For me, Disney's funniest animated movie. It's also one of the high points in their modern golden age that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and in my opinion ended with Lilo & Stitch in 2002. Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range are not golden. For calibration purposes, here's what I think of that run:
- 1. The Little Mermaid (1989) - all-time favourite film
- 2. Beauty and the Beast (1991) - deserved its Best Picture Oscar nomination
- 3. Aladdin (1992) - not my favourite, but keeping up the quality
- 4. The Lion King (1994) - I find it a bit silly, partly thanks to the idea that an African ecosystem can be almost parasitically dependent on the moral character of a lion, but it's trying really hard. Ten out of ten for ambition.
- 5. Pocahontas (1995) - ludicrous
- 6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) - like it a lot
- 7. Hercules (1997) - love it
- 8. Mulan (1998) - all-time favourite film
- 9. Tarzan (1999) - another good'un
- 10. The Emperor's New Groove (2000) - yes!
- 11. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) - not that bad, actually
- 12. Lilo & Stitch (2002) - obviously great
The Rescuers Down Under, Dinosaur and Fantasia 2000 don't count. However here I'm talking about The Emperor's New Groove.
Firstly, some background. This one had a messy production. It started out as a Roger Allers film called Kingdom of the Sun, much more in the vein of Allers's The Lion King. It was going to be dramatic rather than comedic and Yzma's evil plan was to plunge the world into darkness by stealing the sun. Sting wrote a bunch of songs for this version and you can find some of them on the film's official soundtrack CD, even though they're not in the final film. I particularly recommend Snuff Out The Light, sung by Eartha Kitt.
Anyway, this was going to be a "Prince and the Pauper" story in which the selfish emperor chose to swap places with a lookalike peasant. Disney's upper management weren't happy. The plot was old hat and test screenings weren't going well. They thus hired Mark Dindal and he started pulling the project in a more comedic direction, but Allers didn't deviate from his original vision. It was as if there were twin films in development. Eventually it became clear that Kingdom of the Sun was going to blow its release date, so there was a showdown and Allers quit. This nearly killed the project. However Fullmer saved it at the cost of a new title, a new storyline and almost none of Sting's songs. This is an almost song-free movie, although you'll love what little it does have.
So that's how the film came to be. What's it like?
The obvious keynote is "Looney Tunes". It's more frenetic and high-energy than usual for a Disney animated movie, with slapstick physical gags and an unusually cartoonish interpretation of the laws of physics. The sequence with Yzma, bees and feathers could only happen if Pacha's kids were really the Flash, for instance, but boy is it funny. People fall from insane heights and never die. Squirrels will make balloon animals and then pop them with cactus spikes. Translation: it's a joy to watch. If you don't laugh at this film, you're clinically dead. There's some serious comedy here.
However at the same time, you've got a stonking story. David Mamet called it one of the most brilliantly innovative scripts to come out of Hollywood around then. David Spade is Emperor Kuzco, a self-centred scumbag who will happily have pensioners defenestrated and entire villages destroyed because it seems like a laugh. The guy's a complete bastard. He's got all the humanity of Vlad the Impaler, but he's also great to watch because he's having so much fun doing it. I love the way in which he's oblivious to Kronk's attempts to poison him, for instance, because that would mean paying attention to someone other than himself. Obviously this is a Disney film and so we all know he's going to end up a better person, but the film's having such a ball with Evil Bastard Kuzco that even the slightest glimmerings of warmth are begrudged and fought every step of the way. In other words, it feels real. His redemption isn't lazy Disney nonsense, but instead hard-earned.
His new friend is Pacha (John Goodman), although "friend" is stretching it. Pacha's a nice guy. This isn't going to be easy for either of them. The only reason Kuzco doesn't have him executed on the spot is the fact that Eartha Kitt's staged a palace coup and turned him into a llama.
So those two are great. However no less important is something for which Disney's famous: its villains. In this case it's Yzma and Kronk. Firstly, we have Eartha Kitt. All hail. Words are insufficient. Secondly, we have thematic parallels with the Kuzco-Pacha relationship, in that Yzma is a selfish harridan while her sidekick Kronk's actually a people person. He plays with children, adores cooking and befriends squirrels. Come to think of it, Kronk's like the hidden secret weapon of The Emperor's New Groove. Everyone knows about all the obvious things to adore, but Patrick Warburton is making some intriguing choices as Kronk, playing him as bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and actually kind of sharp, despite the fact that we're introduced to him through Dumb Sidekick gags. Kitt and Warburton returned to their roles for a spin-off animated TV series, The Emperor's New School, and as far as I'm concerned that's a huge deal. I'm actually tempted to check it out, despite Disney's track record with spin-offs.
Incidentally, in real life Warburton is apparently massive. He's Kronk-sized. The producers of The Tick describe him as leaving a "crater" in their couch.
The film's design is more interesting than it looks, by the way. The high-energy animation style is a long way from Pocahontas and you're not exactly being invited to slow down and enjoy the scenery, but I appreciated how literally they're incorporating Aztec designs. Jaguars can be so stylised that they're practically pyramid paintings. Staircases are so steep that they're basically walls. You could be forgiven for not noticing since it's being filtered through the usual slick lines and bold colours you expect in this kind of animation, but I found it more visually striking than, say, how Disney used Gerald Scarfe's designs in Hercules.
The music's great, too. Partly it achieves this by being refreshingly absent, which was actually a first for Disney, but just let me say two words. Tom Jones. However I'm ignoring Sting's end theme, even though it was Oscar-nominated.
This is a terrific film. I'd even go so far as to call it brilliant. It's hilarious, it's got cool characters and it's got a massive voyage of self-discovery for a selfish little git. By Disney standards it's pushing the comedy a long, long way, making Sebastian's cartoon jaw-clang in The Little Mermaid look like Ingmar Bergman. There's nothing at all here I dislike and a ton of stuff I'm in love with. It's probably about halfway in that list of 1989-2002 Disney films I mentioned at the top of my review, but that's only because of the strength of the competition.
Wild horses couldn't make me watch Disney's straight-to-video sequel, though.