Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Emperor's New Groove

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Emperor’s New Groove.

In 1994, Disney started production on a musical epic titled Kingdom of the Sun. Over the course of four years, however, the project went through a troubled production period (as detailed in the documentary The Sweatbox, viewable through Internet Archive), only reaching about 25% completion. As a result, studio executives stepped in and, after some discussion, the film changed direction to a lighthearted comedy. The final product, renamed The Emperor’s New Groove, would see a theatrical release in early December, 2000. Though it received a generally positive reception from critics, with an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film underperformed at the box office, making only $169.9 million on a budget of $100 million.

Although I was only eight at the time The Emperor’s New Groove came out, I distinctly remember watching it in a theater and enjoying it. However, it would be about 20 years before I would watch it again through a TV broadcast, which reinforced the fond memories I had of the film. After watching the first episode of  the Disney+ series Sketchbook, in which Story Artist Gabby Capili drew Emperor Kuzco, we felt compelled to watch the film again, which led us to conclude that even after 22 years, The Emperor’s New Groove still holds up as a Disney classic.

Self-centered Incan emperor Kuzco (David Spade) plans to demolish a village on his 18th birthday to make room for his summer mansion, dubbed “Kuzcotopia”, against the wishes of the village leader, Pacha (John Goodman). Kuzco’s advisor, Yzma (Eartha Kitt), is fired by Kuzco for performing his duties in his place and seeks revenge. She attempts to poison Kuzco with the aid of her assistant Kronk (Patrick Warbuton), but they accidentally use a potion that turns Kuzco into a llama. Though Kronk was meant to dispose of an unconscious Kuzco, the emperor inadvertently ends up in Pacha’s village. Despite their differences, Kuzco must learn to trust Pacha if he hopes to reach the palace in one piece and regain his human form.

Kuzco (David Spade, left) doesn't react well to the news that he's a llama;
also pictured: Pacha (John Goodman, right).

Although the story’s presentation as a slapstick buddy comedy feels atypical for a Disney film, especially for when it originally came out, The Emperor’s New Groove is very well-written. The characters all feel very different from one another and leave a lasting impression on the viewer. Kuzco’s character progression, where he starts off very self-centered but turns into more of a caring person by the end, feels very natural, since it takes him making a few impulsive mistakes to finally realize that he was wrong. Pacha acts as a great foil to Kuzco, as he patiently tries to bring out the good in Kuzco, though their differences in worldview still lead to their fair share of arguments until they finally grow closer as friends. Thanks to the development brought on by this friendship, it feels nice when Kuzco becomes a nicer person by the end, in stark contrast to how the audience would perceive him at the beginning.

Just as Pacha and Kuzco act as good foils for each other, so do the antagonists, Yzma and Kronk. Ymza has the air of a classic evil villain, with a simple and clear motivation for wanting Kuzco dead and stopping at nothing to seeing it through. What helps make her likeable, however, is her constant struggle to do so, as her own impulsive nature and lack of social skills around “peasants” means she ends up getting in her own way, though she’s quick to blame her assistant Kronk. Though Kronk is dimwitted, or perhaps simply naïve, he has a surprising amount of depth, with skills ranging from cooking to speaking with squirrels, and he even accurately points out flaws in Yzma’s plans, to no avail. The fact that he retains his humanity even while working for someone as evil as Yzma also demonstrates that he’s not simply in the film as cheap comic relief, but is a fully fleshed out character in his own right.

Kronk (Patrick Warburton, left) and Yzma (Eartha Kitt, right) have a great dynamic.

Since The Emperor’s New Groove puts an emphasis on comedy, it’s fortunate that the film handles it very well. Much of the humor comes from slapstick in the vein of classic Looney Tunes shorts, with masterful comedic timing and a great sense of knowing when a joke has run its course. There’s some amount of self-referential humor, though it’s kept to a bare minimum and used only when necessary or to help make a point. For instance, Kuzco has some running commentary for much of the story, often painting himself as the victim. While some scenes with this commentary could arguably have more of an emotional impact without it, it’s clear by the time the film returns to the opening scene that the commentary served a purpose in his development, with him reflecting on his actions and realizing how awful he was as a person.

Thanks to the well-timed verbal and visual gags, The Emperor’s New Groove has plenty of memorable scenes and individual lines that have helped it live on through internet memes. Some of these involve Kronk, including the lines “Oh yeah, it’s all coming together” and “No, no. He’s got a point,” as well as a particular scene involving a map. I won’t go into too much detail about the more memorable jokes, as that would ruin the surprise, though there is a reference to The Wizard of Oz (1939) that can come off a little forced.

The source of a particular meme from a non-comedic scene.

Despite the heavy focus on comedy, the writing in The Emperor’s New Groove is very sincere and isn’t afraid to show its emotional core without any trace of irony. This aspect can arguably make watching the film now feel like a breath of fresh air in a cinematic environment where films constantly wink and nudge at the audience like they’re in on the joke. Due to this approach, it wouldn’t be completely unfair to draw comparisons with two other films that came out around the same time, those being The Road to El Dorado (2000), another buddy comedy set around an ancient empire, and Shrek (2001), which came out only four months after this film. Though all three films are worth watching, The Emperor’s New Groove has arguably aged better, since it has a more cohesive story than The Road to El Dorado, which also suffered from executive meddling, and feels more timeless than Shrek, which leaned more into pop culture references. Though The Emperor’s New Groove has a couple anachronisms of its own, it doesn’t draw too much attention and one in particular, a scene where characters eat at a greasy spoon, somehow doesn’t feel out of place.

Much like the writing, the animation aged very well, due in part to its more stylized look that helps it stand out from other Disney productions. Though the high quality is expected from a traditionally animated Disney film, it’s particularly notable here due to the animators clearly understanding how to draw out comedy at just the right moments, including carefully-timed framing and expressive characters. Naturally, they also don’t slack on the details, with incredible attention to lighting (including glare) and atmosphere, as well as realistic water and liquid effects.

Each of the major characters are also well-cast. David Spade and John Goodman prove to have incredible chemistry, as do Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton. Although the film makes good use of their comedic abilities, it also draws out each voice actor’s emotional range to better tap into the more sincere elements. Even the secondary and side characters are done very well, though two that stand out for their greater relevance to the story are Wendie Malick as Pacha’s wife Chicha and Bob Bergen as Bucky the Squirrel.

Bob Bergen displays good comedic timing as Bucky the Squirrel.

Notably, The Emperor’s New Groove has some involvement from musician Sting, who had been on the project since it had the title Kingdom of the Sun, though he only provides two songs in the final product due to the dramatic change in production. The first, “Perfect World”, performed by Tom Jones, does a good job at establishing Kuzco’s personality during an early scene and lays the groundwork for Kuzco’s eventual transformation. The other, “My Funny Friend and Me”, performed by Sting, can sound like a jarring tonal shift as it plays during the end credits, but it sounds perfectly fine on its own and summarizes the themes of the film. Although I can’t recall any specific work from the composer, John Debney, he gets credit for knowing when to leave room for moments of quiet, even with Kuzco’s commentary.

With its expert balance of comedy and sincerity, not to mention its incredible animation and voice acting, The Emperor’s New Groove is a must-see Disney classic. While it may not have done well when it originally released, its lasting legacy is more than earned.

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