The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Directed by Mark Dindal
Kuzco is a vain and selfish emperor of a South American civilization (heavily based on the Incas). He spends every waking moment having his every whim catered to by his servants, headed up by his top advisor, the elderly Yzma. After making plans to destroy a nearby village to make way for a summer home, Kuzco decides that he no longer needs Yzma, and fires her. In revenge, she attempts to murder Kuzco with the help of her dim-witted henchman Kronk. Unfortunately, instead of killing him, Kronk accidentally switches vials, and ends up turning Kuzco into a llama instead.
Yzma orders Kronk to take the llama Kuzco out and dispose of it. Kronk can’t bring himself to kill the emperor, and ends up leaving him on the cart of Pacha, the peasant whose village Kuzco had decided to destroy. When Pacha realizes what’s going on, he refuses to help Kuzco return to the palace and turn human again unless he agrees to spare his village.
Through several misadventures and close calls with Yzma and Kronk, who are hunting for him, Kuzco and Pacha make their way towards the palace. Along the way, Kuzco learns of Yzma’s treachery, and begins to reconsider his plans to have Pacha arrested and the village destroyed anyway once he becomes human again. They eventually reach the palace, only to discover that Yzma’s beaten them back and has taken the vial containing the antidote. A fight between them and the guards ensues (in which pretty much everyone but Pacha gets turned into animals, Yzma included), and Kuzco and Pacha finally put aside their differences and use teamwork to successfully retrieve the vial. Afterwards, Kuczo decides to build his summer home elsewhere, and Yzma remains stuck as a small cat.
Okay, this is going to be a long one. There are other Disney movies that had troubled productions, but I’m not sure any of them rival this one. It started life in 1994, when Roger Allers (director of The Lion King) had a meeting with studio execs to discuss his next project. At the time, Disney was interested in pursuing films set in ancient cultures (see: Hercules, Mulan), and Allers responded well to the suggestion of something Incan or Mayan. Due to his success with The Lion King, Allers was given free rein to come up with the plot for the movie, and what he devised was very ambitious.
Called Kingdom of the Sun, it was originally an epic tale of an emperor who switches places with a peasant, Prince and the Pauper-style, while an evil witch attempts to summon the god of death to destroy the sun so that she can live forever. Allers even personally talked the musician Sting into writing eight original songs to go with the project. Actors were cast for the roles, and work proceeded at a relatively slow pace.
Eventually, Disney execs began to panic that the movie wouldn’t meet its summer 2000 release date. That was a major problem, as Disney had tied a up a lot of the movie’s marketing in fast food and product tie-ins that were locked in to that date. The movie was just too big and ambitious for its own good. The producers sat down with Allers and his co-director, Mark Dindal, to come up with ideas for how to pare the project down to meet the release date. Dindal’s idea – to take out a lot of the serious plot elements and turn it into full-on comedy – was favored by the producers. Allers didn’t really want to see the movie he’d originally envisioned be altered so much, but he also realized that it wouldn’t ever get finished as it was. So he decided to step down from the project, and turn the reins over to Dindal. At this point, over $25 million had been spent, and over a quarter of the movie was already finished.
Production on the film was halted for six months so that it could be completely rewritten. They decided to make Kuzco (formerly a supporting character) into the lead, and added the henchman Kronk, who hadn’t been in the original plan. Since Sting’s songs were tied in the original plot, they all had to be scrapped. Unfortunately, Sting was busy working on his next album and couldn’t devote the time to do an entire soundtrack again (and probably wouldn’t have; he was quite annoyed at having his songs tossed), though he was at least able to write one song to use as the film’s opener. Jettisoning half the plot also mean losing half the actors who’d already been cast. Pretty much only David Spade and Eartha Kitt remained from the original planned cast.
