THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE (2000):
Written by: David Reynolds, Chris Reynolds & Mark Dindal
This one had a fabulously-awful production process, with a Prince and the Pauper-themed story being written by one guy, and a comedy film being written by another. When the first, also the director of The Lion King, quit over being forced to shorten his timeline, things looked to be a disaster. Instead, they completely re-did the entire film, dropping the “lookalike peasant” plot thread and a subplot about the sun being stolen (initial movie names: The Kingdom of the/in the Sun). They even dumped a bunch of songs written by Sting, who wanted to pull a Phil Collins and gain some sales/cred from the association with a Disney product (Sting was reportedly VERY bitter about this, as you can probably imagine).
The Kingdom of the Sun was supposed to be an epic in the tradition of Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, with Yzma being obsessed with gaining her youth, summoning an evil God to steal the Sun. Kuzco would switch places with a peasant lookalike for fun, but be transformed into a llama, eventually falling in love with a peasant girl after he learns humility. Ymza was more threatening and less neurotic, there was no Kronk, there was a talking Incan Idol sidekick, and a friendly peasant would be played by Owen Wilson (whose recording was completed). Disney would fear that this would be an unprofitable movie, owing to their recent batch of box office disappointments, and ultimately the whole thing would be scrapped save for a few elements. There’s a lot of “What Could Have Been?” about this movie, but the original seemed geared up to be a generic Cookie-Cutter Disney Film, complete with environmentalist subplot, wacky sidekicks, and love-based subplot.
In the end, we got a Buddy Movie with a ton of Aladdin-esque Modern Pop Culture gags and genre-savvy stuff. This was the PERFECT time for such a thing, as many of its cartoon contemporaries were becoming more self-referential all the time (Kim Possible came out not so long after), but not to the point where ALL cartoons were like that (like, say, today, where nearly every cartoon is a self-referential pop culture gag-fest written by 40-something nerds). Yzma would be turned into a comedic character, with an incompetent sidekick, and Kuzco’s statue sidekick was replaced. They even dumped Owen Wilson’s completed dialogue and re-cast John Goodman into his role! The movie’s name evokes How Stella Got Her Groove Back– it’s a little odd that a DISNEY FILM took a name from a movie that was ten years old and known pretty much only for an older chick boinking a younger guy.
The whole thing is about arrogant, lazy, self-absorbed idiot Emperor Kuzco, who’s been transformed into a llama by an Evil Sorceress (one of Disney’s hammier villains- a Madame Medusa/Cruella de Vil-like figure that represents the “Hag” archetype). In this sense, the movie is highly original for the Disney canon- none of their heroes had ever been DOUCHEBAGS before. So the “Character Arc” of Kuzco’s is rather large, which makes for a solid narrative. But honestly, Yzma’s henchman Kronk kind of runs away with this movie, and is probably the most popular character.
Watching it again… this HAS to be the first time a pregnant woman has shown up in a Disney Animated Feature- Wendy Malick’s trademark “sly older woman” voice is fantastic, and she does the most with her very few scenes. In a clever bit, the movie pulls the “they do one nice thing and make amends” thing… but then Kuzco IMMEDIATELY goes back to being a douchebag! He repeatedly threatens to ruin Pacha’s village just out of spite, and only Pacha’s REPEATED insistence that Kuzco has some good inside of him keeps them together. The movie is so straight-up 100% comedy that it’s impossible to take anything seriously, so the narrative of Kuzco changing is a LITTLE flat, but there’s some solid jokes in here.
“Boy, it’s a good thing you’re not a BIG FAT GUY, or this would be REALLY hard!”
-Kuzco, while trying to lift Pacha up a cliff.
Kuzco is portrayed by David Spade, and thus you can figure out pretty much every aspect of his character right away, since Spade has Michael Cera-levels of range as an actor. He does, of course, play a self-important douchebag VERY WELL. He’s basically a big dumb jerk right at the beginning, being casually-dismissive of others and unwilling to compromise- he fires his employee Yzma, and offends Pacha, the movie’s other hero, necessitating a Buddy Movie as they learn to appreciate each other.
About the Performer: David Spade is infamous for his role as a “Snarky Little Dweeb” character, doing a “Hollywood Minute” big on Saturday Night Live that drew a lot of laughs for its utterly cruel takedowns of various celebrities (“Ally McBeal? Time for an Ally McMeal!”)- one of which drew an angry phone call from Eddie Murphy (“Look children- it’s a falling star! Make a wish!” during Eddie’s recent failures at the box office- Murphy was furious that a show he literally saved would rake him through the mud like that). He segued this into a… very minor acting career, as he was mostly “Chris Farley’s Buddy” in a series of broad comedies in the mid ’90s. His biggest role is probably as Dennis Finch on Just Shoot Me!– the sleazy assistant to the boss of a fashion magazine. Here, he was at his snarky, sassy best, usually getting his in the end (though he got to marry someone played by Rebecca Romijn Stamos of all people). The show initially centered around Laura San Giacomo’s stubborn, pushy feminist character, but Spade’s role got bigger and bigger until he was the biggest star- possibly because Laura’s character was so stuffy (and the show seemed to go out of its way to HIDE how hot she was, in the era of Friends– not a great move).
His solo career otherwise wasn’t much- Just Shoot Me! earned him three Emmy nominations, but his stuff like Joe Dirt and Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star went nowhere. Low-brow comedy work was pretty much all he got after this point, though be pals with Adam Sandler ensured he’d always find work. And hey- looking like THAT, he’s dated Heather Locklear & Julie Bowen. Not a bad gig.
