A comedy about standing on your own four feet.
Disney does Chuck Jones? Yup.
Funniest they've done without Pixar? Most likely.
Bring it on.
Facts of the Case
"Long ago, somewhere deep in the jungle," there was this talking llama, see…that's how The Emperor's New Groove opens. The llama (voiced by David Spade, Joe Dirt, TV's Just Shoot Me), bedraggled and forlorn in a rainforest downpour, is quick to tell us he's not really a llama, but Kuzco, teenaged emperor of a mythical South American kingdom. Kuzco's so hip he has his own Theme Song Guy (voiced by pop icon Tom Jones, the most hilarious he's been since covering Prince's "Kiss," with words and music by ex-Police-man Sting) and has feeble senior citizen hurled from windows by burly palace guards (without harm, naturally) for "throwing off the Emperor's groove."
Hip though he may be, Kuzco is also a spoiled brat who always gets what he wants. What he wants for his eighteenth birthday is a sunny hilltop owned by Pacha (voiced by John Goodman), on which the egocentric young despot intends to exercise eminent domain and build a gaudy summer resort: Kuzcotopia. Gentle Pacha has no luck in appealing to the boy king's better judgment—he hasn't any—and soon finds himself summarily dismissed from the throne room.
It's on that very throne that Kuzco's sorceress advisor Yzma (voiced with relish and not a little mustard by one-time Catwoman Eartha Kitt—imagine the pre-Columbian love child of Cruella De Vil and the Grinch) longs to sit. And sit there she does, whenever Kuzco's not looking, rendering judgment over petty peasant grievances (when one complains to Yzma his family has no food, she responds with venom, "You really should have thought of that before you became peasants"), until Kuzco catches her at it and fires her. Incensed, the vengeful Yzma schemes to eliminate her bratty ex-boss and usurp his kingdom. Unfortunately for Yzma, she's assisted in her machinations by the musclebound and musclebrained Kronk (voiced by Patrick "Puddy" Warburton from Seinfeld—imagine The Tick by way of Chumley from the old Tennessee Tuxedo cartoons, in vaguely Incan garb). Kronk confuses extract of llama for the lethal poison intended for Kuzco and transforms the emperor into a four-legged talking beast of burden in a permanent alpaca jacket, as a Muzak rendition of "The Girl From Ipanema" swings in the background. Too inept and softhearted to kill Kuzco, Kronk accidentally deposits the not-quite-dead llama king on the departing Pacha's wagon. The unwitting peasant hauls Kuzco home to his mountain village, where Pacha's pregnant wife Chicha (voiced by Wendie Malick, Spade's co-star on Just Shoot Me) and their two rambunctious children, Chaca and Tipo.
When Pacha discovers Kuzco and understands the emperor's plight, the peasant tries to barter the safety of his home for a guided return back through the jungle to Yzma's lab and a dose of llama antidote. Stubborn Kuzco attempts to make the journey on his own, but when he is rescued—more or less—by Pacha from a pack of jaguars, the ensorcelled emperor grudgingly accepts the humble serf's offer of help. The two begin a trek back to pseudo-Incan civilization to restore Kuzco to his human form and rightful reign…so the unrepentant king can urban-renew Pacha and his expanding clan off the hilltop Pacha's ancestors have inhabited for six generations. Unless Yzma and Kronk can stop them. Or unless Kuzco has a miraculous change of heart on the way home. Or both.
Viewers who settle into The Emperor's New Groove expecting Disney's customary musical-slash-starry-eyed-romance-slash-seriocomic-adventure fare are in for a surprise: this is an out-and-out comedy, maybe the first such feature-length example in the Mouse House's history. The only singing in the film proper is the riotous opening number by Tom Jones, though Sting croons a ballad over the closing credits. If you're expecting a computer-generated marvel on the order of the Disney/Pixar collaborations (the Toy Story films, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc.), here's another shock: this is a simply drawn, traditionally animated movie with all the visual sophistication of one of Disney's direct-to-video sequels (though there are some nice moments with lighting effects and very subtly employed CGI props). And if you're anticipating disappointment after seeing some of the Imagineers' latest product (Dinosaur, for example), there's one more surprise awaiting you: The Emperor's New Groove is a refreshing, laugh-out-loud kick.
