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).

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.