There are a lot of things to like about the new Disney animated feature, The Emperor’s New Groove, and one of the most compelling is the fact that the lead character, the teenaged Emperor Kuzco (voiced by David Spade) is largely unlikable.
So here’s the story: Kuzco’s advisor, Yzma (Eartha Kitt), has designs on the throne and plots to poison him. Her dimwitted henchman, Kronk (Patrick Warburton), confuses her potions and the drink that is supposed to kill the emperor turns him into a llama instead. Sent to dispose of him, Kronk’s better angel (visualized on his shoulder, opposite his devil) wins out and he does not kill the emperor. Instead, Kronk loses him. A tenderhearted peasant named Pacha (John Goodman) finds and helps Kuzco, even though the human emperor has his heart set on destroying Pacha’s village to build a new summer home. The remainder of the film is, essentially, an animated “buddy comedy;” the two characters distrust each other at first but, as they try to return Kuzco to the palace, they learn to work together and become friends.
Disney heroes are, typically, insecure, innocent simple folk who are more often than not overshadowed by their more colorful villains or supporting characters as they battle towards their goal not just of attaining something, but of proving something to themselves and others. Kuzco, on the other hand, is arrogant and cynical, a smart ass (and somewhere, my mother is saying, “No wonder he likes it”), single-mindedly determined to recover his seat of power, where he intends to continue doing things just as he has always done them: selfishly. That his experience as a llama makes him a nicer person is completely counter to his goals, and achieved in a way that remains true to the character instead of having him suddenly give an “I’ve learned something today” speech, the kind that South Park loves to satirize. After over six decades of “safe” Disney heroes, it’s refreshing and damned fine to have one with a little more personality.
This is the first “classic animation” feature Disney has released since The Lion King that is not based on a preexisting story. The first ever if you believe that nasty Kimba the White Lion rumor—and of course, The Lion King owed a little something to Hamlet too. Also like The Lion King, it takes some of its cues from past Disney films—especially, in this case, The Sword In The Stone and Snow White. In The Sword and the Stone young King Arthur learns by being transformed into various animals by his magical advisor, Merlin. In The Emperor’s New Groove, Kuzco learns by being transformed into an animal by his magical advisor, Yzma. There are differences, of course—Merlin’s intentions are benevolent while Yzma’s are anything but. Still, the similarity is there, and a final battle scene also recalls the “Mad Madam Mim” sequence from the earlier film. The Snow White comparison comes up in the plot as well: in Snow White, an old witch sends a henchman to get rid of the rightful ruler, the henchman takes pity and spares her, and the witch ventures after her to finish the job herself. Yzma’s powers are put down to potions from her laboratory rather than witchcraft, but that’s still pretty much what she is.
The Emperor’s New Groove plays all these variations with, to my mind, a much more stylish riff on the originals than The Lion King managed. It also manages to stand out from other recent Disney features in a very gratifying way: barring an opening number sung by Tom Jones (voicing a character, the Emperor’s “theme song guy”) and another sung under the closing credits by Sting, it is not a musical. Which means, saints be praised, there is no Obligatory Disney Ballad. You have no idea how much I hate the Obligatory Disney Ballad. From “Part of Your World” to “A Whole New World” to “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” they mean one thing to me—time to get some popcorn. The problem with the Disney film ballads is often the same problem as in Broadway musicals: it’s a moment where the show grinds to a halt only to resume creakingly at the end of the number. By eliminating it, along with the boy-girl romantic subplot (too weird, one supposes, what with the boy being a llama for most of the film), the film’s laughs never have to slow down.
The Emperor’s New Groove is not the “prestige picture” that some Disney animated features have been (which is probably why it’s opening at Christmas, not in summer), but in its way, it’s something better: it’s the funniest Disney film since Aladdin In fact, I probably laughed more at this film than I did at any live-action, mainstream feature films this year. It’s funny in a way I associate more with the wise-guy Warner Brothers cartoons than with the cute animal antics of Disney, and it maintains that tone with a remarkable consistency. Just as voice-man Mel Blanc was responsible for a lot (though by no means all) of the humor of the Warner cartoons, the cast here is of immeasurable value. As Kuzco, Spade brings his trademark sarcasm but, combined with the script and the deadpan expressions given him by the designers and animators, he comes off a lot dryer (and funnier) than most of his other characters. Goodman is essentially playing a variation on his Roseanne role, the good-natured, hardworking, caring husband and father with a sense of humor; he’s as effective in the comic arguments with Kuzco as when he gently forgives and agrees to help him again. Eartha Kitt is Eartha Kitt—but it seems well past time she lent her voice to a Disney villainess (and Yzma’s final fate will be all the funnier to those who know something about the later stages of Kitt’s career). Finally, if animated performances could be nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and why aren’t they?), Kronk, as voiced by Patrick Warburton, would win it in a walk. A big, lanky Superman type in appearance, he’s probably best summed up by this moment: Kronk drops the poof-producing potion into the Emperor’s drink, whereupon Kuzco asks if he smells something burning. Kronk cries, “My spinach puffs!” and runs into the kitchen. Warburton’s performance wrings every bit of humor out of his lines, and that’s a lot.
Say what you will about Disney, they put out a quality product. In the mid-1980s, they went on a streak of worthwhile films, beginning with The Great Mouse Detective and the watershed (play on words intended) of The Little Mermaid, that made a new Disney film something to be anticipated for the first time since Walt’s death, and introduced elements of the Broadway musical to animated features. With Beauty and the Beast, nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, the studio reminded people that a “family” film could, and should, be enjoyable for adults as well as kids: never before or since has an animated picture been so well-regarded as to compete with “adult” pictures for Oscars. And with The Lion King, Disney reached a peak of commercial success they have yet to top. Since then, unfortunately, the process for Disney releases has become a little like a treadmill: every year or so, a new animated feature comes out, the stores fill with merchandise, and then the theaters and shelves are cleared for the next wave. But The Emperor’s New Groove has the feel of artists trying something new, flexing their muscles in ways they’ve never tried before, to see what they can do. The result is often exciting and always interesting to watch.
This is probably the type of film that will be embraced by animation fans who will be, as I was, grateful for the ways in which the film works outside Disney’s usual box of tricks. And I don’t think kids will be too restless with it either—I saw a preview in a theater filled with children who clearly liked what they saw and had a good time. I admit a greater than usual interest in the box office performance of this film, compared to most I review. While I am always happy to see a film I like do well, in this case its success could encourage more mold-breaking from Disney. And Walt, who knew enough not to listen when he was told that people would never pay for or sit through an animated feature, would surely find something to like about it.