It is time that we all accept the fact that Disney (and really all of cinema) peaked in the year 2000. Before you go to Wikipedia to review all of the films released during that year, there is only one movie that need be cited to make this statement true: "The Emperor's New Groove"— aka the best motion picture of all time. "The Emperor's New Groove" is the best— and most underrated— Disney movie. If you haven’t seen this masterpiece, you're probably thinking “What is this guy babbling about? He's like the thing that wouldn't shut up,” but that’s just because you haven’t been exposed to this work of art yet. That’s okay; it’s on Netflix. Go and watch it. I’ll wait. You won’t regret it.
Now that it’s just those of us who have seen TENG (an abbreviation—for the sake of brevity of course), shall we revel in all that is good? We shall!
1. It’s everything Disney isn’t
I would say that most of the following points on this list can be summed up in one statement; this movie goes completely against the grain, rejecting Disney’s conventions of storytelling. There. That’s all, so you can stop reading now. But WILL you? NO! Because this is the most wonderful film of all time and you love it, so keep on reading. “Eh Pacha?”
2. Kingdom of the Sun
The movie was never intended to be the cinematic treasure that I now own on a VHS tape. TENG was supposed to be a musical entitled Kingdom of the Sun with songs by Sting. Because Disney’s other animated musicals were not doing as wells as they hoped, the movie ultimately became the buddy comedy we know and love. "Kingdom of the Sun" was going to be about Pacha who was voiced by Owen Wilson (oh god, terrible) switching places with Emperor Manco (yes, that was Kuzco’s original name, terrible) to see how the other half lives. Essentially, it was the Prince and the Pauper. The plot was very Disney, meaning unoriginal, terrible. The movie’s trite story and structure as a musical were ultimately jettisoned along with Owen Wilson (thank God). TENG just wouldn’t have been the same if it were cluttered with a bunch of ballads about the troubles of being a llama. Okay, that actually sounds kind of good, but no such song exists.
3. Sting made Disney rewrite part of the movie
The film was originally supposed to end with Kuzko building his personal amusement park by destroying a patch of rainforest. Sting threatened to quit when he heard about this intended ending. They changed the ending of the film to show Kuzco building a shack adjacent to Pacha’s. Not only is this awesome because it made sure the film didn't promote deforestation, but it also made Kuzco’s character arch even more wholesome. Rock on Sting! After they informed Sting that the film was no longer going to be a musical, he remained involved in the project and rewrote two songs so that they could be played during the first scene and the end credits, one of which was ultimately nominated for an Oscar. “Boom baby!” But let's be real, TENG deserved to be nominated for ALL of the Oscars.
4. Theme song guy
Disney’s proclivity for a song or ten played a role in the structure of "The Emperor’s New Groove." The movie’s opening number epitomizes what a tactful and tasteful song looks like in an animated feature. Tasteful? Okay not really. It’s a flashy song and dance number that looks like a Broadway choreographer was handed the drawing markers for an hour. But it makes sense. Well, that’s also up for debate. The song is performed by a literal Theme Song Guy. The voice of said Theme Song Guy is none other than Tom Jones (what?). Theme Song Guy makes absolutely no sense… and it's great. If there were more songs like this, they would have completely overpowered the film, but the solitary showstopper is perfect nonetheless.
5. Yzma is the best villain
Yzma is truly terrifying. Eartha Kitt perfectly voiced the frightening villain. Yzma is evil through and through, and yet she is somehow endearing. This is probably because she has so many brilliant comedic moments that you can’t help but love her. And hate her. And LOVE to HATE her. I think what makes her so scary is that fact that her evil exists in the real world. She’s a corrupt person in a position of power who cares about no one but herself and is assisted by an idiot. She is literally Donald Trump! And yeah Kuzco is self-centered at the beginning of the movie, but, as Yzma says, “[she] practically raised him,” so of course Kuzco is going to be self involved. See? She’s scarier NOW than she was when we were little.
6. Kronk is the best henchman
Kronk is probably the best character in the film (and that was hard for me to say because I love them all so much). He bakes. He talks to squirrels. He writes his own theme music. And most importantly, he is somehow a benevolent villain. Kronk acts as a literal moral conscience for the film. With a shoulder angel and devil, Kronk’s actions are dictated by his sense of right and wrong. Kronk’s complexity is seldom found in Disney’s secondary characters. And here you were thinking that he was just “a big, stupid monkey named Kronk."
7. It makes spinach sound appetizing
This movie was the modern day Popeye in terms of what it did for the spinach industry. Actually, it probably did more because Popeye made spinach look repulsive and Kronk’s spinach puffs looked delectable. In fact, my only plan for parenthood is to get my children hooked on TENG. Then when the time comes to get little Yolanda and Yoncé (these names are pretty set in stone*) to eat spinach, I will just make them spinach puffs and say that they are Kronk’s special recipe. I think this is pretty fool-proof.
