Volume VI, Number 1, Spring 2010 · Americas

"Brave New Americas: Historical Re-interpretations in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove and DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado" by Nóra Borthaiser

Nóra Borthaiser is doctoral student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Email:

I. Introduction

The year 2000 presented two similarly context-based animations from the studios of Disney and DreamWorks SKG, The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) and The Road to El Dorado (2000), respectively. Both movies guide their audience to the mythical territories of South America and introduce them to their native inhabitants. Representing a different yet parallel cultural context is always a great challenge and a wide opportunity to present new guiding principles and ideologies, especially when it is taken into consideration that the story-tellers are the leading animation studios of the United States. Annalee R. Ward, among other critics, points out that every society needs storytellers to search for and tell the truth, and in the Western societies this role has been taken up by popular films and ultimately the studios producing them (Ward 1). Storytelling focusing primarily at children has brought extreme popularity to some movie companies, outstandingly to Walt Disney Studios.

The responsibility that studios have when addressing an audience made of children is enormous mostly because of what Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez points out: the child, beyond his anatomy, physiology and language acquisition is nothing else but a matter of adult construction, in other words, the child is a cultural construct (Levander and Singley 281). Most researchers in the field of cultural and filmic studies take this standpoint at the outset and analyze animations by focusing on the effects cartoons have on the audience. However, I do find it significant to do away with the child’s point of view as the only exclusive standpoint. Firstly, there have been some changes in narration and cultural context in animations lately, which most probably aim at the enlarging of the target audience group of children to that of the family. Due to these changes, the semiotic-communicational channels animations apply have become multilayered and therefore were opened not only for a larger variety of audience but also for new ways of understanding in their interpretation.

In this essay, I make an attempt to draw the similarities and differences between Disney and DreamWorks in respect of presenting South America. I have decided on the analysis of these two movies due to the fact that they share a similar context and were released in the exact same year, 2000. I would also attempt to unveil a dynamic reason why both studios were tangled up in dealing with the topic of South America around the turn of the millennium. My observation is that the way the cultures outside the United States are represented seem to be in parallel with the cultural construction of the so-called ideal American children.

In this paper I am relying on several outstanding articles and books related to the topic. From the standpoint of animations, Annalee R. Ward’s book, Mouse Morality shows insightful interpretations of and approaches to Disney animations that motivate further understandings. I have also used the theoretical stance of several books grasping a critical platform against Disney’s “imperialistic ideology:” Dorfman and Mattelart’s groundbreaking book How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic is an indispensable tool, just like Peter Schweitzer and Rochelle Schweitzer’s The Mouse Betrayed. Both of these books describe the political and ideological working patterns behind the studios and the films and the way they are influenced and motivated. I am also using Martín-Rodríguez’s article “Reel Origins: Multiculturalism, History and the American Children’s Movie” because the author uses the same two animations as I do in my essay here. Besides, he starts out from the hypothesis that the “American child” is a social-cultural construction, a “one-size-fits-all” abstraction that was and is being constantly created to incorporate and refer to all American children. Martín-Rodríguez points out, however, that an abstract idea like the “American child” by definition cannot account for all American children as they live in such a multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual country. Their real experiences cannot be fully described in a framework which pretends to be homogeneous. His argumentation led me to the realization that deeper investigation is still imminent in the field of critical children’s film studies. In this respect, I am employing Ian Wojcik-Andrews’ book, Children’s Film: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory, in which the author does not only argue the fact that children’s films can be understood in several ways but also presents aspects in which these films can be discussed and analyzed. He also devotes significant attention to the ideological background of children’s films, claiming that the economic and financial interests turn these films into commodities reaching children not just in the cinema but also in other areas of everyday life such as in fast-food restaurants or toy stores. In parallel to this aspect, he also points out that children’s movies are explicit and self-conscious when referring to ethnography and they are openly interrogating certain themes of children’s particular culture.

The representation of intertwining dynamism between cultures is not a new venture for Disney if one thinks no further than the production of Pocahontas in 1995. The story itself is nothing new to the American audience as the first encounter of the British colonizers and the friendly Indians is one of the grand narratives of the American history. However, while serious research was carried out in Virginia and elsewhere from the side of the studio to present the lifestyle of the Native American community as historically relevant as possible (Schweitzer 152), comments on the later released movie were fairly contradictory (Ward 37). Edgerton claims that Pocahontas could hardly be characterized as historically accurate, although it perfectly shows the ideas summarized in Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (Edgerton 168). Indeed, one cannot step out of one’s shoes, not even if we are talking about an American studio and moreover if it reinterprets its nation’s own history. No wonder, thus, that Pocahontas did not really come as an unbiased interpretation, but rather another version of the “white man’s Indians” (Ward 37).