More than any other Disney film in memory, New Groove plays like a long-form Warner Brothers cartoon, as if Chuck Jones himself ran amok in the Burbank Studios. This makes sense because director Mark Dindal's first feature, Cats Don't Dance, was made for Warner. Where the film shines is in its clever, gag-heavy script and spot-on voice casting: Spade, Goodman, Kitt, and especially Warburton each have numerous moments of standout comedic timing. Like the classic Looney Tunes, there are brilliant flashes of sophisticated humor throughout: Kuzco slyly comments on the May-December relationship between Yzma and Kronk ("He's what, in his late twenties?" "Heh…I'm not sure."); Kronk's inner devil spoofs his conscience angel's masculinity ("He's got that sissy stringy music thing…and that's a dress."); Yzma hikes her skirt to mid-thigh, inspiring a horrified reaction from Kuzco and Pacha until they realize all she's exposing is a serpentine dagger. And I'm guessing Uncle Walt flipped over in his freezer when a beautiful woman in the full bloom of expectant motherhood first strolled onto a Disney cel. (Yes, I know the cryogenics story's an urban legend. Save your email, and look up "joke" in your Funk and Wagnalls.)
At a brisk 77 minutes, New Groove clips right along, a good thing given its rather thin plot. But that's okay, because the story's mostly just a device to prop up the one-liners and to give the actors a place to hang their hats. The simple graphic design works too—how fancy were those old Road Runner shorts (to which plenty of homage is paid, right down to the characters hanging in mid-air who don't fall until they realize their plight)?
The two-disc Collector's Edition DVD presentation features an excellent anamorphic transfer of the film on Disc One. Colors are brilliant and lush, as the movie makes use of a broad color palette in which each character has his or her signature hues. The transfer is sharp and without any discernable artifacts. Remember when you used to hear that DVD couldn't render a decent animation image? Put those rumors to rest, my toon-loving compadre. Disney gets it right. Audio is available in two flavors for English listeners, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS, and a 2.0 French track for Francophiles and our East Canadian friends. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is clear and acceptably full, though it's mostly centered in front as one might expect for a relatively dialogue-heavy film.
Your pals at Mickeyville have loaded up the wagon to make this set truly the "Ultimate Groove." Disc One comes equipped with an engaging commentary track led by director Mark Dindal and producer Randy Fullmer, and featuring several members of the film's production team. These gang commentaries are a challenge to pull off (I, for one, easily forget who's talking at any given moment), and here the "And now here's Bruce and Nick to talk about animating the characters" bit wears thin rather quickly. But at least all of the participants are lively and eager to talk about their film, and there's clearly a camaraderie between them, especially Dindal and Fullmer, who also headline the making-of documentary material on Disc Two. You probably won't hear a lot you didn't know if you've heard a number of other animation commentaries, but assuming that you haven't, or that you like this particular movie, this one's enjoyable enough to hold your attention.
Also on Disc One you'll find a music video by the band Rascal Flatts (I have all their CDs) showcasing a song-and-dance bit called "Walk the Llama Llama." People without rhythm attempt to teach you the dance. There's also a couple of games for the kidlets, a half-dozen trailers for recent Disney flicks, and some online links for DVD-ROM stuff that will not interest you if you're older than, say, nine. Of course, if you're nine or younger, please be our guest.
Disc Two is home to the bulk of the supplemental content. The feature material can be viewed in two ways. Before you can choose, though, you get to sit through a wacky sped-up introductory sequence with Fullmer and Dindal demonstrating yet again why animators are not actors. (Anyone who thought Bill Gates was the geekiest human alive hasn't witnessed the on-camera stylings of these two guys.) Once the frivolity passes, you can select "The Studio Groove," which weaves all the behind-the-scenes featurettes into a single non-stop documentary, or "Get Into the Groove," where you can select the short subjects individually along with other material. There's also a third option called "The Animation Groove," a split-screen comparison with the original storyboards and rough pencil tests of the "Kuzco gets poisoned" sequence shown above the more developed background artwork. It's designed to show how the process of animation develops from first sketches to final product.
