We’ve seen Disney go through restructuring of a film before it ends up in theaters. The Black Cauldron has an insane backstory involving directing coups, detrimental cuts, and multiple scripts which I detailed in my original review. Even last week’s Dinosaur saw Disney CEO Michael Eisner veto mute dinosaurs. And recently, Disney’s animation partner PIXAR changed directors mid-project with both Brave and The Good Dinosaur. Up until 2000, the worst production story was The Black Cauldron; they hadn’t seen The Emperor’s New Groove. I enjoy this movie and the direction it would put Disney in over the next couple of movies; i.e, a more sardonic, self-aware film where the adults could get the jokes and the kids could be taken in by the animation and action. However, once you hear and see where this movie started out, you’ll be a little miffed at the massive restructuring that took place.
Emperor Kuzco (voiced by David Spade) is the immature ruler of a Peruvian village. He’s recently made the decision to evict a hilltop town, overseen by peasant Pacha (voiced by John Goodman) in order to erect a mansion “complete with waterslide.” Unfortunately, the peasants aren’t the only ones unhappy with Kuzco; his recently fired adviser, Yzma (voiced by Eartha Kitt) plans to kill the emperor and rule in his stead. Due to a mix-up, Yzma ends up turning Kuzco into a llama. Losing him whilst disposing of his body, Kuzco ends up with Pacha and the two must work together to achieve their goals.
The Emperor’s New Groove started out as a dramatic film called Kingdom of the Sun, set to be directed by Roger Allers who did The Lion King and Mark Dindal who did Cats Don’t Dance with Sting composing the score. The plot was an Incan Prince and the Pauper where the emperor – called Manco and to be voiced by Spade – would trade places with Pacha – originally voiced by Owen Wilson. Yzma discovers the switch and turns Manco into a llama, while Pacha is forced to do her bidding. Eventually things are fixed and Pacha settles down with the emperor’s betrothed, Nina (voiced by Carla Gugino). The movie was 50% complete when poor test audiences put the kibosh on things. After a massive overhaul, including a complete reworking of the story and script (culminating in the loss of Allers and animator Andreas Deja), the ended up as what you see on-screen. The one good thing to come out of the mess was a documentary entitled The Sweatbox, directed by Sting’s wife Trudi Styler. The documentary originally followed the creation of the film, and Sting’s participation in it, before becoming a condemnation of Disney for taking the project away from the creators and firing everyone with no regards to the work. Of course, Disney didn’t want to be portrayed in a negative light and the documentary was quickly seized and locked into the mysterious Disney Vault. Bizarrely, last year unfinished copies of the documentary leaked online and you can find it if you search. It’s a pretty sad exploration of the company that would end up being even more prophetic as the years go on.
With all that happening behind the scenes, The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t suffer from the issues that plagued the troubled Black Cauldron. The latter film was frenetic due to the sheer amount of rewriters and cutting that went on; whereas, the complete overhaul of Emperor’s New Groove keeps the structure and tone relatively consistent. This, Atlantis, and Lilo & Stitch were rather experimental for Disney, with a focus on subtle humor for adults and a sardonic tone. Unfortunately, Disney either failed to embrace this, or didn’t offer the directors/screenwriters enough as the fad died down rather quickly (although there are brief moments in Bolt and Meet the Robinsons that fit the criteria). The Emperor’s New Groove is a Disney film that would have been great in the 1990s, particularly when David Spade was a household name. I find the movie to be charming, occasionally witty, and ridiculously quotable. The characters of Yzma and Kronk (voiced by Patrick Warburton) are a zany, slightly psychotic duo who steal all their scenes. Their unresolved domestic relationship allows for more risque humor, such as Kuzco asking about Kronk’s age and acting like a concerned child: “He seems….nice.” Eartha Kitt enters the pantheon of fantastic vocal choices for Disney villains (up there with George Sanders and George C. Scott). Her kittenish voice goes well with Yzma’s look which is a kitten mixed with a grinning skull.
David Spade is good, but his voice and brand of snarky humor is an acquired taste. He’s perfect for the role of an immature selfish king, although it’s laughable to have a heavily Peruvian story with all white actors in the vocal cast; Spade’s voice will cause you to lose all belief that this is set in any brand of Latin American country that isn’t a Taco Bell. John Goodman is always a welcome addition to films, and has become a Disney staple of late. His Pacha becomes a father figure/mentor to Kuzco, who refuses to believe that one man can be so heartless. Pacha is that old-fashioned family man (he has a pregnant wife and two kids at home) who believes in righteousness, and kindness; he’s a saint in the movie.
What audiences may be against is the anachronistic structure of the plot. It isn’t nearly as pervasive as Hercules (nor is it used for nefarious purposes like marketing to children), but the lack of place is ruined from the word go. The rich history of Peru and the Incas is pushed aside for jokes about waterslides, greasy spoon diners, and a finale that takes from the wizard’s duel in The Sword and the Stone. The movie could have been anywhere at any time – look at the white voice cast for further proof – and isn’t nearly as unique as it wishes to be. The snide humor is funny, especially for adults, but the storytelling isn’t as rich as in the past. So much of this screams “1990s” that the bizarre Peruvian touches just stick out. It never hindered my enjoyment of the movie, but if you’re hoping for a rich time and place, it’s missing here. The humor though acknowledges that kids aren’t dumb. The movie is incredibly self-aware with characters commenting on things that don’t make sense (my personal favorite is the questioning of how Yzma and Kronk ended up in one location before Kuzco and Pacha). The script is aware of audiences knowledge of movie conventions, and one thing The Emperor’s New Groove gets right is accepting and admitting that this is a cartoon.
The movie’s Tex Avery finale, snarky humor, and witty banter shifts Disney into post-modern stories where fairy tales are abhorrent and the jokes have to be smarter because the kids are smarter. This could turn off audiences wanting a purer “Disney” experience, and sadly Disney would revert back to their old formula with time. The Emperor’s New Groove was able to move past its dark beginnings and cobble out a story that’s consistently funny (albeit short of depth). It’s an underrated Disney film, especially in the tempestuous, post-millennium era.
Listen to the latest episode of Walt Sent Me Podcast where me and co-host Todd discuss The Emperor’s New Groove
NEXT WEEK: Next week we’ll be going on an undersea adventure with Atlantis: The Lost Empire
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.