

the emperors new groove diner scene kuzco pacha walt disney pictures
Llama fou

El Dorado forgoes explicit displays of queerness, though a subset of its fanbase has expanded subtextual traces of homoeroticism by shipping its main duo. Yet the film’s apex of masculine camaraderie is unfortunately epitomized in a climatic instance approximating a White Savior complex when Miguel sacrifices staying with the natives for the sake of saving them. Their story is ceded to a narrative which culminates in the shot of Miguel soaring through the air in an actualization of the vision of the Gods the chief alluded toward earlier. Miguel (and by proxy Tulio) redeem themselves through the benevolent act of sparing a community, yet by ultimately sidestepping complex ambiguity, the film effectively rewrites history’s tragic outcome for the promise of further adventures which sustain the spirit of colonialism whilst eliding its brutal consequences on indigenous peoples.

Having said all this, to attribute the popularity of these films within a digital discourse to mere nostalgia would ignore their qualities as cult movies. In their own peculiar (dis)engagement with history, both The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove communicate less about the moments in which their stories are set than they do the time in which they were released. They are films that, nostalgia notwithstanding, can be argued as ones which tentatively prodded the commercial constraints foisted upon them with comic brio and expressionistic, occasionally striking set pieces to ultimately serve as part of a greater memetic terrain twenty years later, one where history is processed in yet another anomalous manner.

History as told by memes

The pop-infused abrasiveness perfected by Shrek was still a year away, and the young audiences who flocked to these films were seeking something that was familiar yet new, stories that deflated the solemnity of bombastic musicals while gently guiding us into a new, unknown millennium with traces of the old. Like the sickly boy being read The Princess Bride, perhaps the clearest progenitor to many of these movies, we wanted something different yet comforting in the pleasures provided by generic familiarity. That neither The Road to El Dorado nor The Emperor’s New Groove is entirely successful as subversive texts does nothing to diminish their growing stature as visually striking comedic curios among cultists of a certain age. After all, as Mr. Pope understood it centuries ago, to err is human.

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