Yes, I’m well-aware that it’s uncool to praise Disney in these modern days. You can sing the praises of Pixar until your voice gives out, but give Disney the time of day and the fans start stripping away your cred. Well, my position on the Evil Empire has been clearly stated in the past and I’m forever convinced that in my lifetime I’ll see the field of stars on the American Flag replaced with Mickey ears. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the House of Mouse, despite many, many misfires, is still a reigning champion in the animation business. Disney movies have influenced my and most others’ childhoods for the last fifty years. So, hip or not, there’s a lot to be said for their output.
Deny it as much as you want, just about everybody has a favorite “Disney Classic”. Most of my generation will point to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Those before us might cite the tried-and-true staples like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Sleeping Beauty. The incredibly smug will bring up Song of the South and grin knowingly. But I have a fondness for some of their lesser successes, particularly the old fashioned adventure Atlantis: The Lost Empire and our subject for today: The Emperor’s New Groove, one of the funniest animated movies ever made and, for my money, one of the funniest movies period.
Many, many years ago, in an unnamed jungle empire bearing a striking resemblance to Incan Peru, young Emperor Kuzco is the ruler of the free world. He dances to his own theme music and his every whim is granted. On the eve of his 18th birthday, he invites the humble peasant, Pacha, to the palace to ask him a single question: where does Pacha’s hilltop village get the most sun. After Pacha replies, Kuzco thanks him and informs him that the village will be destroyed to make way for “Kuzcotopia”. Pacha tries to reason with him, but he’s dealing with a self-centered jerk who had an old man tossed out a window for daring to “throw off his groove”. Meanwhile, Kuzco manages to tick off his sorceress advisor, the ancient Yzma, so she and her thick-but-good-natured assistant Kronk turn Kuzco into a llama. Purely by accident, you understand; they meant to kill him.
A series of misadventures reunites Pacha with the llama-fied Kuzco and the peasant agrees to safely escort the emperor back to the palace, hoping along the way that he can not only change the ruler’s mind about destroying the village but also betting that there might be a kernel of good inside the teenaged twit. The journey itself is treacherous, beset with jaguars and towering cliffs, but they’re also pursued by Yzma and Kronk who hope to finish the job.
On the surface, The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t sound like much, does it? It could be any made-for-cable or straight-to-DVD cut-rate adventure. In fact, it started life as a straight-forward adventure titled Kingdom in the Sun and it was on its way to being just that ordinary. However, in a series of less-hysterical corporate misadventures, director Mark Dindal, fresh off his stint on the wretched Cats Don’t Dance, was brought in to overhaul the production. Out went the original by-the-numbers take on The Prince and the Pauper, out went an anlready-composed score by award-winning tree-hugger Sting, and in came a plot that fell somewhere in between a Hope and Crosby road movie and a Chuck Jones cartoon. What wound up on the screen was sheer and joyful lunacy.
The clever script by Dindal, Chris Williams, David Reynolds received a perfectly-cast collection of high-profile (at the time) voices including David Spade (Kuzco), the ubiquitous John Goodman (Pacha), the even more ubiquitous Patrick Warburton (Kronk) and the movie’s absolute highlight, Eartha Kitt as Yzma. Then Dindal and company filled the movie to the brim with expertly-timed sight-gags and daffy character-driven comic set-pieces. Rarely pandering (compare to the pop-culture mish-mashed Shrek movies) and dizzyingly paced, The Emperor’s New Groove breezes along from one joke to another, barely giving the viewer time to recover from the previous bit of lunacy.
Yzma and Kronk easily steal the show. A wrinkled hag who is none-the-less fabulous, Yzma is part Wicked Witch and part mad scientist with her secret lab and cabinet filled with vials of animal extract (at one point, her guards are assaulted with all manner of fluids. One is transmogrified into something decidedly non-terrifying: “Um, I’ve been turned into a cow. Can I go home?” To which Yzma replies. “You are excused.” Then orders the rest into battle.) Her secret lab is entered through a trap door fit with two levers. With an order reminiscent of Jack Lemmon in The Great Race, she announcs:
“Pull the lever, Kronk!” Then—“Not that lever!” jus t as she’s dropped an unfathomable distance to a river below. Emerging dripping wet through her entrance door, a crocodile chomping on her foot, Yzma asks, grumpily, “Why do we even have that lever?”
Kronk can talk to squirrels, Kuzco is a terrible llama and Pacha’s children both channel Bugs Bunny on numerous occassions. (What’s even better, the kids are never overused.) Admittedly, you’ll have to overcome your aversion to David Spade very early in the movie, as Kuzco is nothing more than every other character Spade has ever played, but the selfish ruler grows on you quickly. He’s often abused, too, which helps immensely. There are expected in-jokes galore as well, but the best of them are subtle—Kuzco is momentarily transformed into a whale in a visual shot right out of Pinocchio, to name just one example.
What’s remarkable about New Groove is how little Disnification you’re assaulted with. Not only is the entire movie structured like a Warner Brothers short but you never feel like you’re watching a giant shill for toys. Like the best of the Pixar features, New Groove is character-driven, but it isn’t afraid to take liberties with the meta-fiction. (At one point, Yzma and Kronk manage to beat Kuzco back to the palace. And even Kronk agrees that the turn of events was unlikely.) It’s pure silliness with no agenda but to entertain, rather than to sell plush Kuzco llamas at the Disney Stores. If you’re a hard-line anti-Disney-ite, The Emperor’s New Groove might even be the perfect movie for you.
With the mechanations involved in getting this film to theaters—the ground-up retooling, pissing off Sting (he contributes one Oscar-nominated-by-default song to the end credits)—the marketing arm of the Mouse Factory really dropped the ball. Television ads played up the Spade-isms and pop culture references, making it seem like New Groove was little more than a funny-animal slapstick show aimed at toddlers. While the movie was far from a failure at the box office, it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the “classics”. Truth be told, New Groove was as brave an experiment as the equally-wonderful Lilo and Stitch, so it’s a shame so few people have discovered it. It played well enough with kids to spawn a direct sequel called Kronk’s New Groove (completely showcasing Warburton) and a hit-or-miss Disney Channel series called The Emperor’s New School, both lack the lunatic wit of the original.
Naturally, The Emperor’s New Groove is not hard to find. In fact, a terrific 2-disc set was released in 2001, which is still relatively easy to run down on Amazon. However, there exists a still-unreleased New Groove documentary The Sweatbox produced by Mrs. Sting, filmmaker Trudie Styler that follows the trials and travails of the Kingdom in the Sun right up until the point where the former Police man is shown the door. The composer was extremely vocal at the time about his dissatisfaction with his treatment at the hands of the Mouse Factory and The Sweatbox shines a hard light on the almost-doomed project. To be fair, it also shows just how hard everyone in production worked to get the movie back on track, redesigning it into something unique. But because it doesn’t put the company on the pedestal, Disney had the documentary shelved after it’s Sundance premiere in 2002. Deemed so damaging to their reputation, it’s rumored that the company won’t even let it be shown internally without giving the print its own escort.