With The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney makes an elegant step back and withdraws from the American history and its cultural presence and also from any other cultures. The scene of the animation supposedly takes place in the territories of Peru, although the name of this country is never pronounced in the movie, nor is the time frame specified. There are no cultural or ethnical clashes in the story, therefore one might suppose that the story takes place before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. The conflict arising, however, originates rather from class difference, most notably from the despotic, arrogant and egoist personality of the ruler of the country, Kuzco. His name is undoubtedly wordplay on the capital of Ancient Peru, Cuzco, and refers to the megalomaniac attitude of the ruler. Kuzco plans to destroy a whole village so that he could get his new summer resort built on top of it, never taking into consideration that for several families this hill is their home. After he summons Pacha, a village peasant, to inform him about his decision, Kuzco is poisoned by his advisor and pretender, Yzma. Kuzco, instead of being killed, turns into a llama and by accident leaves the capital on the barrow of Pacha. Although his village is about to be destroyed by the ruler, Pacha agrees to help Kuzco get back to the palace so that he could ask Yzma to give him some potion and turn him back into a human. Pacha and Kuzco experience several adventures on which they have to realize they cannot survive without the other and they have to learn to tolerate and respect each other. Kuzco has more to learn and by the end of the movie he turns into a caring ruler who, after his hjourney of knowledge, listens to and respects his subjects and their wishes – and promises Pacha he will not build his own Kuzcotopia (sic!) on his village (Pinsky 193).

The issue of colonizers and colonized is baldy challenged in The Road to El Dorado released by DreamWorks SKG in 2000. Tulio and Miguel’s story starts in Spain in 1519 with Hernán Cortez recruiting sailors for his voyage to the New World of South America, most precisely, to Cuba. This is one of the delicate historical inaccuracies of the animation; it was not Cortez who set sail to unveil the location of El Dorado, but Gonzalo Pizzaro, some thirty years after the indicated time in the movie. Miguel and Tulio are two adventuresome vagabonds who cheat their living out of sailors by playing with loaded dices. On one of these occasions, they manage to win a map which shows the way to the hidden city of El Dorado, the mysterious city of gold. By accident, they end up on Cortez’s ship but escape from it on a life boat and land on the shores of a jungle. They decide to track down the mysterious city (with the help of the map) and when they reach it – as the first white people from a different civilization – the inhabitants of El Dorado mistake them for gods they have been waiting for long time. Miguel and Tulio take this opportunity and pretend to be the awaited gods and bathe in the shovels of gold and other treasures that the city-dwellers and the two chiefs (religious and secular) of the city bring them. They are most welcome and loved by the people of El Dorado except for the blood-thirsty religious leader, Tzekel-Kan, who repeatedly wants to please the “gods” with human sacrifice. When Miguel and Tulio reject it on the basis of their “divine rights,” they also deprive Tzekel-Kan from his position. Meanwhile, Cortez and his crew reach the shores of El Dorado and follow the traits of Miguel and Tulio. Soon, after the native scouts see the newcomers, the two “gods” come up with the idea of hitting the columns of the city’s entrance by using the treasure loaded ship and to cause the collapse of the gate so that the colonizers could not find the way to the city of El Dorado. This deed, however, results in the total loss of all the gold they have been given as gods and they leave the city without a single piece of valuable metal. The city remains left intact; no Western colonizers can enter and discover it, and even those who have made it till there leave soon, as well. El Dorado remains just as isolated as it was at the beginning of the story and remains a shadow city that can never be found again.

