"The Emperor's New Groove" Remains One of Disney's Most Offbeat Comedies Review

Once a decade or so, Disney will put out an original animated feature that feels distinctly different from its past lineup of idealistic stories acted out by lovestruck beauties, heroes from unexpected origins, or a collection of anthropomorphic animals. The contender for this latest decade seems to be last year's Wreck-It Ralph, but before that was Mark Dindal's The Emperor's New Groove. Starring David Spade, John Goodman, Eartha Kitt, and (the movie-stealing) Patrick Warburton, The Emperor's New Groove has a sharp wit and strangeness that seemed to come from out of nowhere. It's not the typical Disney fare that most people expect and that made it very refreshing. Thirteen years later the film still manages to elicit laughs with the bratty persona David Spade was known for clashing with Goodman's easy-going nature, but both now and then the film's true draws remain a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor and Patrick Warburton. The allure of the latter obviously didn't escape Disney as they promptly made a quasi-sequel with Warburton as the lead, and both are now included in this Blu-ray combo pack.

At its heart, The Emperor's New Groove is your basic story of a self-involved human being learning that taking from everyone else just so you can be happy isn't a great way to live, because even if you think you can do without friends, someday you're going to need someone's help. It's a straightforward message and one that other Disney films hadn't dealt with yet, but it has almost nothing to do with what makes it memorable. Instead, it's the film's leap into the bizarre that makes it great. The selfish Emperor Kuzco (Spade) reveals to the humble llama herder Pacha (Goodman) that he plans to build his ridiculous summer home where Pacha's family has lived for generations, only to need Pacha's help when Kuzco's backstabbing adviser Yzma (Kitt) and her bumbling meathead companion Kronk (Warburton) bungle an assassination attempt, turning Kuzco into a llama and stealing the throne out from under him.

The film gives the audience time to soak in the whole llama transformation concept so that by the time the film's climax comes around and people start transforming left and right, it's a source of fevered glee and hilarity instead of the film taking an idea too far. Also helping the film is its sense of humor that establishes very early on that it takes delight in eschewing traditional storytelling tropes in favor of funny twists that either comically defy logic or stick to it to a ridiculous degree. The source of most of this humor is Warburton's Kronk whose simplicity and innocence, despite being the aid of the film's villain, makes the entire film work as well as it does.

That might be why Kronk's New Groove is one of the more delightful of Disney's direct-to-video sequels. It takes Warburton's amusing personality for Kronk and puts it front and center and just plays around with it. By the end it might feel like Disney has given us too much of a good thing, but the writing retains its spark from the original and Warburton is always good for voice acting comedy.

And yet, would it surprise you to know that the very character most people would consider to be the best part of The Emperor's New Groove series wasn't even part of the story to begin with? When you think of Disney films and the studio as a whole, you probably don't imagine a setting where the plot and characters of their next animated film is in flux a full year into production. Instead, due to its longstanding reputation for producing respected full-length animated features, you probably think of the studio as having a very clear and planned route every time it sets out to make a film. It might surprise you then that the funny and fan-favorite flick The Emperor's New Groove was almost completely different from the movie families have come to know and love.

Floating out there on the internet is a documentary called The Sweatbox, which has been almost entirely buried and forgotten by Disney, and it follows the production of the film from phase 1 as part of the deal made with Sting to write the film's soundtrack (a soundtrack which was left almost entirely on the cutting room floor save for the song which cuts awkwardly in at the start of the credits). The Emperor's New Groove started as an Incan take on "The Prince and the Pauper" but studio feedback and a variety of creative differences saw the story worked and reworked over and over. Through it all animators, writers, and Sting attempt to do their work only to have their efforts wasted when the film once again changes directions. There's nothing particularly scandalous about the whole affair, and for that it's hard to really understand why Disney won't let the documentary see the light of day, but it does show us just how arduous the creative process can be. More importantly it reveals just how close Kronk came to never existing. If you can find a copy of The Sweatbox on the net, it's recommended.

Until then, just be glad that what Disney finally produced in The Emperor's New Groove is as enjoyable a comic gem as it is.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

It's somewhat annoying that the extra features of the original DVD releases weren't transferred to the Blu-rays, meaning if you want to watch them you have to take out the Blu-ray and put in the DVD. To save you some time though, I'll just say this: that minor hassle isn't worth it. Including some deleted scenes, a game, a focus on two of the songs, and three featurettes on the original film's production, it's just not worth watching. Especially when the calm nature of the production featurettes come across as a bit false if you've watched The Sweatbox.

"The Emperor's New Groove" is on sale June 11, 2013 and is rated G. Adventure, Animation, Children & Family, Comedy. Directed by Mark Dindal. Written by Chris Williams, Mark Dindal. Starring David Spade, John Goodman, Patrick Warburton, Eartha Kitt.

Jun
18
2013
Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.

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