Skip to main content

Yay, I’m a llama again!

The Emperor’s New Groove
(2000)

(SPOILERS) Perhaps more Disney fare should be born of desperation, if this is the result. The Emperor’s New Groove came as a breath of fresh air after all those overly sincere, straight-arrow Disney Renaissance flicks (with the honourable exception of Hercules, but even then, its distinction is based more on Gerald Scarfe’s input than ingrained irreverence). You know, the ones with the perverse subliminal imagery the Mouse House claimed was an accident. The picture is remarkably cohesive in style and tone, all the more of a miracle given its production history. It’s the most fun you’ll have with a Disney flick since the Wolfgang Reitherman era. Which is to say, The Emperor’s New Groove feels less like a Disney movie than something Warner Bros might have come up with if making a feature-length Looney Tunes.

It’s no coincidence that the Disney Renaissance is commonly referenced as lasting from 1989 – 1999. And the classically animated picture directly following (if we ignore Fantasia 2000)? That’s right. The Emperor’s New Groove wasn’t an out-and-out bomb, but it seriously underperformed, given cost and expectations; the sunny side was its DVD afterlife, so successful that it spawned a direct-to-video sequel and a two-season series. Nevertheless, this was the first indication of the writing on the wall for a traditional 2-D, cell approach, destined to be slowly subsumed by Pixar and CGI. Subsequently, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet only hammered home the point.

One reaches the conclusion that the relative flippancy of The Emperor’s New Groove resulted from an any-thing-goes, Give-it-a-shot ethos with its roots in the unease over predecessors Pochantos and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both of which, while performing very respectably, failed to hit the highs of the triumvirate of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. As a result, the Roger The Lion King Allers’ project Kingdom of the Sun, which Michael Eisner approved with a glowing “It has all the elements of a classic Disney film” was made over by Mark Dindal. Dindal injected a hefty dose of Chuck Jones and threw Sting’s songs out on their ear (aside from two, one crooned by Tom Jones).

Allers’ concept was in part an Inca civilisation take on The Prince and the Pauper. Dindal streamlined it, keeping the transformation of young Emperor Kuzco (famed semi-functional adrenochrome addict David Spade) into a (superbly designed) llama. He threw out the role swapping and changed Kuzco’s peasant buddy – you know, the guy he begins at odds with but who helps make him a better person – into the older Pacha (John Goodman, replacing Owen Wilson). Dindal also backtracked on the Inca element, and added Patrick Warburton’s scene-stealing Kronk, sidekick to villainous, throne-grabbing “scary beyond all reason” Yzma (Eartha Kitt). The mechanics of the resultant plot and core relationship aren’t anything especially ground-breaking – par for the course, in fact – but the execution of The Emperor’s New Groove is something else entirely for the Mouse House.

Indeed, it should be noted that Goodman’s Pacha isn’t much of a character, and Spade only really lands when he’s a llama, and that mostly because the llama design is inherently funny (to wit, Kuzco, unaware of his transformation, screaming “Demon llama?! Where?!” to another llama, also screaming). But Dindel’s overall approach is irresistible, filled to the brim with asides and offbeat touches. Yzma’s mind’s eye plans are delivered in a completely different style to the main animation, which itself is much, much broader than Disney is used to. Why does Dindal pull back from the city at one point to a chimp sitting on a branch staring at a bug? Kuzco’s narrator would like to know too (“Um, what’s with the chimp and the bug?”)

Later, when we are up to speed, Kuzco the llama tells off his own voiceover for repeating the plot we already know. Following a madcap chase back to the palace, Kuzco and Pacha are astonished to discover Yzma has arrived first, to mutual mystification (“Well, you got me. By all accounts, it doesn’t make any sense”). Upon mistreating a squirrel, Kuzco finds himself in a nest of sleeping jaguars, only for the vengeful squirrel to reappear, swiftly making a balloon animal and revealing a pin with which to pop it. The climax revolves around the protagonists obtaining the correct transformation formula to restore Kuzco, during which a squad of Yzma’s guards become an assortment of creatures (“I’ve been turned into a cow. Can I go now?”) There’s even a classic farce drag scene, as Kuzco the llama poses as Pacha’s wife (“We’re on our honeymoon”).

Warburton is the big hit here, though. His deadpan delivery and lug-like character suggest he has walked in from Ren and Stimpy, as he burbles on blissfully in his own world about “My spinach puffs!”, interacts with little angel and devil selves on his shoulders, and shows himself to be entirely conversant in squirrel.

Do I mourn the loss of Kingdom of the Sun? Not at all. Since nothing in the Disney Renaissance is high on my list of Disney favourites. Plus, it says it all that Sting objected to Dindal’s cheekiness when Kuzco, instead of destroying Pancha’s village as initially planned, levelled a rainforest nearby to build Kuzcopia. I mean to say, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer may have caused him to crack up, but he is not exactly a laugh riot. For more on the original conception, and Sting’s involvement, there are bootlegs out there of the Disney-banned doc from his missus Trudi Styler on Kingdom of the Sun’s rise and fall.

On the strength of The Emperor’s New Groove, I’d have been eager to see whatever Dindal came up with next. Unfortunately, there’s been very little. Not as a director, at any rate. There was Chicken Little, Disney’s early foray into CGI, which was merely okay. Since then, a number of projects that have come to nothing. He’s attached to a new animated Garfield, so let’s hope he stays attached, as the property could do with a movie version that does the material justice (yes, I know it’s cool to hate on Garfield).

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.