II. Critical Analysis of the Two Films

The story of The Emperor’s New Groove can be read in two ways. One would perfectly fit the expectations for a Bildungsroman storyline in which the wicked, egoistic ruler makes significant changes in his personality while he faces several adventures in which he has to count on others’ help and learn to co-operate with them. This interpretation of the animation is supported by the long tradition of Disney movies which tend to represent similar changes in the personality of a given character. Most probably, this reading might be first at hand for the children audience (this aspect is backed up by the Academy Award-winning soundtrack performed by Sting entitled “My Funny Friend and Me”). The lyrics picture the friendship of Pacha and Kuzco and its effect on Kuzco’s personality:

I’m not as clever as I thought I was
I’m not the boy I used to be because
You showed me something different, you showed me something pure
I always seemed so certain but I was really never sure
But you stayed and you called my name
When others would have walked out on a lousy game
And you could’ve made it through
But your funny friend and me.
(Sting, “My Funny Friend and Me”)

Another layer in understanding of the story is connected to the title of the animation. “The Emperor’s New Groove” is a direct reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Here the emperor employs two swindlers to sew him a new outfit but he is wisely tricked by these two who inform him about the special material that can only be seen by “men of sense” and those who are “suitable for their office” (Andersen 11). The emperor is big-headed and haughty enough to admit he cannot see the material (as there is no at all) and only a little boy in the crowd dares to claim that the emperor has no clothes on – however, the emperor keeps on believing he is wearing the special material. Anderson’s storyline shows practically no development in the emperor’s personality – it needs a new groove to do so. Kuzco is “thrown off” his groove by an elderly subject who happens to bump into the dancing and self-praising Kuzco during his theme song in the outset of the story (Dindal 2000). The old man is thrown out of the palace in return and warned never to throw the emperor off his groove. The same man re-appears at the end of the story and meets Kuzco in his “new groove.” This time, he is not kicked out of the palace but gets some apologies from the emperor for having done so previously. The old man is a sketch symbol for the subjects on the whole and how they were treated by Kuzco before his llama adventures (and how they are or will be dealt with after).

Although the movie makes no clear references to any hierarchical structure, Kuzco’s change towards his subjects could be interpreted as lifting them up a relatively similar level to where he is standing. This idea is emphasized in one of the last scenes when Kuzco spends the day at the peasant Pacha’s place, his family accepts him (Pacha’s wife knitted a poncho for him) and Kuzcotopia is remembered only in the form of a statue. Kuzco incorporates the little men in his decision-making, thus changes his despotic ruling methods into a more democratic way. This foretold change in the political system is interpreted as a desirable and expected act.

There are several references detected to the location of the story in Peru, despite the fact that it is never mentioned. It might be probably too far-fetched an idea to claim that Disney employed direct references to Peruvian history or political changes. Interpreting the setting on a larger scale – as a country with a despotic ruler in the South American region – might give way to further, probable interpretations. The animation is produced in a country where the democratic political climate has always been of key importance and, accordingly, planted into the national beliefs of its citizens, one could suppose that any deep message of the animation is, after all, an advertisement of democratic values and political atmosphere (that shades light on the despotism of a single ruler). In this sense, the title “The Emperor’s New Groove” acquires a new meaning, which not only refers to Kuzco’s personal change but also to a preferably new political system as well. As the movie practically lacks direct references to American (i.e. United States) cultural values or codes, unlike previous Disney animations – like, for example Aladdin (1992) or Hercules (1996) – it is difficult to see it centered around a biased standpoint, as critics showed in the case of Pocahontas (1995). In this respect, we can detect a significant development in the application of certain stereotypes on the side of Walt Disney Studio.

We can detect a somewhat similar attitude from the Mulan (1998) movie and the style of story representation in this film. Here Disney takes as its narrative basis a traditional Chinese folk tale and presents the heroic deeds of the female protagonist without any direct interference of American clichés or values. Although Mulan harbors the issue of encounters between cultures (for example between the Chinese and the Huns), neither of the cultural backgrounds seem related to the American context. In The Emperor’s New Groove there are no competing cultures clashing with each other, therefore it is a given framework helping the studio not to take an unbiased standpoint.

Miguel and Tulio prevent the real fight between the inhabitants of El Dorado and the colonizing forces of Cortez in The Road to El Dorado, there is an intermingling of two cultures that strikes one when watching the film: that of the Spanish and the people of El Dorado. The mere motivation of the two Spanish swindlers to search for El Dorado is to take as much gold as they can and return to Spain and be “richer than the Spanish king” (Bergeron et al. 2000). This idea echoes a similar attitude in Pocahontas (1995) where the British colonizers set sail “for glory, God and gold” in the hope that “on the beaches of Virginie, there’s diamonds like debris, there’s silver river flows and gold you pick right off a tree” (Gabriel and Goldberg 1995). Although the story of Pocahontas leads the colonizers in a somewhat different direction, there are still several of them staying in Northern America with the Indians, unlike the storyline in El Dorado. After a crucial disagreement between the two friends, Miguel and Tulio, the former decides on staying in El Dorado, while the latter plans to leave with all the gold their ship can bear, including his newly-found love, Chel.

