Disney’s New Groove
All through the 90s, Disney kept making old-fashioned movies hung on the stock framework that has served it well for decades: song-and-dance numbers, animals that talk and normally inanimate objects that crack wise, and simple, can’t-miss morals like Be Yourself and Be Nice to People. The formula could be counted on to produce healthy box-office figures, but not, alas, consistently good movies. When the recipe gelled, the results were spectacular: the grand and primal Lion King; the lovely and moving fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, not just one of the great animated films but one of the all-time best films, period.
More often, though, joviality was shoehorned uncomfortably into thoughtful stories in which it did not belong, such as Mulan or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or modern humor and attitudes were grafted into ancient tales too timidly, with too little willingness to stray from the source material; see Aladdin or Hercules. This didn’t necessarily mean disaster — Aladdin and Mulan are still highly enjoyable films.
But The Emperor’s New Groove demonstrates how stale the Disney formula had become, and how successful the Mouse could be by daring to break an old mold… even if it isn’t obvious at first that anything new is happening here.
Young Kuzco (the voice of David Spade: Beavis & Butt-Head Do America) is the spoiled and pampered emperor of an unnamed Meso-American land, the kind of guy who’d destroy a pleasant peasant village to build a summer home for himself. Yzma (the luscious voice of Eartha Kitt), his power-mad advisor, in an attempt to kill her boss and take the throne, inadvertently turns him into a llama instead — a talking, moping llama who’s just as arrogant and superior on four legs as he was on two. Thrown out of the palace by Yzma’s meatheaded manservant, Kronk (the voice of Patrick Warburton: Scream 3, The Apartment Complex) — who’s trying to hide the fact that he doesn’t have the heart to off the furry and quadripedal emperor — Kuzco makes the begrudging acquaintance of a llama herder, the kindly Pacha (the voice of John Goodman: Coyote Ugly, Bringing Out the Dead), who — wouldn’t you know it — lives in the very village Kuzco has slated for demolition. Doh!
On the surface, Groove sounds like Beauty and the Beast warmed over — egocentric and casually cruel royal learns the error of his ways through transmogrification and the friendship of a gentle commoner. But where Beast and other Disney films of late have strived for (and often achieved) a stately elegance, Groove goes right for the comedic jugular, celebrating its own wonderful cleverness with a thoroughly contemporary self-referential ‘tude that makes the audience happily complicit in its humor. With no existing story to adhere to — unlike Hercules, the toon Groove is closest in tone to — Groove is free to do as it pleases with its antihero, even if that means turning him into snarky, sarcastic David Spade. Kuzco narrates his own story with a pugnacious pout, a reluctant participant in his transformation from royal pain in the ass to an approximation of a decent human being. Kuzco’s odyssey will result in a change of heart, true enough to Disney tradition, but he will go kicking and screaming along the way. As narrator, Kuzco stops the film short, sticking his petulant llama mug into the frame to draw the story’s attention back to the star — him — when it threatens to stray to the dilemma of another character. This is not a man who will give up his inherited right to self-centeredness without a fight.
And while the film’s environment may be pre-Columbian, it could well be almost anywhere — the pseudo-Incan setting is lovely and colorful, but it serves only as a backdrop to an essentially timeless, placeless story. Just as tellers of tales of high fantasy have appropriated the trappings of Medieval Europe and altered them to suit their needs, Groove feels no need to treat its setting with much semblance of reality, which allows all sorts of modernalia, from theme-park roller coasters to roadside diners to Tom Jones songs, to sneak in, and delightfully so.
The Emperor’s New Groove is the best Disney since The Lion King. It may not have the same poignant grandeur, but it’s a marvelous reminder of how enthralling — and how genuinely fun — animated movies can and should be.