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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).

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