If you choose to navigate the supplements yourself, you'll find the content arranged into seven sections. The first six sections each include one or more featurettes—the material also shown as "The Studio Groove"—together with related items of interest. The docu-chunks offer Dindal, Fullmer and a cast of thousands (okay, maybe a dozen or so) from their production team discussing various aspects of the film's creation. The duo also recorded brief introductions for many of the other content items.
The "Development" features look at the conceptualization of an animated motion picture, and The Emperor's New Groove in particular. Additional material here includes extensive artwork galleries from the early stages of the film's development, including a small set of sketches reflecting the original concept for the film when it was called Kingdom of the Sun, about which I'll grouse more later in this review. There's also a copy of the original text treatment located in this section.
"Story and Editorial" has featurettes on the development of the script and storyboards. You'll also find some clips from the film's Leica reel. (For the non-animation cognoscenti out there, a Leica reel—called a story reel here—is a crude animation utilizing the most basic pencil sketches, done to give the filmmakers a sense of how the finished film will flow and whether the various animated sequences will work as envisioned.) Additionally, a collection of three scenes deleted from the final cut are presented; two are in rough animation, a third—which adds some elements to Pacha's departure from the capital, and was eliminated late in the production—is nearly finished.
"Layouts and Backgrounds" includes a feature segment on the development of the background art, and another piece about the scene planning process. Some of the pencil test animation from "The Animation Groove" reappears here, along with galleries of layout, background and color test art introduced by the filmmakers.
In "Animation," we get to see the character animators at work and hear from them about their creative process. There's a video clip on the development of the computer-generated elements used (so sparingly as to be inconspicuous) in the movie. We also watch the main voice actors (Spade, Kitt, Warburton, and Goodman) at work and in brief interview snippets. Galleries show the development of each character's unique appearance and style both in animation and still drawings. Additionally, a segment on cleanup animation is included.
"Putting It All Together" focuses on the transition from pencil line drawings to full-color ink and paint.
"Music and Sound," in addition to the featurette on the audio elements of filmmaking, adds two other highlights. First, we have Sting's video of "My Funny Friend and Me," the song that plays over the end credits; the video opens with some comments from Mr. Sumner about his role in the production. Also here is a Mixing Demonstration feature: you can view a preselected clip from the movie with any combination of three sound components—dialogue, music and sound effects. Mildly amusing if you haven't played with this sort of thing, not amusing at all if you've traveled this road before.
The final content area, "Publicity," is where you'll find the film's trailers and advertising materials.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Disneyphiles know that the film that eventually saw the light of day as The Emperor's New Groove began life as a markedly different picture entitled Kingdom of the Sun (later, briefly, Kingdom in the Sun). KOTS was written as a much more traditional Disney-style melodrama, set in the same faux Andean location as New Groove, but with the combo plate of songs (composed and recorded by Sting, with only two left standing at production's end, and one of those a throwaway at the tail of the final reel), romance and adventure (with a theme loosely based on "The Prisoner of Zenda") one usually expects from a Mouse House blockbuster. Midway through the production, Disney execs, not enamored with what they'd seen of the project to date, threatened to pull the plug. The filmmakers scrambled to reconfigure the film as a comedy using the already developed layouts and characters generated for, but slated for minor roles in, the original story—specifically, the boy emperor Kuzco who becomes a llama and the old sorceress Yzma. Disney, still not convinced the eventual result was a winner, practically snuck it into theaters at Christmastime with little advance advertising (they were banking on the success of the live-action 102 Dalmatians).
But what happened to all of the animation that apparently was developed for Kingdom of the Sun? Why isn't any of it on this Collector's Edition for its value as a historic curiosity, if nothing else? And why does the DVD include only a two-sentence mention of KOTS by the filmmakers, and a mere handful of concept art slides? The world may never know.
Those who cut their teeth on the classic Looney Tunes shorts will love The Emperor's New Groove as the throwback to the days when "animation" meant "fun." Kids of all ages will laugh themselves silly at the comic brilliance of the voice actors here, and the nimble wit of David Reynolds's script. The additional content here isn't especially strong, but there's plenty of it, and everyone is sure to find elements that appeal to him or her. Worthy of a prominent place in every collection.
Everyone involved in this superfine groove is free to walk the llama llama out of the courtroom. This Judge's gavel goes "BOOM, baby!"
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