[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: David Reynolds, Chris Williams, Mark Dindal | Director: Mark Dindal | Aired: 12/15/2000]
“No touchy! Noooo touchy!” – Kuzco
The story behind the creation of The Emperor’s New Groove is as tragic and devastating as the film itself is vibrant and funny. The film was originally conceived during the height of the Disney Renaissance, as a dramatic film called Kingdom of the Sun. After four years of slow, traction-free development, the crew had undergone several seismic shifts, and the project was threatening to hit the scrap heap. It was then that the producers decided to do a complete about-face – and turn their serious, soul-searching epic into a full-blown comedy.
The path from Kingdom to Emperor is one of Disney’s most interesting, and has been immortalized in the 2002 documentary The Sweatbox. (Good luck finding a copy of said documentary anywhere, though – the Mouse prefers that information be left under the rug.) Still, we’re not her to talk about the process that led to the film, but rather about the film itself. Specifically: How good is The Emperor’s New Groove?
Certainly, the film is a curious bird. After a decade of dramatic films that generally included comedy as a marginal element, Disney’s first millennial animated film (not counting the CG-rendered Dinosaur) is essentially a pastiche of numerous comedy tropes. It’s a buddy film; it’s a road trip film; it’s a “magic gone wrong” story. And throughout it all, it’s bursting with nearly as much animated attitude as a standard DreamWorks outing. (Although Shrek is generally credited with ushering in the modern era of animation, Groove hit theaters a few months earlier, with many of the comedic elements that would come to typify the twenty-first century brand of humorous animation.)
The plot alone is enough to make the typical viewer wonder if the film is indeed from the same minds that brought us Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A smart-alecky emperor gets turned into a llama. It’s the sort of description that has just enough of a “What the hell?” factor to catch your attention, but it also feels a bit too slick to have much substance.
Now, the concept of a Disney film character attempting to “turn human” is as old as Pinocchio (and has been utilized more recently in Brother Bear and The Princess and the Frog). But unlike your typical Disney film, Groove eschews seriousness in favor of wacky comedy, and its plot seems to stem not from the need to spark a meaningful hero’s journey, but the urge to be as offbeat as possible.
The level of character depth in the film rests primarily on its central character, the rich and spoiled Emperor Kuzco (David Spade). Pampered relentlessly from a young age, Kuzco has grown into a shallow and self-centered teenager – and one in charge of the ancient Incan Empire, at that – blind to anyone’s needs but his own.
Bearing those character traits, Kuzco isn’t all that inherently likable when we meet him, and could have easily turned out to be an irritating and insufferable protagonist. But the writers wisely use his egotistical nature as the punchline to many of the script’s jokes, keying us into his shallowness even as it sets him up as our proposed “hero”. The use of Kuzco as the overseeing narrator – protesting to the audience at several points that he is “the world’s nicest guy” and merely an undeserving victim – is a particularly wise move, as it gets us inside his head without ever turning over-analytic.
It’s still rather difficult to connect with Kuzco on an emotional level, though, but fortunately, the movie has an audience surrogate in the way of Pacha (John Goodman). Soft-spoken yet strong-willed, Pacha finds himself at odds with the Emperor’s plans, and spends much of the film attempting to appeal to Kuzco’s good side. There’s a fine story at work here, until you consider the film’s tone: A relationship that in other Disney films would be developed with serious dramatic mechanisms is here played out with buddy comedy tropes.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with buddy comedies – if well-executed, they can humorously showcase two likable characters that bring out the funniest aspects in each other. But Disney was fairly new to the pure-comedy field at this point, and it shows: Kuzco and Pacha’s journey to achieving mutual friendship is played out very straightforwardly, with a series of jokes that range across the humor spectrum from character-driven to purely gimmicky.
The core aspect of the film’s comedic potential is Kuzco’s transformation, and the sheer strangeness of it all – llamas are inherently unusual creatures by nature – is good for a few laughs. But ultimately, the Emperor-as-llama shtick is little more than a plot device, and not enough is done with it in comedic practice to measure up to the off-the-wall concept. A particularly chaotic climax, during which Kuzco undergoes several other animalistic metamorphoses, is highly amusing, but the comedy itself is derived more from the unpredictable novelty of the transformations (as well as the brief, fleeting joy of listening to Spade deadpan as a giant whale).
