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Emperor's New Groove Review

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     My family has an odd habit of quoting films throughout our daily lives. At any time of the day, someone may speak a sentence or utter a non sequitur from a film or television series to offer our opinion, further the conversation, or just be funny. The manner of media that is quoted daily amongst us are from Yellow Submarine (1968), The Big Bang Theory (2007-Present), and today’s film, The Emperor’s New Groove. (2000)

    Never has there been a more peculiar oddity of a film in the Disney canon than Emperor’s New Groove. It was raised to uphold the sins of its forebearers (Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), (i.e: The later films in the Disney Renaissance)), also raised to beat the competitors (Dreamworks, with films like The Prince of Egypt (1998), The Road to El Dorado (2000), Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)), was later crucified by its kin for being too new, too different, died a painful death amongst low ticket sales and mixed reviews, and was somehow resurrected through sales on Home Video & DVD, later given a direct-to-dvd sequel, an animated series, and a cult following within the realms of the internet.

    Given Disney’s winning streak with the Disney Renaissance, it would strike one as odd that Disney’s first entry for the Millennium was less on the heels of being an animated musical epic in the likes of The Lion King (1995) & Mulan (1998), and was more in the creative stylings of a buddy road movie, similar in tone and setting to Dreamworks The Road to El Dorado (2000).

    But is this necessarily a bad thing? One mustn't forget that Disney had gone through rough patches before, particularly through the 70s to the early 80s with films that not only seemed out of the norm, ( The Black Hole (1979), The Watcher in the Woods (1980), The Black Cauldron (1981) Tron (1982)) but just weren’t successful. A studio that could do no wrong suddenly seemed to do nothing right. Any outlet of media will go through of the motions of what was popular (Space epics, Horror-fantasy, and the coming technology boom of the 80s) and try to make it appeal to a broad market audience. Disney’s period of Creative Hell was ended when the now universally ridiculed Michael Eisner stepped in from Paramount and successfully remounted the Company with the string of films and TV Shows that would later be christened as the Disney Renaissance, a period many fans of Disney still say produced their best work (Even though I consider each and every one of the Renaissance films overrated). And in all fairness, the same thing that happened to Disney in the 70s happened again in the 90s: Audience Expectation. Fans would want each Disney film to come out to be the next Beauty and the Beast, The next Little Mermaid, the next Aladdin. And with each film being stranger and more experimental, it’s understandable that audiences would turn away.

    This is what leads us to The Emperor’s New Groove. With the House of Mouse stuck in a quandary on what to do with contemporaries Dreamworks and Pixar for producing crowd loving hits and critically acclaimed masterpieces, they decided to pull their forces together and give the audiences a musical epic to emulate the Renaissance’s heyday, which ended with people scratching their heads confusingly at 1998’s Tarzan and 2000’s Fantasia 2000.

    Originally titled Kingdom of the Sun, Emperor’s New Groove would have had a Prince & the Pauper type story set in the glory of the Incan Empire. Screenwriter & Director Roger Allers, having had major success with The Lion King, was set to direct when Executives looked at the box office numbers and dollar signs flashed in their eyes. Music was to be provided by Sting, the driving force behind New Wave band The Police, emulating Elton John’s work on Lion King, and the voices of Owen Wilson, David Spade, Eartha Kitt, John Goodman, and Patrick Warburton to round out the main cast. It seemed like the recipe for Disney’s next Musical epic, following in the likes of Dreamwork’s The Prince of Egypt, (1998) and Road to El Dorado. (2000)

    So it’s understandable that the people who worked hard on this project would be shocked and angered when their efforts were scrapped by executives in order to “improve” the film. This is more or less what happened, as early test screenings proved to be disastrous as executives declared that the film wasn’t working in the way it was designed, and opted to have it re-worked. The story was changed, all the songs were cut, and Roger Allers was replaced by Mark Dindal, who had directed the Cult hit Cats Don’t Dance (1997). The overhaul proved too much for everyone, and Owen Wilson and Sting left the project in disappointment and disgust. Disney’s comeback epic dissolved into a mess of legal disputes, half-baked ideas and feelings of unpleasantness and misery.