This (expected) story ending nicely fits the horizon of expectations that storylines of previous animations created, although DreamWorks worked with an alternative version. The city of gold is left intact as before (that is, without the presence of any of the Western colonizers) and kept in this state by ultimately closing the gates leading to the community of El Dorado is indeed historically inaccurate but yields way for further preserving the cultural myth of the legendary city. More important, the message is all about the celebration of benevolent, helpful and thus heroic white men (themselves colonizers), who put aside their interests and financial benefits to let the aboriginals survive in spite of other wicked colonizers. The story of El Dorado ends with just another “miraculous lie” (Lewis 1) about the indigenous legend on one hand, and the colonial history on the other, that stresses the importance on the heroic deeds of white men.

Even if we recognize the subtle details in the depiction of the geographical place, in the legendary rituals and catch the intertwined relation of nature and its transcendental values, the responsible description of any historical or cultural accuracy is questioned by the narrative itself. Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez argues in this context and claims that similar to Pocahontas, El Dorado fails to make a clear connection between the historical peoples represented in the(se) movies and the men and women descending from the historical figures that live today in our society. By encountering this failure, El Dorado turns out to be nothing else but a heavily loaded ideological commentary on the present while striving to re-create a certain past. This film holds considerable negative observations about the Hispanics and/as immigrants and can be interpreted, among other views, as a xenophobic attitude of “go back to where you come from” (Levander and Singley 288).

Martín-Rodríguez points out that the fiction of the good conqueror is supported by the difference of economic values. The Doradans did not care about the tons of gold they were surrounded of with; gold has for them less value it has for the colonizers including Tulio and Miguel. These two characters, however, offer the precious gold for the “gods” as their tribute: this save the two protagonists from having a bad consciousness. Referring to Dorfman and Mattelart’s book about how to interpret the Disney world of motion picture, Martín-Rodríguez points out the recurring method of imbalanced economic transaction which is carried out so as to present the Natives as relieved of something he would have never thought to be able to make business with (Dorfman and Mattelart 49). This idea of the (financially and otherwise) submissive Native people – as subalterns – is one of the key myths of neocolonialism (Levander and Singley 291).

III. Conclusion

The two animations discussed in this paper show different interpretations of how culture can be seen and made visible. They also apply various methods to breathe certain ideological life into their stories. It was essential to take representational differences and thematic objectives into consideration in order to do a comparative analysis between these context-similar animations. Even though both movies locate the setting somewhere in South America, there is no clear reference throughout to the exact place they refer or might refer to or to the people whose culture they are focusing on. One can only guess that the territory of today’s Peru serves as setting in The Emperor’s New Groove. The similar idea applies to El Dorado in which the only historical certainty is the year of 1519 and Spain as the location from where the story sets sail to the New World and to the city of gold, a mythical locus. With this place trick studios do not limit the interpretation for one single nation or country (as can be observed in Pocahontas) but open it up for basically any country in the South American region. It is interesting to note here that the cultural interference of North America (and especially the United States) with the Mesoamerican and South American region has always been politically, socially and culturally significant and prone to recurrent representation, as we have seen also in the animation form.

Ideologically defined picture-systems and traditions can be best understood by discovering the positions of the heterogeneous subject in the signifying process (Kiss, 179). Animations, as picture-systems are worth interpreting through the positions of mainly children, themselves heterogeneous subjects in the signifying process of viewing animations, who are the main audience of these films. Martín-Rodríguez writes about the representation of cultural diversity from the point of view of the American child and claims that the American child is a social-cultural construct who has been gradually transformed into a multicultural entity (children, in his view represent a population group of multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and multiethnic characteristics). The problematic point, however, is that this construction of the American child would never be able to cover extensively the intricate multicultural and multiethnic facets it aims represent; the real difference experienced by American children belonging to ethnic minorities, for example, could hardly be ever (Levander and Singley 281). A mainstream American animation studio, however, seems to design and produce movies for the social construct of the American child that cannot account for all minorities’ diversities. This decision is rooted in an economic interest. The cultural-historical accuracy of the animations being inadequate is not entirely politically correct.