Still, although it may not measure up comedically, Kuzco’s mammalian transformation serves an important thematic purpose – placing the Emperor among the lowest of the low. He presides over everyone in his kingdom, straight down to the lowliest peasant; now, he has become something that can be owned by one of those peasants. Towards the end of the film’s second act, Kuzco, resigned to his fate, attempts to join a herd of llamas in an unappealing luncheon of grass. Watching him sink to this level, we easily understand his reformation at the film’s end. (The in media res device also works well for the movie – by starting off with Kuzco-as-llama, alone and crying in a rain-drenched forest, it communicates to us just how sorry and empathetic the protagonist will be before the film’s end.)
If it sounds like I prefer the dramatic beats of Groove over the comedic ones – well, I don’t. I merely acknowledge that, when it comes to the heroes, the comedic tropes are fairly routine and unimpressive. But the villains? Ah, that’s a whole other story.
The film pits Kuzco and Pacha against antagonists Yzma (Eartha Kitt) and Kronk (Patrick Warburton). On paper, their character descriptions are fairly thin: She’s a witchy old disgraced employee of Kuzco’s who’s out for revenge; he’s her loyal but incredibly dimwitted sidekick. But onscreen, the two characters are electric, brightening every scene they share with endlessly great laughs. Yzma’s plan – to fatally poison the Emperor simply for firing her – is quite dastardly on its own. But even before Kuzco begins sprouting ears and a long, hairy neck, the sheer haplessness presented by the interactions of this villainous duo is simply too funny to lead the film down an excessively dark path.
Yzma herself is a delightfully sinister villain – able to switch from cunning and malicious to hapless and pathetic within an eye-blink, and fueled by a wicked temper that continuously proves her undoing. Her hideous appearance proves surprisingly durable when the script calls for physical comedy – a third-act sequence in which Pacha’s family subjects her to a wide variety of Home Alone-esque traps is among the film’s most cartoonish – and her over-the-top vanity breathes new life into the clichéd “ugly person thinks herself attractive” joke.
And Kronk… ahh, Kronk. On the page, Yzma’s sidekick is simply a thick-skulled oaf who exists simply to drive her bonkers. Yet he is also the most eminently watchable of the film’s star quartet. Emperor’s New Groove is not a deep movie, nor will it ever be mistaken for a profound character study. Yet the scene where Kronk grapples with the question of letting an unconscious Kuzco plummet from a fatal height is a terrific deconstruction (complete with Animal House-style shoulder angel and devil) of the kind of character psychology that inflicts many affably evil villains of his order. Indeed, the straw that finally breaks his morally-challenged back comes when Yzma insults his spinach puff recipe.
This is the tone the film takes with its characters throughout the story, and even when it resorts to some of the more obvious tropes, the soothing little voice in our mind reminds us that it’s all in fun. Kuzco and Pacha’s trek through the jungle is rife with perils, yet we always know not to be too concerned. “Don’t tell me,” Kuzco deadpans at one point as the two float helplessly downriver. “We’re about to go over a huge waterfall.” To its credit, the film even comes up with some creatively outrageous setpieces that fit with the expressly cartoony feel of the movie – Kuzco and Pacha dangling in a particularly precarious position over a lake of hungry crocs, forced to use each other’s body as leverage to climb up and out, is among the most memorable images in the film. (And bonus points for bringing that device back during the climax.)
Giving itself completely over to the silliness when the opportunity arises, Groove breaks the fourth wall recklessly. At one point, Kuzco freezes the film to remind us that he, not Pacha, is the true star, with the use of a red marker that heightens the inanity of his intrusion. It would be a bizarre moment in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it fits right in with every other bit of madness in this movie.
This is both the chief success of the film and what ultimately suppresses it from achieving true greatness. When a joke in Groove works, it works wonders, as the silliness of the proceedings magnifies the inanity of each individual gag. But there are times when the film attempts serious moments – particularly in the way of Kuzco’s arc – and the drama of those scenes is undercut by the comedy that surrounds it. Disney once made us view an innocuous wooden puppet as a real boy; unfortunately, they can’t do the same with a smart-alecky talking llama.