    The pain that followed with the re-working was later collected into a documentary called The Sweatbox, named after the screening room at Disney due to lack of windows or ventilation when animators presented their work. Originally set for the bonus features on the film’s dvd release, Disney ended up gutting the documentary too, slimming it down to about twenty minutes and retitling it “Making the Music Video”, relating to the only Sting song that wasn’t cut, “My Funny Friend and Me”, which plays over the credits. For many years, The Sweatbox was labeled as “The film Disney doesn’t want you to see”, as it showed events at the studio that Disney would rather keep under wraps than be shown to the public. Ultimately, the documentary was given approval to be shown only at festivals, and has gained a positive reception, from Disney fans and regular audiences alike.

    So how did a film that Disney declared a mistake ultimately get such positive feedback, and signify the next decade of hits for the company? Let’s take a look.

    The story follows Kuzco, voiced by David Spade (Saturday Night Live, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003), Hotel Transylvania (2013)) who is a Prince in the golden age of the Incan Empire. Right from his entrance, Kuzco lives a life of absolute pleasure, who regularly boogies around his palace to his “Groove”, the opening song “Perfect World”, sung by Tom Jones, who was brought in when Sting left the project, and bullies those who “throw” off his groove (Though the person who suffers punishment didn’t do anything, as Kuzco bumped into him) Right from the get-go, we know that Kuzco is a selfish brat. (I honestly didn’t when I first viewed it, and it took me multiple viewings to fully get his character) However, David Spade’s portrayal radiates such charm and humor to it that you’re honestly caught off guard when you first see him.

    Outside the palace, we’re then introduced to Pacha, played by John Goodman (Roseanne (1988-1997), The Big Lebowski (1998), Monsters Inc (2001)), who is quite literally the Anti-Kuzco. He’s nice, kind, puts others before himself, complete boy scout. The first time we seen him, he’s helping out the man who was punished for throwing off Kuzco’s “Groove” (He was thrown out the window) Much like Spade, Goodman voices his character with such a sense of absolute kindness that you like him immediately. Goodman’s characters often contain either infinite kindness or absolute douchiness. Goodman’s voice alone, depending on the character he plays, can invoke the voice of a kind uncle, or a drinking buddy who gets pissed off when he drinks too much beer.

    Pacha visits Kuzco in the hopes of helping his village, only to find that Kuzco plans to demolish the village into a high-end resort and send the residents packing. Pacha is understandably shocked to find this out, but Kuzco is too wrapped up in himself to care about “meaningless peasants” Kuzco’s prime skill is making enemies, whether he knows it or not, which he fails to notice when his royal advisor, Yzma, played by Eartha Kitt (The Mark of the Hawk (1957), Harriet the Spy (1996), Holes (2003)), whom he fired earlier that day, has hated his guts and been plotting his downfall ever since he became ruler. Aiding her is Kronk, played by Patrick Warburton (Seinfeld (1989-1998), The Tick (2001)), a muscular, bumbling oaf who is less interested in diabolical plans and much more invested in baking spinach puffs and other culinary dishes.

    Warburton and Kitt are hands down the best parts of the film. Both play their characters with such eccentricities that any scene with one or both of them turn into a comedy routine. As an example, Kronk at points in the movie talks to his conscience, which is portrayed as two mini versions of him as Virtue and Vice, who argue amongst themselves rather than working on the problem (“We’ve been through this, it’s a harp, and you know it.” “Oh, right! That’s a harp, and that’s a dress.” ‘Robe!”)

    Ultimately fed up with Kuzco’s bratty nature, Yzma and Kronk plan to get rid of him. In one of the film’s best series of jokes, Yzma and Kronk head to Yzma’s secret laboratory that apparently everyone knows the location of, via a specifically pulled lever. The wrong lever is pulled, leading to a trapdoor (“Wrong lever!”) (“Why do I even have that lever?” Yzma wonders to herself as she walks back) Inside the lab, an overly complicated plan is brewed to turn Kuzco into a flea, and smashed into oblivion, but when that specific potion is spilled, they resort to poisoning him (“Or, to save on postage, I’ll just poison him with this!”) The poison is served up with Kuzco’s dinner, but to Kronk & Yzma’s surprise, it turns the prince into a talking llama rather than killing him.

    Tasking the responsibility of disposing of him, Kronk ultimately ends up sparing Kuzco’s life, only to lose the unconscious llama and plunk him down onto Pacha’s departing cart. When he comes to, Kuzco and Pacha freak out at the prospect that one is now a talking llama, and somehow managed to ride all the way to the other’s village. Despite now being a member of the Camelid family, Kuzco is just as egotistic and selfish as ever, as he still plans to build his resort, christened “Kuzcotopia”, when he returns to human form.

