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Film Review: The Emperor’s New Groove

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000; Directed by Mark Dindal)

Driven by a rapid-fire pace and snappy sense of visual and verbal wit, The Emperor’s New Groove is a canny paring-down of Disney’s increasingly bloated (and occasionally controversial) late-1990s animated musical epics into a lean and sharp buddy comedy, perhaps Disney’s best and funniest kick at the genre, animated or otherwise. Originally planned as a much larger production transposing Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale of privilege-checking “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to the pre-Columbian Incan Empire of the Andes, The Emperor’s New Groove is much more enjoyable in this form than it possibly could have been as a species of South American Pocahontas.

The Emperor in question is Kuzco (voiced by David Spade in surely his funniest film role, with all apologies to those legions of die-hard Joe Dirt fans out there). Kuzco is supremely spoiled, extremely frivolous, and casually cruel in his self-involved wielding of absolute power. He tosses an old man (John Fielder) out of a palace window for “throwing off” his “groove” during an opening musical number (the songs only bookend the film, are sung by Tom Jones, and are thus wonderful rather than a tedious Broadway slog like in so many Disney musicals). He summons llama-herding peasant Pacha (John Goodman) to his chambers to inform him that his entire village will be uprooted and demolished to make way for a hilltop royal summer palace called Kuzcotopia. And he summarily dismisses his longtime advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt; awesome casting) simply for being old, earning her everlasting emnity and spurring a plot to remove him from the throne so that she herself can take over.

Kuzco is a megalomaniacal prick, in other words, and The Emperor’s New Groove is couched as a clear narrative of his moral and social correction. Yzma intends to poison the Emperor, but through the bumbling of her muscular, endearingly dim-witted sidekick Kronk (a flawlessly hilarious Patrick Warburton, stealing the film so thoroughly that the character later fronted a maligned direct-to-video sequel) accidentally transforms him into a llama. Kuzco, in ungulate form, winds up back in the the village he intended to level for his pleasure mansion, and by degrees enlists the help and eventually the friendship of the hefty and resourceful Pacha in his quest to recapture the throne and restore his human form.

The plot is the wire hanger for some magnificent, multichromatic late-period Disney traditional animation robes and a clever comedic sensibility. The Emperor’s New Groove injected some much needed energy and verve into the studio’s increasingly creatively moribund outings (forgettable or lamentable efforts such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Tarzan were among its immediate antecedents). With its screwball pace, fine vocal comedic work, oddball casting (Tom Jones and Eartha Kitt, kiddies!) and smattering of unreliable narration and post-modern self-reflexivity and fourth-wall-breaking, this is a fun, uncomplicated, and sometimes laugh-out-loud effort that also manages to look pretty fabulous while it’s at it. Stuck in a pattern of trying far too hard creatively and narratively that eventually sealed the decline of its traditional animation studio while CG-animated Pixar films grabbed the brass ring, this movie saw Walt Disney Feature Animation briefly get its groove back. In retrospect, it seems almost like an accident, but at least it can be said to have been a happy one.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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