The Road to El Dorado
In this paper, we will be discussing cultural divide and the spin put on a story like this is portrayed in a film. Since the dawn of exploration, people in our society have traveled far and wide, encountering new wildlife, new agriculture, and most importantly, new culture. Most lands have been conquered by others who are non-natives. Aside from the expected language barrier, there typically also seems to be a barrier between cultural norms. One should notice, that a lot of this still applies to the world today. While most of these encounters now are due to traveling for vacation, education, or immigration, many can find cases of culture-shock.
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More specifically, in this paper, we will be taking a deeper look into the 2000 DreamWorks movie, The Road to El Dorado. I’d like to use my online research and the course textbook to interpret this movie, as well as both my first impression and more current thoughts on it. I plan to look more into the cultural divide that the two main characters, Tulio and Miguel, experience upon arriving at the legendary island of El Dorado and interacting with its native people. I’d also like to further analyze this fictional story by comparing it to some historical context from around the time that this plot is set. To me, this film before had just been a childhood classic, but looking further in as an adult has changed how I look at it and perhaps has done the same for other fans and possibly those who have yet to view it.
As mentioned, this animated film was produced by DreamWorks, as well as DreamWorks Animation, and Stardust Pictures. Additionally, it was released on March 31, 2000 and falls under the adventure and comedy genres (IMDb). Directors include Eric Bergeron, Don Paul, and Jeffrey Katzenberg; writers include Terry Rossio, Ted Elliott, and Karey Kirkpatrick (IMDb). This movie was originally distributed in stores on VHS tape, then onto DVD, but now can be found on the popular streaming service, Netflix. This film, as I have observed, is intended for children, as it is an animation, and also the fact that there is a lot of comedic content that most children can understand, with a few well-hidden adult jokes that only adults or teens can catch. There is also a great deal of glorification in the plot, as well as musical numbers throughout the movie.
As a child, I distinctly remember watching this film, usually either own my own, with my family, or with my grandparents (when I would stay at their home for a sleepover). This movie came out when I was about three years old, but I remember watching it probably when I was between the ages of five to ten. I am not entirely certain, however I do remember being quite young and getting excited to grab a cold cup of chocolate milk and spend my evening enamored by, in my eyes, a classic. I experienced it, at first, in the only way a kid could at this time outside of the movie theater, which I believe it was still on VHS at this point.
This film almost always, without fail, made me happy when I first got into it; this film was jam-packed with incredible color, funny characters, and a female character that I had always wanted to be as beautiful as (Chel). In addition to this, the plot was planned perfectly to keep a kid happy, especially one who has no idea of the historical backbone behind it. The film evenly distributes great conflict, including almost near death experience, with comedy and song. As with any animated children’s film, in fact with any children’s film in general, there is of course a happy ending. I can’t really say what it made me think about as a young girl, other than adventure, as my first time seeing it was so long ago.
Before we move on, maybe it is important to bring to light a quick summary of this film, seeing as not everyone knows of or has seen this film. From both my own memory, and watching it again recently on Netflix, the story goes like this: we begin with Spaniards Tulio and Miguel gambling with fellow townspeople. As the game comes to a close, their opponent puts forth a map into the pile of winnings for their game, a map to, “El Dorado, the city of gold,” as told by the mischievous Miguel (The Road to El Dorado, 1:26:59). They win and it is discovered that they used weighted dice, they fake a battle, and escape on a ship out of Spain. However, to their dismay, this ship belongs to none other than conqueror Cortes, and they are taken prisoner. With the help of a horse, Altivo, they escape onto a longboat and paddle out to sea, but encounter rough waters and get lost. Starving and exhausted they finally land on an island, and discover that this was where they would find El Dorado on the map they won (The Road to El Dorado, Netflix).
They eventually find their way to the exact location of this city and encounter its people who at first fear them, soon believe that these two men are g-ds due to their pale complexion and resemblance to two of many of their own g-ds. Miguel and Tulio go with this assumption for some time, in order to get more gold to be rich and eventually return home. They put on g-d like personas and pretend to have divine power, even though it is usually by coincidence or the eventual assistance of native Chel. However, Tzekel-Kan, the city’s high priest soon figures out their lie and creates mass terror on them and all of the natives. In the end, Tulio and Miguel save the people from him, and not long after from the terrifying Cortes who was also seeking the treasures of El Dorado (The Road to El Dorado, Netflix).
What this film seems to glaze over, is the actual historical construct behind it, as there really was a legend of El Dorado. As new innovations for travel were created, it has been found that Europeans had a great desire to explore the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. One specific object of their desires being gold and other riches, “Europeans believed that somewhere in the New World there was a place of immense wealth known as El Dorado” (Drye). The tale of El Dorado derives from the South America region of the world, more specifically, a tribe that resided in the Andes. When Spanish explorers found their way here, they would hear the story of these people, who had recently fell under a new chieftain. It has been told that at the start of the ceremony when he rose to power, it was at Lake Guatavita where people claim, “the new ruler was covered with gold dust” (Drye). The film seems to forget this crucial part of the legend, but can be given credit for a ceremony similarly performed in the movie to appease the “g-ds,” Tulio and Miguel in which gold is tossed into the water below.
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On the other hand, the name “El Dorado” actually began as the name for the chief and not for the civilization itself. “El Dorado,” meaning “the gilded one” as coined by the Spaniards who would seek to find this ceremonial ground (Drye). Sadly, this ceremony was cut short by another tribe of whom would take over in the fifteenth century. Meanwhile, the Spaniards would never be able to actually find where this legendary leader and his people resided. Regardless of that, they would, however, find some natives who had some gold and only find more once they approached the bottom of Lake Guatavita. From this, they could only hope/assume that the civilization within would have had more of these riches (Drye).