But drama, I must stress, is not the film’s goal. And it successfully distracts you from its narrative flaws with a barrage of jokes that – even when they don’t work – keep you invested in the film’s very defined comedic attitude. Straight down to its title – a play on The Emperor’s New Clothes, the short story to which the film owes the shortsighted and vainglorious personality of its protagonist – this is a film that wants to distinguish itself as much from the regular Disney pantheon as possible.
And at that it largely succeeds, thanks in no small part to the clever “new look” of the film’s animation. Characters, both central and minor, are modeled in profile after the figures in ancient Incan paintings, yet come alive with an elasticity that plays up the literal edginess of their square fingers and angular faces. Yzma’s design is particularly distinctive – a series of curves ending in sharp points, stretched over an acutely angled face that tops an alternately stiff and rubbery frame. Yzma takes the brunt of the film’s physical comedy, but her tightly-coiled body takes the punishment with the endless durability of Wile E. Coyote, and even when the film forsakes her initial design that of a more solid-looking kitten, she endures a lengthy fall and (giant-trampoline-assisted) rise, as well as an abrupt flattening by her unwitting former sidekick, with as much physical resilience as ever.
It’s designs like that which give the characters substance. But it’s the voices that give them personality. And, per its habit, Disney has assembled a remarkable pool of talent to fill the soundtrack. Start with David Spade, an actor best known during the Nineties for snide, smart-aleck roles, whether on his SNL gig or the buddy comedies he shared with the late Chris Farley. I confess to not being a fan of Spade’s comedic persona – too often he oscillates between trying too hard and not trying at all – but he’s pitch-perfect as the Emperor who has everything but humility. It helps that he’s not there in physical form – voice-acting allows Spade to show off his well-inflectioned comedic line-readings, overplaying a role in a genre that invites overplaying. (More recently, the Hotel Transylvania films have toyed with Spade’s comic voice over his physicality even more cleverly – the Invisible Man has no physical appearance at all, save an expressive pair of glasses, so it’s up to Spade’s voice to lend the character his personality.)
As Pacha, John Goodman hits all the right notes, embodying the human figure who serves as Kuzco’s well-meaning conscience, and the late Eartha Kitt is delightfully malicious as Yzma. But it’s Patrick Warburton who ultimately runs off with the film. At the time Groove premiered, most viewers only recognized Warburton’s hammy, wiseguy voice as that of David Puddy on Seinfeld (or alternatively, as Joe Swanson on the little-watched early seasons of Family Guy). But since the film’s release, he’s received a seemingly never-ending stream of vocal roles that call upon his penchant for tough yet goofy characters who typically work as comedic foils. And this film is a testament to why his work is so beloved – Kronk is an insatiably silly character, thick as a brick, yet with a pure, childlike innocence to his actions. Warburton provides him with the sort of confident vocal bravado of a man who’s nowhere near as smart as he believes himself to be, and his character, as I’ve stated earlier, the character proves the most enjoyable aspect of the film – straight down to his “reformation” scene, a key dramatic moment played up as a complete joke.
This is, understandably, the goal of the film itself. The Emperor’s New Groove takes many of the dramatic tropes we’ve come to associate with Disney and flips them on their respective ears, turning them into a series of simplified gags. And while not all of those gags land, many of them work well enough to sustain a feature-length movie. Groove will never be considered one of Disney’s all-time classics – but thankfully, that’s something it knows.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Baby Kuzco. Adorable.
+ The poor old guy who throws off the Emperor’s groove and gets thrown out the window. (On the bright side, he got better.)
+ Kuzco spacing out while Yzma talks and focusing on her creepy wrinkles and teeth spinach.
+ Why do they even have that lever?
+ Yzma’s proposed “flea” plan.
+ The chimp and the bug.
+ The squirrel. Particularly his trick with the “balloon llama”.
+ Disney doing one of their more blatant self-parodies when Pacha swings, Tarzan-like, towards an endangered Kuzco.
+ Pretty much everything at the diner, although Yzma’s “birthday surprise” gets top marks.
+ “The peasant! At the diner! …He didn’t pay his check.”
+ Yzma dictating her plan to Kronk while jumping rope.
+ Kitten Yzma is cute! Creepy, but cute.
+ The Giant Trampoline ex Machina.