Mysterious Cities of Gold

When the French and the Japanese get together to make a show, anything can happen. And this time, the result was pure gold.
February 16, 2005

"El Dorado, the Cities of Gold"

"Its the 15th century. From all over Europe, great ships sail west to conquer the new world, the Americas. The men eager to seek their fortune, to find new adventures and new lands. They long to cross uncharted seas and discover unknown countries. To find secret gold on a mountain trail high in the Andes. They dream of following the path of the setting sun that leads to El Dorado, and the Mysterious Cities of Gold."

If you were one of the lucky ones to have been watching the golden age of Nickelodeon, you may recognize that introduction. If not, chances are you might have the show that spawned it lurking around the dark places of your memory, covered by many long years of dust. Along side shows like Maya the Bee, and The Littl' Bits stood what may very well have been the single greatest animated series to ever come out of the 1980's, the Mysterious Cities of Gold!

First aired in 1982, it ran in one format or another up until a single series airing on ABC in 1986. For this author at least, having been born in 1981, that means that the series boarders on that hazy region where it becomes only a memory of remembering. And that might be the way it is with you as well, but lets see if we can't jog that memory, dust off the cobwebs, and revisit a true masterpiece of animation, in any decade.

The origins of the Mysterious Cities of Gold alone should tell you that we're dealing with something out of the ordinary, as it was, of all things, a French/Japanese collaboration. And, if one is to believe the rumors, the animation was overseen by none other than the legendary Hayao Miyazaki himself (of Totoro and NausicaA fame) . Originally intended only for air in France, where it was known as Les Mystérieuses Cités d'Or, the first episode opened around an orphan in Barcelona, running about the streets, sneaking into taverns to listen to the stories the sailors told.

Not exactly a flashy introduction, but MCoG wasn't that kind of show. While it had fabulous creations and settings, the underlying story was quite simple. A boy trying to find who he is, who loves his friends, and who is chasing a dream. All of the wonderous things they encounter along the way only helped to accentuate those points. But, we're not here to wax poetic, we're here to wax nostalgic, so lets get to the meat of the story.

That orphan was Esteban, who was said to be the child of the sun because whenever he was brought out, no matter what the conditions were, the sun would shine. Bad weather hit, the people would put him in a basket and run him up a pole to bring out the sun, which naturally gave him a terrible fear of heights. After the death of the catholic priest that had been his adoptive father, Esteban set out on a voyage to the Americas along with a Spanish navigator named Mendoza. For Esteban, it was an adventure, for Mendoza, he was an ace in the hole for good weather and smooth sailing.

During the voyage, Esteban is below decks, and discovers a young girl tied in a sack, the daughter of an Incan priest, whom the expedition leader is planning on trading for aid once they reach the Americas. Esteban, of course, releases her, and being the only two children on the ship, become friends out of necessity. Tensions on ship are high, and things would have gone badly for the girl, Zia, except that things went worse for the ship as a whole. A bad storm hits as the ship aproaches the Americas, and Mendoza the navigator (and self proclaimed protector of the children) is called to steer the ship through the storm. They don't quite make it, however, and the ship sinks. Esteban, Zia, Mendoza, and two comic-relief sailors end up washed ashore on an island, where they meet up with a native boy named Tao in a manner that indicates that the relationship between Esteban and Zia goes a bit deeper than just being friends, despite their age.

Anyway, with the main cast assembled, Esteban, Zia, Tao, and Mendoza set out on their quest to discover the Mysterious Cities of Gold. In the process, they find remnents of a highly advanced civilization, which seems to have been powered by the sun. From a highly advanced sailing ship, to the icon of the series, the Golden Condor, a great golden bird shaped flying machine. The children travel across the Americas searching for the Cities of Gold, always staying one step ahead of Cortez (yes, Hernando Cortez, the Conquistidor), who wants to recapture Zia, and find the Cities of Gold to fuel his own lust for gold. Along the way, we get to watch the children mature from being simply children into fully fledged people. We get to see young Esteban deal with heartbreak when it appears that Zia will be leaving, discover a horrible secret of a race that destroyed the ancient city of Atlantis, and a bitter sweet ending for Esteban as he finds and loses something he didn't even know he was looking for, which he never realizes he actually found.

But its not the story that you would likely remember, although the story is what kept you watching it. No, it wasn't the fact that Mysterious Cities of Gold had a fully fledged plot for the entire series, it was all those wonderful toys. The Solaris, the great sailing ship. The Golden Condor, the flying machine made of gold. The medallions that both Zia and Esteban wore that could activate the ancient technology.

Mysterious Cities of Gold wasn't an American 80's cartoon, and it showed. In a decade where the status quo was big flashy laser battles and big buff heros, MCoG offered three children with no special powers running around in the mountains. When we had well defined characters like Optimus Prime or Lion-O that never really changed, MCoG gave us dynamic people that lived, and learned, and grew. Where we had the barest of plots to link one episode to another, MCoG had a single 39 episode story, broken down into half hour blocks.

The Mysterious Cities of Gold was just that, pure gold in an age of silver. Many 80's cartoons shined in the sun, but have shown their age as time passed. Shows you once loved now make you cringe. They've tarnished, the silver has dulled. But not the Cities of Gold. Like it's namesake, this show is a work of beauty that only improves with age. If you were lucky enough to see this series, hopefully you remember how wonderful it really was. If you weren't, I hope I've inspired you enough to look it up for yourself, to download a few episodes and give it a try. And to aid you in that endevour, and to celebrate my first Retro Junk article, I have a present for you.

That link has not only the video of the opening credits, but also a rotating set of downloads for each episode of MCoG. Or, if you have the connection and the time, a link to a server that has ALL of the episodes, ready for download. If you decide to download all the episodes, make sure and send Joe an email thanking him for the wonderful thing he's doing for all of us.

And remember, "...children of the sun, your time has just begun!"
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