One could give a little credit to the film overall as there were small attempts to touch on this part of the legend. Still, upon further research, there is a lot of background information that they leave out. Getting down to the plot, and moving on with more of the cultural analysis of the film, let’s begin with the first meeting between Tulio and Miguel with the people of El Dorado. Almost immediately, the natives take them as g-ds and these meddling Spaniards are quick to take advantage of this. A situation in which one could easily trace it back to the ideals of white privilege, otherwise known as “white supremacy,” that has dominated history since the so-called discovery of America by Columbus (Illing 2018). In Sean Illing’s interview with author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen, topics like this and more is discussed.
We are not taught in school that white (Caucasian) people of our history got what we wanted by believing we were superior, Loewen states “We simply assumed that we dominated because we were better, or smarter, or worked harder” (Illing 2018). It would be possible then, that this same spin could be put on the film The Road to El Dorado, Tulio and Miguel just accepted the fact that the natives of this civilization believed they were g-ds. There was no question, no resistance, and it was all glory, tribute, maybe even celebration. This is after all, a movie meant for children, so it can be quite easy to craft a story like this. On the other hand, we can see as adults, a story of two white men (gambling and scamming men might I add) who escape a ship on which they were taken prisoner. Upon escape they magically end up exactly on the island printed on the map they conned off a man.
Quickly, this comes to their attention and they seek out the exact entrance to the “city of gold,” as coined by Miguel early on. By sheer coincidence they run into some native who guide them and with no hesitation the natives come to a consensus that these are g-ds who were predicted to come one day. These Spaniards quickly accept this and take advantage, as this is the perfect opportunity to get rich. Once they are gifted a lifetime supply of gold they plan to leave, which will take some time as a boat is assembled. In these days they are exposed to the culture here, and even when they plan to leave, they still take their riches. In a nutshell, to wrap this clarification up, it is a story of two white men who get what they want from natives of a legendary city with no resistance. Nobody, not even people who have watched this film and now have grown up, seems to question or look into this.
“Even though the reasons why history unfolded the way it did are extremely complicated and have to do with luck, and geography, and all sorts of factors that aren’t captured in our oversimplified narratives,” as declared by James Loewen (Illing 2018). Which would then reinforce this whole unquestioned aspect of this animated film. Going further, as a country, if we tried to analyze many animated movies that have even a small trace of history, I’d argue that it is possible to achieve the same findings. Diving even deeper into the ideals of supremacy, phrenologist George Combe would be another to assist the spreading of ideals in regard to white superiority. He made a diagnosis, “according to a cranial conformation that, allegedly, was only found among Europeans, it was Europe alone that could claim authorship of civilization” (Ewen, 151). Therefore, basically claiming Caucasians in Europe to be superior race and anyone else inferior in government. It seems that many men in our history have followed this diagnosis and it is taught to us that most victories are not based on racial bias.
Maybe Tulio and Miguel would agree, as they seemed pretty quick to accept rule over a civilization to which they have never been and know nobody there. As they are of European roots, they did travel to a land outside of their country and into one what would fall inferior to their home. As legend has it El Dorado was located in South America somewhere around what is now Colombia (Drye). It would then add up to match the qualifications of superiority as diagnosed by Combe. These men even go as far as practically ignoring the cultural reasons of the natives that lead them to be posed as g-ds. One could argue that they felt this way because they felt they could easily take advantage of a culture that was not only different, but lesser than theirs to gain wealth.
By completing this paper, I feel like I have learned so much more about a movie that I watched constantly as a child with not even a second thought. Now that I am older, and through more education, like this course, I have learned to look at it another way. In our culture, as much as we say we are inclusive, there are still many children’s films that depict topics like white supremacy and the advantage taken of unfamiliar cultures. I see that is fairly common for one culture to meet another and find great divide in not only different practice, but a different power dynamic. There is a great connection between culture, power, and society in The Road to El Dorado and I find that it becomes key to the plot.
In the natives’ culture, they believe in many g-ds and think that Miguel and Tulio are two that were predicted to visit them. Not knowing this, Miguel and Tulio just go with it and immediately gain power as well as incredible wealth. When it comes to the societal aspect, it is more in relation to the audience, as a society we seem to have no problem putting out films like this. To be more specific, animated movies that include other cultures and showcase them, but in a way still put out a message that the European culture and its people still stands above and can get whatever they want. This is never done to be purposefully noticeable, it is always maneuvered into entertainment so exciting and intriguing that nobody notices unless it is done through an academic standpoint. Even then, some may not notice because of how much our history classes leave out.
- Bergeron, B., Katzenberg, J., & Paul, D. (Directors). (2000). The Road to El Dorado [Video file]. United States of America: DreamWorks. Retrieved November 1, 2018, from https://www.netflix.com/title/60000171
- Drye, W. (n.d.). El Dorado. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/archaeology/el-dorado/
- Ewen, E., & Ewen, S. (2008). Hierarchies of Humanity. In Typecasting: Crania Americana (pp. 149-162). New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
- Illing, S. (2018, September 14). The biggest lie we still teach in American history classes. Retrieved October 30, 2018, from https://www.vox.com/conversations/2018/8/1/17602596/american-history-james-loewen-howard-zinn
- The Road to El Dorado. (2000, March 31). Retrieved December 11, 2018, from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0138749/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt
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