When it was released in theaters 20 years ago this week, The Emperor’s New Groove marked the end of an era for Disney animation. After a decade of the so-called “Disney renaissance,” which produced massively successful musical epics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Mulan, The Emperor’s New Groove looked like a letdown, both creatively and commercially. It was a completely overhauled version of what was once intended to be another sweeping, majestic saga, from The Lion King co-director Roger Allers. It featured almost no musical numbers, no grand themes, no wide vistas. It underperformed at the box office and kicked off a period of mixed returns for Disney animated features.
The behind-the-scenes drama is a fascinating bit of Disney history (chronicled in the never-released documentary The Sweatbox, available only in illicit leaked versions online), but the movie itself is a joyful, hilarious lark, possibly the result of an anything-goes attitude after the collapse of the intended initial project, titled Kingdom of the Sun. Director and co-writer Mark Dindal, who took over the film after Allers’ departure, delivers a movie closer to the anarchic spirit of Looney Tunes than to the Disney template, full of throwaway jokes, limber character designs and self-aware references. The main character’s redemption arc is almost an afterthought, less important than goofy asides and absurd set pieces.
Even the voice casting subverts the Disney formula, with David Spade voicing main character Kuzco without tempering his familiar snide delivery. Spade might be cast as an annoying sidekick in a typical Disney musical production, but he’s far too snarky to play the lead in an earnest, message-focused fable (plus, he can’t sing). Spade’s Kuzco is the emperor of a vaguely Inca-like civilization (opening title cards merely label it as “Long ago, somewhere deep in the jungle …”), complete with his own snazzy theme song (sung by an animated Tom Jones) and total authority to do whatever he wants. He takes the position for granted, stamping kisses on babies and impulsively having anyone thrown out of the palace if they throw off his “groove.” So of course he needs to learn a lesson, and the movie dutifully teaches him to be a better person.
Kuzco is entirely aware of the movie’s efforts, though, opening the story by narrating a meme-worthy “record scratch, freeze frame ‘Yep, that’s me’” moment, as he’s sitting dejectedly in a downpour, somehow having been transformed into a llama. Kuzco periodically interrupts the movie to remind the audience of his sad predicament, and even at one point has a dialogue between his narrator self and his onscreen self. The self-referential style never undermines the sweetness of the burgeoning friendship between Kuzco and kind-hearted peasant Pacha (John Goodman), even as Kuzco finally decides not to raze Pacha’s village to build his waterslide-equipped summer home, Kuzcotopia.
Spade and Goodman have a relaxed buddy-movie chemistry, but the real voice stars of the movie are Eartha Kitt as villainous royal adviser Yzma (who’s responsible for Kuzco’s transformation, although she actually meant to kill him) and Patrick Warburton as her dim-witted, eager-to-please assistant Kronk. Yzma and Kronk are more hapless than threatening, really, which fits perfectly with the movie’s DGAF attitude. Kronk is fluent in squirrel, which apparently just involves variations of speaking the word “squeak,” and he has an equally dim-witted pair of imagined angel-and-devil advisers on his shoulders for difficult decisions. Warburton’s performance is a pure deadpan delight, and it’s no surprise that Kronk became the movie’s breakout character, even getting his own direct-to-video sequel, Kronk’s New Groove, in 2005.
Yzma is, well, Eartha Kitt, from her slinky form to her fabulous dresses to her husky voice, and she seems less power-hungry than just starved for attention. Her homicidal rage toward Kuzco is sometimes comically elaborate (as in her initial plan to turn him into a flea, put the flea in a box, put the box in another box, mail the box to herself, then smash it with a hammer) and sometimes amusingly quaint, easily derailed for awkward small talk or jump-rope games or overly detailed restaurant orders.
That restaurant scene, in which the equally imperious Yzma and Kuzco (disguised, Bugs Bunny-style, as a fancy lady) alternate delivering their food-substitution demands to Kronk, who has inexplicably taken over from the departing chef, is a full-on revolving-door farce, the kind of comedy that hearkens back to vaudeville and, of course, the vaudeville-influenced comedy of early Looney Tunes shorts. Like so much of the humor in The Emperor’s New Groove, it’s funny thanks largely to the filmmakers’ complete commitment to the bit, which goes on for several beats past where it appears it should end, making it even funnier.
With its musical numbers tossed out (aside from the opening Tom Jones theme song and a truly terrible leftover Sting ballad during the closing credits), The Emperor’s New Groove has room to be one of Disney’s few undiluted animated comedies, as opposed to a musical with occasional comedic elements. It’s an approach that rarely works for Disney animation, and the orchestral bombast of the renaissance-era films has returned in full force in recent hits like Frozen and Moana, as well as in the string of live-action remakes of Disney animated classics. But The Emperor’s New Groove is better off as an anomaly, a surprise for Disney fans to discover in between repeat viewings of iconic favorites. This movie will never get a live-action remake or a Broadway stage production, and that’s exactly how it should be.