The newly-retitled Emperor’s New Groove still wasn’t able to make the original summer release date (Dinosaur took that instead), but came out six months later in December instead. This put it in direct competition with another Mesoamerican-inspired animated movie: DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado. DreamWorks just so happened to have been founded by formed Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who’d still been at the company when Kingdom of the Sun began production. A lot of critics felt that this was Katzenberg’s attempt to beat Disney at its own game in revenge for being let go.
Despite strong critical reviews, The Emperor’s New Groove opened at only fourth place at the box office (in its defense, it was competing for the same audience as mega-hit How the Grinch Stole Christmas). It ended up being the lowest-grossing Disney animated canon film (Fantasia 2000 nonwithstanding, as that was more of a special event thing) since The Rescuers Down Under.
This might be the most un-Disney-like movie in the entire canon. It certainly is up to this point in the blog. It has no musical numbers to speak of, no cute animal sidekick (the squirrel doesn’t count, it’s in two scenes, and you can’t call the main character a sidekick), and the jokes come faster than the speed of the plot. In some ways, it’s a lot more like a Warner Bros. cartoon than a Disney one. You could imagine Bugs Bunny showing up a lot easier than you could Mickey Mouse.
That actually might be why I like the film so much, and always have since the first time I saw it. It blasts in like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room, entertains tremendously while it’s here, and gets out before overstaying its welcome. And coming off of Dinosaur, which felt like it was three hours long instead of 82 minutes, that’s a very welcome thing indeed.
Most of Disney’s movies, especially those of the Renaissance, have had a mix of comedy and drama. Some of them (Aladdin, Hercules) leaned more on the former, and some (Pocahontas, Hunchback) on the latter, but they were all four-quadrant films intended to have something for everyone in the audience. Emperor’s New Groove, however, is about as much of a straight-up, unambiguous comedy as they’ve ever done. Pretty much everything is played for laughs, with as much wordplay as there are sight gags. Every time the movie actually starts to build up some tension, it’s immediately punctured by something ridiculous occurring.
And that’s a good thing! Not every movie has to have serious dramatic events. I think this pared-down version of the film works way better than the serious Kingdom of the Sun every would have. It’s about someone who gets turned into a talking llama! It’s an inherently ridiculous concept from the start, and they eventually did the wise thing and leaned into it.
Not taking the plot seriously also allowed them great leeway to play around with the concept of a movie itself. Kuzco frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, even pulling out a Sharpie at one point to draw on the screen while making a point (a gag that continues throughout the movie until and argument actually starts between the Kuzco on-screen and the one in voice-over).
And when the villains manage to beat Kuzco and Pacha back to the palace despite the duo having a head-start on them, it’s actually lampshaded by Kronk that it makes no logical sense and just happened to move the plot along. There’s just something refreshingly modern about the way the movie plays with its own reality in a way that no Disney film had done since the package film days of The Three Caballeros.
After a terrible start to the period with Dinosaur, Disney rights the ship somewhat with one of its most anarchic entries. While it never hits any of the artistic highs from the Renaissance, I still like it a bit more than several of those films.
Animation: B- (Probably the weakest part of the movie, since it was a rush job. But they still managed to get in a lot of nice small touches – the potted plant that Yzma pours the potion into becoming llama-shaped in-between shots is probably my favorite)
Main Characters: A- (Kuzco might be an arrogant asshole, but he’s a FUNNY arrogant asshole, who bounces off of Pacha wonderfully as an Odd Couple)
Supporting Characters: A (Kronk might be one of the biggest breakout characters in Disney history. It’s not often that a henchman has an entire direct-to-DVD sequel devoted to them)
Villains: A- (Eartha Kitt was the perfect person to play Yzma, who manages to be threatening, over-the-top, and ridiculous all at once. My only regret is that the changes in production meant that Kitt – a famous jazz singer and Broadway star – never got the chance to have a villain song)
Music: B- (Sure, there’s only the one song, but they went all-out on it, with Tom Jones essentially playing himself as the theme song guy)