A selfish monarch learns to value the humanity of his subjects in Disney's animated film The Emperor's New Groove. Released in 2000, this film had been in development for over six years, during which time it profoundly changed form due to conflicting decisions and indecision from Disney management. What started as an epic romance, loosely patterned on The Prince and the Pauper, tonally similar to other Disney Renaissance films, became an oddly disposable comedy with brilliant animation reminiscent of Chuck Jones. It's not an easy film to watch and I found myself overcome by impatience around thirty minutes in. The problem is the main character, the titular Emperor voiced by David Spade, whose selfishness is such an ouroboros of self-parody he becomes a comedic black hole. The villains, voiced byPatrick Warburton and the great Eartha Kitt , fare much better, particularly Warburton's character, Kronk, but not quite enough to make this a movie I'd ever want to watch again.
Extreme selfishness can be funny. Think of how far Oscar Wilde got with it in his plays. I think the problem with Emperor Kuzco (Spade) is there's no real pleasure in the selfishness. There's a kind of ghostly smarm as he reclines on his throne and servants pile treasures about him. There's not even a sense of genuine sadism as he rejects a line of gorgeous brides. Nor is there a sense of genuine lust. He's just cruel without any sense of motive, not even for the pleasure of cruelty.
Eartha Kitt plays Yzma, advisor to the emperor, functioning less like Jaffar in Aladdin than like Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad, another story about a monarch being deposed and magically cursed by his advisor. In that case, Prince Ahmed is not the most interesting character in his film but he's still engaging enough because we understand his motives right from the beginning.
Yzma is juxtaposed with Kuzco and the two are shown to be similar in their contempt for the peasantry. Yet Yzma's motives are much clearer--she desires the throne--and she takes delightful pleasure in her schemes. When Kitt was originally cast, there were to be musical numbers in the film similar to other Renaissance era films but ultimately The Emperor's New Groove went the same route as Tarzan and The Lion King, employing pop singers, in this case Sting and Tom Jones, to sing separately from the main characters. What a tragedy that Eartha Kitt didn't have a musical number. Jones plays "Theme Song Guy", giving us a humdrum musical number to introduce Kuzco, while Sting's song appears only in the end credits. He wrote a number of songs that were cut from the film and the song that does remain is so tonally at odds with the rest of the film I actually laughed when it started to play. It's like if "Feed the Birds" played at the end of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
John Goodman has some natural warmth as Pacha, the peasant who ends up being Sabu to Kuzco's John Justin, but he's also a bit boring and the only interest to be had between he and Kuzco comes from the zaniness of the animation.
Some of it is so good it reminds me of the heyday of Disney and Warner Brothers shorts about Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny. One is reminded that the studios put the kind of effort in those shorts later reserved only for feature films.
Yzma is good but the only character who completely works is her henchman, Kronk, voiced by Patrick Warburton. He's just such a good natured lug that there's comedy inherent just in the fact that he's working for Yzma. And then he's oddly proficient--as when he accidentally takes over duties as a cook at a diner or reveals he can speak Squirrel.
The diner sequence is an example of how postmodern the humour is--which I think is the real reason Kuzco himself is so empty. He's too busy being a kind of character to be a character. It also means The Emperor's New Groove is kind of the anti-Pocahontas. There are no natives of Peru in the cast and there's no apparent attempt to honour Incan culture. On the one hand, I do think Disney needed to move away from the idiotic politics behind Pocahontas and some cartoonish anarchy is certainly a way to do that. But on the other hand, the humour in The Emperor's New Groove is often so obnoxious and empty, I feel like it left a hole in my stomach lining. At least Pocahontas and John Smith were sexy. The best The Emperor's New Groove can manage is one affable henchman and it's just not enough.
The Emperor's New Groove is available on Dinsey+.
This is part of a series of posts I'm writing on the Disney animated canon.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Alice in Wonderland
Lady and the Tramp
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Fox and the Hound
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under
Beauty and the Beast
The Lion King
The Hunchback of Notre Dame