What is it that still drives the studios to choose their topics and their ways of representing otherness? The cultural diversity within the United States is itself a lesson to be still learnt and taught – as it is, indeed, even if narrowly, suggested by the interplay of cultures in most mainstream animations. Moreover, animations function as re-interpretation of contemporary political issues and the themes and conflicts brought about by the multicultural, multiethnic nation can serve topics like the above-mentioned films. These issues are shown in the various media where children can meet them. Political controversies between the United States and countries from the Mesoamerican and South American regions are often rooted in the social conflict caused by massive, especially illegal immigration. Cases of arrested and deported illegal immigrants, as well as problematic legal affairs between both sides of national borders sides dominated the news during the time these animations where created. And news mirror controversies in a society; the reaction and response it causes can be just as significant as the event itself.

Martín-Rodríguez hypothesizes that the deeply rooted ideological reason for producing the two movies at the same time can be tracked back to a common drive: both movies “need to be read against the background of neonativist reactions to Latin-American immigration to the United States, and in particular, to the erosion of benefits and services for undocumented and even legal immigrants in this country” (Levander and Singley 295). He also points out that both studios are responsible for creating a utopian version of American history, in which all connections between past represented and existing present are detached and in which difference as such only works on the level of the past but not in the present. Animations, therefore, show a version of American history overwritten with ideologies – this is what Martín-Rodríguez coins as reel origin, rather than real origin – and, as such set ground for a utopian condition in which colonized (non-European) communities act in accordance to the colonizers’ hopes by facilitating the latter’s projects (296).

In The Emperor’s New Groove there are no obvious culture-clashes; the story unfolds into a Political Science 101 class, advertising the advancing system of democracy over despotic ruling forms. Yet one cannot set aside the standpoint the studio takes while depicting an ancient culture. In other words, there is no clash of cultures but on a metafilmic level, one cannot escape reading the presented cultural framework from the point of view of that of the producing studio. These directed visual readings can be detected in the applied soundtracks and voices which do not necessarily reflect any of the non-U.S. cultural values. A similar cultural gap can be seen in the casting of El Dorado as well: none of the actors and actresses giving their voice for the characters shares any Hispanic or Latino/a origins, whereas previous animations had already applied this strategy (Pocahontas and Mulan).

The Emperor’s New Groove released by Disney and The Road to El Dorado produced by DreamWorks both undertake the project to visually (and even culturally) guide the audiences to South American territories. While Disney does not take the risk to directly present a cultural comparison, still sets out to show the life of ancient Peru in a rather humorous than historically responsible way. DreamWorks takes the challenge and opens the scene for a historically fixed time and place. Upcoming problem, though, is that DreamWorks continuously goes against history and tries to rewrite it so that its visual world represents the colonized as friendly, naïve or childish people, facilitating the colonizers’ aim to earn as much gold from them as possible (even on the visual narrative level, too). More importantly, El Dorado fails to present the historically crucial meeting of the two cultures; what is shown instead is an immature play between the two Spanish characters mistaken for gods and the community of the legendary city. After all, Tzekel Kan is right when he complains that the “gods” are not cruel enough and they have no intention of committing genocide against the city-dwellers. Tzekel Kan’s character gives voice to the missing turns in the visual narration.

DreamWorks and Disney’s history re-writing procedures empower audiences to re-interpret their own historical position not only in the context of the animation but also through their real existence. The created utopian past backs up the image of a utopian present. This present is as ideally constructed and pseudo-homogenous as the creation of the ideal American child, whose one-size-fits-all idea will never account for real children in the audience, nor for the real cultural differences between them on the diegetic or extradiegetic level.

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Hans Christian. 2004. The Emperor’s New Clothes. HMCo Children’s Books.
  • Bergeron, Bibo and Will Finn. 2000. The Road to El Dorado. DreamWorks SKG.
  • Dindal, Michael. 2000. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Walt Disney Feature Film Animation.
  • Dorfman, Ariel and Armand Mattelart. 1975. How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. Amsterdam: International General.
  • Edgerton, Gary Richard, Michael T. Marsden, John G. Nachbar, Jack Nachbar. 1997. In the Eye of the Beholder: Critical Perspectives in Popular Film and Television. Wisconsin: Popular P.
  • Gabriel, Mike and Eric Goldberg. 1995. Pocahontas. Walt Disney Feature Film Animation.
  • Kiss, Attila Atilla. 2007. Protomodern – Posztmodern. Szemiográfiai vizsgálatok. Szeged: JATEPress.
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  • Pinsky, Mark I. 2004. The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press
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  • Wojcik-Andrews, Ian. 2000. Children’s Films: History, Ideology, Pedagogy, Theory. New York: Routledge.