You know this meme. It’s actually a shot of Pacha describing how beautiful it is when the sun hits the ring angle over his home in the valley.PACHA
Pacha is a stoic, somewhat “Regular Guy” kind of character, played by the master of such roles- John Goodman. And so he was a good Buddy to Kuzco, teaching him the meaning of friendship and stuff. Oddly, Goodman actually reappeared in the TV series during it’s second season, apparently not being “too good” for movies the way most celebrities are for this kind of thing. About the Performer: When you need a good “Everyman” actor, you call John Goodman. Despite being very good at playing scary brawlers, his jovial appearance is reflected in his voice, and so he’s a classic “Straight Man” to idiots like Kuzco, or snarky bitches like Roseanne Arnold. Goodman was popular in his prime, but the years have just made it more and more obvious what a treasure he is as an actor- Dan Conner is a big, silly, chubby guy with a babyface and an “aw shucks” kind of personality, but with the slightest change in body language he can look GODDAMN TERRIFYING. Just watch him in this scene from Roseanne, where simply grabbing a jacket off of a clothes hook is one of the most bad-ass moments in TV history- you know that Fisher is SCREWED.
Kronk & Yzma are pretty universally the most-loved part of this movie, with Patrick Warburton in particular stealing the show with his “stupid guy deadpan” act. He plays Kronk up as your standard stupid henchman who’s actually a good guy (sorta like Cindarr in the ’80s cartoon Visionairies), and gets plenty of “Big Stupid Guy” jokes as a result. In the end, he turns on Yzma and helps save the day. He proved popular enough that he got the animated SEQUEL named after him (Kronk’s New Groove), so he’s a bit of a break-out character. This film actually had a lot of recurring stuff for what was only a minor hit.
About the Performer: ah, Patrick Warburton- every animator’s wet dream for a voice actor. Seriously, the guy has been EVERYWHERE in animation, with his trademark baritone supplying great deadpan roles both for idiots (Kronk), bad-asses (Brock Samson in The Venture Brothers, and a tough guy in Archer) and stern authority figures (Coach Barkin on Kim Possible). Pretty good for a guy I first saw in the Generic-as-Hell Sitcom Dave’s World. Warburton is known to many/most for his role as Puddy, Elaine’s dumb off-and-on boyfriend in Seinfeld. He was also the live-action Tick, is the pilot in the Disney Soarin’ attractions, and a voice in advertising- his great height, simple-minded appearance and delivery that can move effortlessly between deadpan and outrage, he is one of the most recognizable Voice Actors around.
The late Eartha Kitt was known as a seductress in the olden days (and had the difficult position of trying to replace JULIE NEWMAR as Catwoman), but is most well-known these days for being a seductively-voiced old lady who plays Crazy Old Lady characters. Yzma is sort of like a combination of the Wicked Queen of Snow White with Cruella de Vil, taking the emaciated appearance of an old lady and merging it with the wildness of a Las Vegas showgirl. It’s really freaky- she’s not only grotesquely gaunt, but her teeth are hideous, her eyelashes actually resemble spider’s legs, and her “breast-line” is 3/4 the way down her torso- it’s basically everything that’s hilarious and gross about old ladies combined into one person.
About the Performer: Eartha Kitt is well-known for her soft, purr-like voice, and Catwoman is probably her biggest role- she definitely has the voice. She was a cabaret & Broadway performer who did a LOT of iconic numbers, but her career suffered badly when she made Lady Bird Johnson cry at a White House dinner (the President’s wife foolishly asked Kitt what she thought of Vietnam- “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot” she replied).
Reception & Cultural Impact:
The movie ended up being pretty popular, and it’s considered one of the funnier Disney movies- until last week, I hadn’t seen it in an eternity and found it rather “blah”, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. A fresh watch revealed a pretty clever movie with some fun, snarky bits and a lot of subversiveness back when that was pretty fresh. Kuzco is great as an ass, and Yzma is one of the best comedic villains Disney’s had. It didn’t do overly well in theaters (this was the end of the Renaissance and after a HUGE series of disappointing films by this point), but didn’t bomb or anything.
There’s apparently a REALLY good documentary out there that essentially explains why Disney lost its “Feature Animation” crown to Pixar & DreamWorks in the late ’90s- executive incompetence, cluelessness about what the public wanted, and lack of trust in its artists to produce a real vision (a strong case of “What Could Have Been”). Despite being this giant albatross around the neck of the company for a time… it’s not a hated film. In actuality, it’s REALLY popular online, with multiple characters and images from the film becoming huge memes. Yzma’s “WRONG LEVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!” gets quoted ALL THE TIME, and Pacha’s face has become an ongoing reaction every time someone posts something that’s sexy or really good- kind of a high-class “MMMMMM…” face, drawing his pinched fingers forwards from a clenched-shut mouth. Kronk himself is also really popular.
It did okay but not too great (Chicken Little made MUCH more), but still managed to get its own TV series for some reason, which I never found amusing in the slightest. Just not my kinda thing. Kronk’s New Groove was a sequel film on DVD, but the movies haven’t had much of a cultural impact on the Disney Parks or anything. Bizarrely, both of these sequels were released FIVE YEARS after the movie first came out, which is a very oddly-long delay.
It’s not really an old shame, but isn’t really heavily pushed, either.