The movie takes place in 16th century (1519) Spain and tells about two men named Tulio and Miguel. During a game of dice in Spain, they manage to win a map that purportedly shows the location of the legendary city of gold in the New World. However, their cheating is soon discovered and as a result, they end up as stowaways on Hernán Cortés' fleet to conquer Mexico. They are discovered, but manage to escape in a boat with Cortés' prize war horse and eventually discover the hidden city where they are mistaken for gods.
El Dorado is portrayed as a Utopian civilization that combines facets of the Aztecs, Maya and Incas.
The soundtrack was released as the album The Road to El Dorado.
| Spoiler warning: The following contains plot details about|
the entire movie.
El Dorado's opening includes a song telling the legend of El Dorado. According to the legend, El Dorado was built by two gods, on a horse-like creature, 1000 years ago. They also made the beautiful surroundings.
It then cuts to 1519 Spain, where it shows Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), two wanted conmen who are swindling sailors with loaded dice. After the sailors run out of money, one of them offers a map portraying El Dorado in the New World. Miguel wants the map and convinces Tulio to go for it. He does, but the sailor insists using his own dice. Surprisingly, Miguel and Tulio win. However, as Tulio is gathering his winnings, the dice fall out of his vest and the sailors discover that they are loaded. To save themselves, Miguel and Tulio begin a pretend duel with swords, and eventually, in the midst of their act they escape. The onlookers and guards begin to chase them and Tulio and Miguel end up at the docks where they jump in barrels, which are loaded onto Hernán Cortés' ship.
On the ship, they are discovered and mistaken for stowaways. Cortés will not tolerate stowaways and has them locked in the brig. Tulio thinks of a plan to escape on a rowboat, but first they need to get out of their cell. Miguel finds an apple and tries to get Cortés' horse (named Altivo), which is standing near by, to get a pry bar. He returns with keys. Miguel and Tulio load up on supplies and prepare to cast off. Tulio tosses Altivo his apple but it ends up in the ocean and the horse follows. Miguel attempts to save him and they end up losing all of their supplies. After a storm and many foodless and waterless days, they end up on land.
Miguel, Tulio, and Altivo are overjoyed, but then they see skeletons impaled with swords and decide to leave. While leaving Miguel notices a rock in the shape of an eagle and recognizes it from the map. He convinces Tulio to go to El Dorado and loot it and they begin their trip through the jungle. After many small adventures, they wander onto the last part of the map, and all that they find is a rock depicting the legendary gods. They begin to leave when a woman running from soldiers come. The whole group sees Tulio and Miguel on Altivo and take them through a passage into El Dorado.
There some of the soldiers notify Chief Tanni (Edward James Olmos) and high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) of the arrival. Tulio and Miguel are led to a large courtyard where Tzekel-Kan addresses a crowd, telling them the gods have arrived. Chief Tanni asks them why they have chosen now to arrive and Tzekel-Kan scolds him not to question the gods. Miguel warns that he will unleash his power if they do and Tzekel-Kan asks him to. Tulio takes him away and they begin to argue how to get out of this. At that moment, a volcano begins to erupt and it stops coincidentally when Tulio yells "stop". The city accepts them as gods and they are taken to a temple. Tulio and Miguel are offered a feast and ceremony.
The pair begin celebrating that they have found this "whole city of suckers" and plan how to loot it. The woman they saw by the rock though, overhears them. She, Chel (Rosie Perez), says she wants to join the swindle and she offers to help them pretend to be gods. They have fun at the feast, but the next day, Tzekel-Kan prepares a human sacrifice. Miguel objects and instead, they accept tributes of gold.
Tulio tells Miguel to lay low, but then Chel persuades him to leave and explore the city. Tulio panics ,but Chel soon comforts him. Tzekel-Kan goes to the temple and Tulio quickly stops what he is doing and hears that Miguel is playing with the locals. When they find him, Tzekel-Kan initiates a Mesoamerican ballgame. Tulio and Miguel win by using an armadillo as a ball to cheat and then Miguel objects to sacrificing the losing team. Tzekel-Kan begins to doubt the divinity of Miguel and Tulio. At another celebration, Tzekel-Kan attacks them with a jaguar statue that he controls. Miguel and Tulio lead the statue to a whirlpool, and get rid of it along with Tzekel-Kan.
Afterwards a boat that the two had ordered when they first arrived is finished, but Miguel does not want to leave. Chief Tanni invites him to stay and Miguel agrees. As Tulio and Chel are preparing to leave, scouts return and tell the chief that Cortés is being led to El Dorado by Tzekel-Kan, who survived the whirlpool. Tulio and Miguel plan how to stop them; Tulio has an idea to block the city entrance with the boat. They do so and Miguel jumps on the boat to join and help them. They succeed in blocking the entrance and save the city, but they lose their shipload of gold. Miguel, Tulio, and Chel hop on Altivo and leave.
Spoilers end here.
- Kevin Kline as Tulio, one of the con artists who pretend to be gods so they can get gold. He is the planner who wanted to leave El Dorado with the treasure.
- Kenneth Branagh as Miguel, one of the con artists who pretend to be gods so they can get gold. He is the fun-loving one who wants to stay in El Dorado.
- Rosie Pérez as Chel, a young native from El Dorado who discovers Tulio and Miguel's con and decides to play along. In exchange, she'll go to Spain.
- Jim Cummings as Hernán Cortés, the merciless and ambitious leader of the expedition to find the ancient South American empires.
- Armand Assante as Tzekel-Kan, the fanatically vicious high priest who has a religious fixation for human sacrifices.
- Edward James Olmos as Chief Edjo Tannabok, the kind chief who welcomes Tulio and Miguel.
- Tobin Bell as Zaragoza, the original owner of the map, which he loses to Tulio and Miguel when gambling with them.
- Frank Welker as Altivo, Cortés' horse who ends up teaming up with Tulio and Miguel.
- "Stars!... Can't do it... Not today." Kenneth Branaugh as Miguel
As with other animated movies, the weakeness within The Road To El Dorado lay in its ignorance of historical fact. The culture of El Dorado makes no distinction between South America and México or the ancient American civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. Aspects of all three are visible in the city.
Also, there is a confusion between Hernán Cortés, who is seen in the movie looking for the city, and Gonzalo Pizarro, who actually led the original Spanish expedition for El Dorado in 1541.
As with other recent Disney films, such as Pocahontas White Europeans are portrayed as simple, greedy money-grubbers, while natives are portrayed in a favorable light.
- When Tzekel-Kan (the priest) is flipping through the pages of a spell book one of the illustrations resembles the Walt Disney Pictures logo, depicting the castle of walt disney world Castle.
- The name of the armadillo that is seen throughout the film (and used in the game that Miguel and Tulio play) is Bibo. He was named after one of the directors.