*if I have a third kid, I’ll probably name it Yzma.
8. Comedy gold
If you are thinking “but Jake, my favorite Disney movie is 'Brave,' and I don’t even think that it's the best movie of all time— that’s definitely 'Titanic'” then… well then you obviously have no taste. But you clearly haven’t seen the funniest movie ever produced. I don’t even know how to express how funny this movie truly is. The film has inspired several memes and is quoted all of the time. While most people can’t recite the entire film from memory like I can, they definitely have shouted “pull the lever Kronk” at least once in their lives. And the humor appeals to audiences of all ages. It’s not that other Disney movies aren’t funny—well they aren't—but it’s the fact that the film is a dynamic combination of a buddy comedy and an adventure that makes TENG really phenomenal. The jokes never seem to stop coming and they flow so naturally throughout the dialogue. The comedy is “brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, I tell you! Genius, I say!”
"Whats with the chimp and the bug? Can we get back to [the list]?"
9. The plot barely holds together… and that somehow makes it better
The plot doesn’t hold up. If you you really scrutinize the film’s structure, it’s a little sloppy, which makes sense considering TENG was supposed to be a completely different movie. But the crazy thing is that this actually made the movie better. In fact, there are moments when they even point out the sloppiness. Why did they do it? “Hmm. Don't know, don't care. How's that?” It’s funny, so stop asking questions.
10. En media res
“En media res” is really just a fancy film term for starting the film in the middle of the action. I used this fancy film term because "The Emperor’s New Grove" is a fancy film. It is high-class cinema. The film picks up with Kuzco as a llama crying in the rainforest, which doesn’t happen until 3/4s of the way into the story; “That's right. I'm that llama.” This is yet another way TENG differentiates itself from other Disney movies in the way of storytelling.
11. Legit emotions
So, let's talk about that moment when llama Kuzco is crying in the rainforest. This is probably the saddest moment in any Disney film. Sure, everyone’s hearts are still aching about Bambi’s dead mom (that dumb slut), but TENG did something that no other Disney film has done: it had a character experience sadness because of his own actions. In a moment of despair, Kuzco cries, not because someone has died or a witch has cast a spell, but just because he has come to terms with knowing that he screwed up, that he’s been kind of an ass, and that he may have lost all hope of getting his old life back. This moment makes the change in Kuzco feel more justified. It’s beautiful and makes me cry. No it’s fine. I’m fine. No I don’t need a hug. “No touchy. No touchy. No touch!”
12. Actual growth in a main character
Most of Disney’s protagonists are pretty terrible. Well, they aren’t terrible. They are all really good people. And I hate that! They are people with minute flaws who barely change, if at all, which makes them pretty boring protagonists. Kuzco’s characterization rejects the Disney mold. While the plot of the movie is a standard adventure, TENG features a main character who actually grows and learns. Within the first few minutes of the movie, Kuzco has an elderly man thrown out a window for throwing off his groove. He's an ass. And that is exactly what makes the narrative engaging. Kuzco’s literal transformation into a llama and Pacha’s friendship make him figuratively transform into a more humble human. Oh my god, it’s a metaphor! The change in the main character isn’t making oneself pretty and waiting for a prince to come, it’s accepting one’s own flaws and actually becoming a better person.
13. Chicha is a trailblazer
“Okay everyone move aside! Lady with a baby coming through.” Disney women were wielding frying pans way before "Tangled." Pacha’s wife, Chicha, really elevates the movie. I love her for many reasons, but predominantly because she is a feminist icon. Okay, not really, but she does show a little bit of growth in Disney’s representations of women. For one, Chicha is pregnant. This is one of the only (and first ever) representations of pregnancy in a Disney animated film. Thank you TENG for normalizing pregnancy. Next, even though she is shown as a housewife, which is consistent with women’s roles during the Inca Empire, she is sassy and plays an active role in the plot.
The movie has llamas. Plural. Multiple llamas. And some are hidden. There are hidden llamas! Do any other movies that you can think of feature a multitude of llamas? And a talking llama!? “Demon llama, where?” I mean this alone makes the movie a winner. The only problem I have ever run into is this: why does Kuzco want to be a person again?
15. But wait, there’s more!
If you want to know more about what happened in production, Sting’s wife filmed a full documentary about the making of TENG, called “The Sweatbox.” And theres a sequel: "Kronk's New Groove." AND there was a TV show: "The Emperor's New School." Keep the fandom alive!