The early 2000s were highly transitional for Disney, and the animation industry in general. This was a time period that followed the fantastic films of the Disney Renaissance era, and was right on the cusp of the CG animation boom.
Disney had been fairly uncontested in the realm of feature length traditional animation for some time, as their only other major competitor was Warner Bros (who primarily produced theatrical shorts). Pixar had been leading the charge for CG animation since 1995s Toy Story, and was followed by DreamWorks, who (while in a distant second) had found success with films such as Antz, Chicken Run, and Shrek.
Walt Disney Animation Studios first tried their hand at feature length CG animation with 2000s Dinosaur. While Dinosaur did prove to be a profitable endeavor for Disney, they would not revisit CG animation until 2005s Chicken Little. With a few exceptions, they have produced mostly CG films since then.
The rise of CG animation led to the subsequent decline in interest of traditional animation. The success of films, like Toy Story and Shrek, caused audiences to view traditional animation as something that was only for kids (in spite of Disney’s storied success with the medium).
This notion was compounded by the fact that Disney’s output of films during this time had varying levels of quality. While films like Treasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Brother Bear are good films in their own rights, others like Home On The Range don’t live up to the standard of Disney’s previous efforts. One of two major exceptions was 2002s Lilo & Stitch, but I’ve already talked about that before.
That brief history lesson was all a lead up to today’s topic of discussion: The Emperor’s New Groove. Released in the same year as Dinosaur and Fantasia 2000, The Emperor’s New Groove featured a decidedly different tone than its Disney contemporaries.
Up to this point in history, most of Disney’s films aimed to push the envelope of what could be done with animation -- Dinosaur and Fantasia 2000 are no different. The former was a demonstration of what could be achieved with new technology, and the latter attempted to further advance the storytelling that could be done with animation in tandem with music.
The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t really do any of these things. It features pretty standard traditional animation, which looks really nice, but doesn’t compare to previous Disney films (but I’ll always be a sucker for how expressive faces are in traditional animation). It has two big musical numbers that open and close the film, but it’s by no means a musical.
Music, groundbreaking animation, and rich storytelling are the hallmarks that Disney prides itself on. So, what is to be expected of a Disney film that isn’t amazing in the first two departments?
The Emperor’s New Groove is an animated buddy comedy that centers on the characters of Kuzco and Pacha, voiced by David Spade and John Goodman respectively. Kuzco is a spoiled prince who is used to having everything his way, while Pacha is a humble villager who is also a great husband and father. The two are brought into each other’s lives when Kuzco invites Pacha to his palace, only to tell him that he’s demolishing his hilltop house to build a Summer resort. This sets up an interesting dynamic and conflict in their relationship that the film does a good job of exploring.
The other two major characters are Yzma and Kronk -- the film’s two villains. Voiced by Eartha Kitt and Patrick Warburton respectively, these two are easily the best part of the film -- Special mention to Kronk, as I think this is one of Warburton’s best performances.
Yzma is a former palace advisor who seeks to take revenge on Kuzco for firing her, while Kronk is her bumbling but loyal sidekick. Yzma invites Kuzco to dinner, intending to kill him with a spiked drink. As it turns out, Kronk put the wrong potion into Kuzco’s drink, one that turns him into a llama. Long story short, Pacha ends up agreeing to help Kuzco return to his palace and regain his human form, all while avoiding Yzma and Kronk.
One of the cool things about The Emperor’s New Groove is that it follows a lot of buddy comedy cliches, but still manages to be a fun and endearing movie. It has the typical pair of opposites that learn to accept their differences to accomplish their goal, as well as the obvious villain and her less than intelligent henchman. All of these characters are really charming, and memorable!
David Spade’s performance as Kuzco is entertaining just in how full of himself he is, and Yzma playing the straight-man to Kronk’s childlike demeanor leads to some really funny moments. I really think this is one of the funniest Disney films, as there were many times where I was genuinely laughing from the gut. Almost everything Kronk said, or did, had me at least chuckling. I also love the whole map chase sequence, (which comes with a bit of genre lampshading on the film’s part).
In spite of its comedy slant, The Emperor’s New Groove still has its share of slower, more introspective moments between Kuzco and Pacha. You really get a sense that they’ve become true friends by the end of the film, especially seeing how readily Pacha’s wife and kids, (who are also thoroughly entertaining), embrace Kuzco. These moments never come across as forced -- they always feel like they fit naturally into the film’s narrative.
I’m not writing this to say that The Emperor’s New Groove is some forgotten or underrated classic, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Second only to Lilo & Stitch, this was Disney’s most well-received early 2000s, post-Renaissance film -- it’s just not one that gets talked about often when compared to some of their other great films.
For those of you who are really into animation and production history: The Emperor’s New Groove actually has a really interesting story. It originally began life as a grand musical called Kingdom of the Sun, before being changed into a buddy comedy by some of the higher-ups at Disney.
Kingdom of the Sun entered production in 1994, and had a much more adventure driven story, which puts it in line with Disney’s previous films. Disney executives cited previous ambitious films like Pocahontas, which was a box office disappointment, as reasoning to turn the film into a comedy.
There’s a lot more to this story, most of which is outlined in a documentary called The Sweatbox. It’s a really interesting watch, especially if you’re really into Disney history or how troubled the process of film-making can sometimes be. I’d recommend giving it a watch sometime.