    After wandering into the jungle on his own, Kuzco runs into trouble after he provokes and angers anything that comes across his path, from a pack of Jaguars to a little squirrel, prompting Pacha to rescue him, showcasing Pacha’s good intentions. Even after hearing that Kuzco will destroy his village, he’s still willing to help/save the bratty Emperor. The pair’s relationship is very interesting for a Disney film at that time, mainly because the main character is the wise-cracking jerk, and the sidekick is the hero.

    From here on out, the film becomes a buddy road trip-type movie as Kuzco & Pacha try to get Kuzco back to the palace to regain control of the empire, as Yzma successfully took over his position, and return to him to human form. After hearing from an offhand remark by a nervous Kronk, Yzma ends up pursuing the duo in an attempt to get rid of them once and for all.

    Despite the lengthy introduction, the plot becomes very simple in its execution as Pacha and Kuzco move from one setting to another to evade Yzma and Kronk’s grasp, and hope that Kuzco will have a change of heart and build his resort somewhere else. If this was what Kingdom of the Sun was supposed to be, the plot would be very thin, but it isn’t. The film feels less like a musical epic from the artists who brought Aladdin and Mulan to life, and more like a product from the artists in a small corner of the Disney studio who just want to laugh and have fun. The simplicity of the film is ultimately its greatest strength. As an example, most of the backgrounds are massive, big, and rather empty set pieces and locations. It’s clear that these were recycled from Kingdom of the Sun, but the action appears to have been shrunk down, rather than enlarged. It’s less like an epic and more like a Saturday Morning Cartoon that got mixed in with the prints.

    Much of the humor is reminiscent of a Saturday Morning Cartoon too. In one of the best sequences of the film, the main characters are in the Incan version of a diner with Kuzco disguised as a woman. After Kronk is appointed head chef as the previous one quit after hearing Kuzco’s complaints about the menu, Yzma and Kuzco go back and forth through a series of revolving doors sending requests to Kronk for their meals, while Pacha tries to prevent the two from coming in contact with each other. The setup is simple, but the execution is so well done it invokes shades of Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers, most notably the Mirror sequence in Duck Soup (1933). Yzma & Kuzco’s requests mirror the other so brilliantly that they start to sound like one person who can’t make up their mind about what they want to eat.

    With Kingdom of the Sun, Disney set out to make the next big Epic hit that would rival Dreamworks and Pixar, which were quickly usurping the House of Mouse’s gigantic stature, having reinvented the format of Animation at the start of the 90s. With The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney felt that they had made a huge bomb and buried it as quickly as possible. What they failed to realize at the time was that the feel of Emperor’s New Groove ultimately heralded the next phase of Disney’s evolution that would lead to the Second Revival, which is still going strong. When looked at closely, Disney’s latest films like Bolt (2008), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), and Zootopia (2016) all follow tropes that were established in Emperor’s New Groove. Namely, the idea of switching out epicness for simplicity. Oh sure, the locations and worlds are still massive, but the story is more on the characters and their relationships in their respective societies, and the humor is pure slapstick and satire. After New Groove, Disney would float about through the early 2000’s in a daze, with many projects either never finding their audience the first time round, (Treasure Planet (2002), Lilo & Stitch (2003)), or just feeling lazy & unfocused (Home on the Range (2004), Chicken Little (2005)), or just plain weird (Dinosaur (2000)), until being saved again by the likes of John Lasseter, Dan Povenmire, Jeff “Swampy” Marsh, Alex Hirsch, Rich Moore, Byron Howard, and a whole new generation of artists and Yes-men that wanted make animation fun again, and just maybe save a studio from failure. And that was more or less the outcome.

    For a film that was labeled as a mistake, I will take it upon myself to say that The Emperor’s New Groove is the film that saved Disney. The title itself is literal. This was Disney trying something new, something challenging, finding new angles and stories to work with, adopting a new groove, you might say. It was most definitely a painful process, but the result is nothing less but pure fun. The Second Renaissance may not have started until 2008, but as one of the first films from Disney in the New Millennium, it feels less like a mistake and miscalculation, and more like a brave new step forward, into a Whole New World. And that be the real groove! Ha! Boom Baby!

The Emperor’s New Groove
Story: A
Writing: B+
Characters: A-
Imagery: B
Humor: A+
Overall: A
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