Originality, even when it’s forced, is a rare and wonderful thing these days. Sometimes it comes about due to the constraints of budget or equipment. Sometimes the expectations or demands of a client or superior change. However it happens, if a production can manage to recover, even if it goes in an entirely new direction, the result is usually at least interesting, if not decent. The Emperor’s New Groove is more than decent, being an atypical Disney movie and, in my humble opinion, one of their most fun.
The story is set in an ambiguously ancient Mezzo-American empire, whose current head honcho, Kuzco, is something of a spoiled selfish jerk. The teenaged tyrant is looking to build his new summer home (complete with water slide) on the hilltop currently occupied by a small peasant village. His plans distract him from the machinations of his ancient witch of an advisor, Yzma, who conspires with her large and somewhat ADHD-afflicted handyman Kronk to poison Kuzco and usurp his empire. Unfortunately for Yzma, Kronk grabs the wrong vial and instead of dying, Kuzco is turned into a llama. The polymorphed potentate is dumped on a cart belonging to Pacha, leader of the village scheduled for destruction. In order to get back to his palace and regain his throne, Kuzco needs to work with Pacha, who will only help the emperor if he agrees to build ‘Kuzcotopia’ somewhere else. Hilarity ensues.
Originally, this was going to be a far more typical Disney musical, called Kingdom of the Sun. They had a Prince & the Pauper storyline, Sting was lined up to do the songs, everything was going swimmingly. The production began to suffer, however, when the team tried to find ways to make the story more original. Test screenings didn’t go well, and the two directors assigned to the project by Michael Eisner ended up working on two different films, with one leaning towards drama while the other aimed for comedy. When the more drama-minded director left the production, Eisner threatened to shut down the production entirely. While the animators were assigned to a Fantasia sequence, the writers and remaining director gave the film a serious overhaul. The result was The Emperor’s New Groove.
Think of the jaguars as very angry investors. But what the hell do they know?
Opting for an entirely comedic experience, the movie plays a lot more like something out of Warner Brothers than Disney. There’s no romance save the relationship between Pacha and his very pregnant wife, all but one of the in-movie songs were cut (which made Sting very upset), and the typical Disney cute animal very spitefully tries to get Kuzco eaten by a pack of hungry jaguars. A particularly Looney Tunes moment is in the third act when Yzma and Kronk are in a dark room, and all we can see are their eyes in an entirely black space. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
One of the most brilliant decisions made was to cast David Spade as Kuzco. His performances in the various comedies he’s been a part of over the last decade or so have been somewhat hit and miss. Emperor’s New Groove is the former. Spade is very good at being a shallow jerkass, and channeling that into the shallow-as-a-thimble Kuzco is a stroke of genius. The small ensemble cast is, in fact, effective on all sides. John Goodman’s Pacha is very charming and endearing, Patrick Warburton launched a great voice acting career due to his turn as Kronk, and Yzma wouldn’t be anywhere near as enjoyable or the jokes to which she’s subjected as funny if her voice wasn’t coming out of former Catwoman Eartha Kitt.
One might even say she was “purrfect” for the role.
Combining this great voice work with some of Disney’s finer hand-drawn animations and quite a few lampshades being hung on the typical fare from the studio creates a very funny movie that still manages to be endearing in places. We see an actual friendship develop, the characters are memorable, the story moves a great clip and none of the jokes overstay their welcomes. In terms of both comedy and animation, this movie does everything it needs to do right not just right but very well.
Even if you don’t have kids, I’m willing to bet you’ll find The Emperor’s New Groove an amusing and refreshingly quirky romp from Disney’s animation studio. It fits well in just about any Netflix queue, whether you’re a fan of comedies in general or need a change of pace. It’s always interesting to see, over the course of a narrative, a complete jerkass grow and change into… well, a slightly more tolerable jerk. Which is part of the reason Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, in my opinion, works as well as it does.
…What? You haven’t seen that yet, either? Why are you still sitting there?
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.