When I was a young teenager, I went through a phase where I had an irrational hatred of Disney. Between thinking I was “too old” for their films and learning some unpleasant facts about their corporate policies and controversies, I essentially boycotted the studio. In fact, I even engaged in the unfair practice of judging films I hadn’t seen. Thankfully, this illogical bias virtually came to an end when my younger sister showed me The Emperor’s New Groove, the 2000 animated film about a ruler who’s transformed into a llama. I loved it, and had I been stubborn enough to stick to my Disney spite, I would’ve missed out on a truly entertaining picture.
Part of why I took to Emperor was because it had more in common with classic Looney Tunes than the adventurous epics that Disney had been making since the late ’80s. The emphasis was more on delivering solid gags at a rapid pace than tugging at the audience’s heartstrings or showcasing rousing action. Don’t get me wrong: those two things can be good if done right, but I also love a good comedy, and Emperor gave it to me. It also distanced itself from the stereotype that “all Disney films feature princesses.” In fact, the villain (wrinky, bossy Yzma, played by Eartha Kitt) is the total antithesis of what you think of when you think of woman leaders.
At the start of the film, advisor Yzma is fired by sarcastic, spoiled brat leader Kuzco (David Spade) for trying to do his job behind his back. She swears revenge and, with the help of her far more cheerful assistant, the bulky cook Kronk (Patrick Warburton), she tries to poison Kuzco at what seems like a reconciliation dinner. However, Kronk accidentally mixes up her potions and turns Kuzco into a llama instead. Kronk is ordered to dispose of the knocked-out Kuzco, but has a tinge of consciousness and saves him in the nick of time only to lose him. Kuzco lands in the cart of a peasant, Pacha (John Goodman), who was at the palace to convince Kuzco not to build a resort over his mountain home. Kuzco wakes up in the country and is determined to return to the palace, unaware that Yzma has taken over the throne in his absence. Of course, Pacha is reluctant to help Kuzco after he rudely dismissed him earlier. However, Pacha feels a sense of obligation to protect Kuzco in llama form, and the two gradually form a friendship as they travel the jungle back to the palace (making this film more of a buddy picture, which wasn’t common for Disney at the time). Meanwhile, Kronk lets it slip that he didn’t actually kill Kuzco, infuriating Yzma and sending the two into the jungle after them.
This is all classic set-up for farce, and the movie doesn’t disappoint. It’s just one hilarious sequence after another as Kuzco and Pacha encounter peril (a bunch of pumas) after peril (a collapsed bridge) on their way back to the palace, with my favorite scene set in a remote restaurant where Kronk and Yzma are also dining and wherein Kronk becomes an impromptu chef when the real one quits in frustration. There’s a moment when Kuzco (in disguise as a woman) and Yzma keep changing their food orders in rapid succession, all while just barely missing each other, that’s a lot of fun. But lest you think the movie is just a bunch of wacky, meaningless noise, fear not. The four character personalities are well-developed and their motivations are crystal clear, and the characters have great chemistry with each other: all essential ingredients for a comedy, along with the great voice cast. The comic timing is superb, with quick pacing to the gags that only accentuates what they’re presenting. I also dug the style of humor presented, which is self-aware (for instance, Kuzco not-so-subtly reminding the audience that the film is about him, not Pacha), though not so much that it becomes smarmy or phony. It’s just enough to give the film some attitude, yet you still are invested in the heroes’ journey.
Emperor also impresses in its look. The Peru backdrops are eye candy, and the exterior of Kuzco’s gold palace is inspired. As for the character designs, they’re less Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and more Mulan and Atlantis; that is, angular. However, each of the cast has a unique character design that you’ll remember long after the movie’s over, and the actual animation is still fluid and full of great character animation (with each character having their own specific gait). The film also has a wide array of amusing (and specific) facial expressions to carry the comedy. There are poses in here that get me to laugh just from how the characters look, which is high praise considering Disney bashers usually (inaccurately) complain that the studio is stock and generic. Drastically different than most Disney flicks up to this point, the characters don’t break out into song; the only musical number in the whole film is at the very beginning, not sung by a main character but by an Elvis impersonator (voiced by Tom Jones!), extolling how good Kuzco’s got it. But the score by John Debney still delivers, which finds the right balance of comedic “Mickey Mousing” with more reserved, heartfelt music (such as the bonding scenes) and heroic adventure themes.
As expected (in 2005, at least) Disney released a direct-to-DVD sequel called Kronk’s New Groove, mostly featuring the not-so-evil henchman from the first film. However, also expected, it’s not as strong. For one thing, the chemistry I mentioned above is virtually absent, as Kuzco and Pacha are absent for the vast majority of the film, leaving Kronk to interact with lesser characters. Also, the plot isn’t as taut; it’s basically three independent stories (two of which are flashbacks) about Kronk. The first involves Kronk and Yzma selling a tonic to senior citizens (which is merely a placebo), the second features Kronk smitten over a rival scoutmaster (my least favorite of the stories), and the third has Kronk putting on an act for his disapproving father (not exactly an original idea). While the stories do sort of tie together for the moral of the story, it doesn’t have as crisp of a feel as the original movie. The laughs are more hit-and-miss, especially since it flat out reuses some gags from the first film, only not as well (such as the various abstract drawings illustrating someone describing their plans). One big positive, though, is that despite being a DTV feature, the animation didn’t take too much of a dip; while it is technically inferior, and there are choppier sequences that slip in, it still looks a sight above your typical TV show.
Sadly, this Blu-ray re-release doesn’t do either film justice. Previous releases of The Emperor’s New Groove weren’t exactly brimming with extra content (save for the short-lived Ultimate Groove set from 2001, long since out of print), but the Blu-ray disc is actually a step backward, offering no special features aside from trailers. Seriously? If any movie deserves lots of behind-the-scenes material, it’s Emperor, as it went through one of the hairiest development hells in modern Disney history. It essentially began as another epic called Empire of the Sun, but even after a good two years of work, the project just wasn’t clicking, so much of it was thrown out and a replacement director presented a wackier take on the material. All of this is covered in the (for all practial purposes) banned documentary The Sweatbox, and while I didn’t expect Disney to release that from the vault, I was hoping for something. As it stands, the only real reason to upgrade the DVD sets of these films is for the Blu-ray image quality, which is, par for the course, virtually perfect. The two DVD discs of Emperor and Kronk at least fare better than the Blu-ray disc, though they offer nothing different than their earlier DVD counterparts: Emperor contains brief featurettes, an audio commentary, three deleted scenes, a game, and two music videos, while Kronk has two games and a brief 7 minute featurette “How to Cook a Movie”, hosted by Patrick Warburton and featuring Saul Andrew Blinkoff and Elliot M. Bour, the directors.
If I sounded vague about specific jokes in the review, I apologize, but like any good comedy, I would hate to give away too many punchlines. Take my word for it that if you want to laugh, The Emperor’s New Groove is a solid bet. It has held up very well, the story is well-constructed and not bloated, and I still get a lot of enjoyment out of it even twelve years after first watching it. Kronk’s New Groove is predictably weaker, but it has its moments. It’s just a shame that the Blu-ray disc is such a letdown, otherwise I’d wholeheartedly recommend the set without hesitation.