The Emperor’s New Groove is the result of the biggest overhaul in Disney movie history. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Since The Emperor’s New Groove is easily one of the best films in the Post-Renaissance era. Although Disney’s fortieth official animated production has a similar title to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it’s actually another original from Walt Disney studios. One that ironically became based on the movie’s original idea. The Emperor’s New Groove was originally meant to be a grand musical epic titled Kingdom of the Sun. The co-director of The Lion King pitched the idea back in 1994. Intending it to fit the Disney formula very closely.
There were musical numbers, a love story, a larger than life villain, and focus on a specific culture. Animators studied Inca culture in Machu Picchu, Peru and Sting was hired to write original songs. Although it would have been interesting to see, Kingdom of the Sun ended up being too ambitious for its own good. Rather than shut down completely, the movie was meticulously turned into a more experimental straightforward buddy comedy. Dinosaur claimed the original release date, but The Emperor’s New Groove was back on track for a 2000 release. The Prince and the Pauper subplot was dropped, the love interests were gone, and the villain’s plot to summon an Inca god to destroy the sun was axed. All that remained was a couple of names, cast members, and a Prince turning into a llama…
The Emperor’s New Groove is one of my all time favorite underrated Disney movies. Although my 5 year old memory is kinda fuzzy, I think my dad took my brother and I to see it in theaters, but don’t quote me on that. We were instantly won over by the wackier comedy angle. Although Disney’s animated films were always funny, they never prioritized humor to this degree. There are meta jokes and faster paced slapstick gags. The Emperor’s New Groove became instantly quotable and spawned a franchise that we also enjoyed. It’s hard to believe the movie wasn’t that successful or praised, but people were probably expecting a Renaissance movie. Plus The Emperor’s New Groove had to compete with another animated buddy comedy Inca movie made by the competition and released the same year. Still, there are major differences that make it stand out more.
The Emperor’s New Groove takes place in an ancient Inca civilization. Kuzco is the young emperor of a lavish palace who’s so full of himself he has his own theme song guy. Kuzco gets everything he wants and barely lifts a finger to rule. I swear they don’t make likable jerks like this anymore. His funniest gag is pausing the movie just to interject. We have the unusually perfect choice of David Spade to thank for his narcissistic charm. In fact, the smaller, more character focused story ended up having a perfect cast that all get a chance to shine. Eartha Kitt was born to voice a Disney villainess as funny, over-the-top, and purple as Yzma. Rather than a sun hating witch, Yzma is a royal advisor who’s scary beyond all reason. Complimenting her subdued evil is her dimwitted henchman Kronk. Patrick Warburton turns Kronk into the most hilarious henchman Disney ever created. His best running gag is talking to his shoulder angel and devil. Along with being able to speak squirrel. Yzma & Kronk’s bumbling villain dynamic is comedy gold. From pulling a lever to a “secret lab” to plotting to kill Kuzco using a poisonous vile.
Meanwhile, Kuzco calls peasant Pacha into his throne room. He plans to build a summer home atop his hill top, but it only serves to show how selfish Kuzco can be. One year before being part of another Disney duo, John Goodman had just the right voice for Pacha. Pacha is a family man with pregnant wife Chicha and rambunctious kids Chaca & Tipo. Although she has limited screen time, Wendie Malick brings a lot of personality to Chicha. Pacha doesn’t tell his wife the news, but it’s not long before things change. Yzma & Kronk mix up the viles and instead succeed in turning Kuzco into a llama. Rather than finish the job, Kronk places Kuzco on Pacha’s cart. Leading to a very unlikely duo where Kuzco’s selfishness clashes with Pacha’s selflessness. Pacha only agrees to help him return to normal on the grounds that he build his summer home somewhere else. They continue to clash, but Kuzco still won’t budge. Their hilarious roller coaster journey includes Pacha rescuing Kuzco from jaguars, the two of them going over a waterfall (“Bring it on”), and needing to work together when a bridge gives out.
Meanwhile, Yzma seizes the throne, but searches for Kuzco when she learns he’s still alive. Kuzco & Pacha comically avoid detection in a diner that Kronk winds up cooking at. After a misunderstanding, Kuzco learns the truth from Yzma & Kronk. Fortunately, Kuzco graciously accepts Pacha’s help and they set out to return. While Pacha’s family handles the villains with more hijinks. In the climax, the two return to the palace that Yzma somehow beat them to. Kronk double crosses her, but he only does so much. What follows is a series of vile transformations that eventually turns Yzma into something… unlikely. What saves Kuzco is him learning humility and changing his selfish ways by the end.
The Emperor’s New Groove maintains its sincere traditional animation in an age that was slowly accepting computer animation. The budget was also limited. So characters and animals are more stylized with rounded Inca architecture that gives the movie a signature look. With all the story changes, Sting ended up being affected the most. To the point only 2 of his songs appear in the final product. Everything else from Kingdom of the Sun can be heard on the soundtrack. All that remains is the boisterous Kuzco anthem “Perfect World” sung by Tom Jones. As well as an Oscar nominated credits song I never listened to titled “My Funny Friend and Me.” The Emperor’s New Groove is proof that sometimes Disney needs to get out of their comfort zone to deliver something just as good. “Ha! Boom baby!”