Emperor's New Groove, The (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Many times, it is possible to make a snap determination about a movie based on its trailer. Happily, in the case of The Emperor's New Groove, any such judgment is likely to be in error. That's because the trailer makes the movie seem like one of the worst excuses for animated entertainment to come along in the past decade. However, while The Emperor's New Groove isn't going to challenge Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, or The Lion King as the best of the "new wave" Disney animated features, it represents an entertaining (if inconsequential) 75 minutes spent in a theater. It's short and sweet - two adjectives I have not been able to use much this holiday season.

2000 has seen the release of three animated Disney movies, all of which are vastly different creatures. The first, Fantasia 2000, was the long-awaited, all-musical sequel to the classic Fantasia. It was designed for IMAX distribution (although it eventually received a normal theatrical run). The second, Dinosaur, mixed computer-generated creatures with live-action backgrounds, creating a visually impressive film that was hamstrung by a disappointing script. Now, along comes The Emperor's New Groove, which, at first glance, appears to be the least promising of the trio. After all, the animation is a cut below that of most Disney features and the Christmas release date may indicate a lack of confidence. But, upon closer examination, things look decidedly better.

The Emperor's New Groove represents Disney's first feature-length animated comedy. Although many of the Magic Kingdom's recent endeavors have included comedic characters (the genie in Aladdin, the dragon in Mulan, etc.), The Emperor's New Groove is the first motion picture to strive exclusively for comedy. Oh, there's a message buried in there (caring for others = good; selfishness = bad), but it isn't brought to the fore with sappy sentimentality. Instead, armed with what is arguably the most clever animated script in a long time, the movie makes its point through wit and gently barbed dialogue. The deeper one gets into The Emperor's New Groove, the less important the below average quality of the animation becomes. (It is worth noting that "below average" animation for Disney is still better than the best offered by the other studios, Dreamworks excepted.)

Kuzco (voice of David Spade) is the emperor of all he can see - and has an ego to match his kingdom. With him, everything is "Me, Me, Me." Unbeknownst to Kuzco, his once-trusted advisor, the wizened witch Yzma (Eartha Kitt), is planning to depose him by poisoning a drink. Instead of causing the emperor's death as planned, however, Yzma's potion turns him into a Llama. On all fours, he escapes from the clutches of Yzma's bumbling henchman, Kronk (Patrick Warburton), and joins forces with a kindly peasant, Pacha (John Goodman), who believes there is good in everyone - even the amazingly self-centered Kuzco. Together, these two work to restore Kuzco to his human body and his throne.

The screenplay offers plenty to laugh at for kids and adults. There's slapstick, self-mocking and self-referential humor, and amusing one-liners. This is the first family film in a while where I haven't at least briefly wished I was somewhere else than sitting in the theater. And, thankfully, there are no musical numbers (except one at the beginning) to break the comic momentum. Nor is there a romantic subplot, and the villain is presented as bumbling and inept rather than ominous. No one, not even a little kid, is likely to take Yzma seriously.

The vocal casting is impeccable - perhaps the best Disney has done in five or six years. David Spade brings an edge to Kuzco, and he and John Goodman make an excellent team. Eartha Kitt finds the purrfect tone for Yzma - bitchy, demanding, and over-the-top, but never frightening. The real scene-stealer, however, is Patrick Warburton, who sounds a great deal like Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear (in fact, Warburton voices Buzz in the new animated television series). Warburton's good-natured mindlessness makes Kronk the film's constant comic highlight.

The Emperor's New Groove has gone through a major overhaul since it initially went into pre-production. Originally called Kingdom of the Sun, the movie was to have been a romantic comedy musical in the "traditional" Disney style, with the emperor as a secondary character. Along the way, however, the original concept was jettisoned along with the two main characters and several songs written by Sting. (The pop star remained attached to the project - the tune played over the end credits as well as a number performed by Tom Jones were written and produced by him.) Director Mark Dindal (who previously helmed Cats Don't Dance for Warner Brothers after occupying lesser behind-the-scenes roles in previous Disney animated productions) indicated that the film's shift in course forced his team to employ "out of the box" thinking. The result, while not a groundbreaking effort for Disney, takes the animated division in a fresh direction by rejecting a number of expected conventions. The Emperor's New Groove is good, solid fun. Now, all Disney has to overcome in its efforts to get families into theaters is that horrendously inept trailer...

Emperor's New Groove, The (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:15
U.S. Release Date: 2000-12-15
MPAA Rating: "G"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1