“The Emperor’s New Groove”, even as the title suggests, is something of an offbeat movie from Disney, especially given the heavy and realistic approach to “Dinosaur” that this film shared the box office with. This time it’s an all out comedy, the likes of which is best compared to television cartoon humor or even Muppet variety. The jokes, call back gags, modern references, fourth wall breaking, and everything else in this movie is there for one reason only, and that’s to earn a laugh.
It’s actually a refreshing change of pace, allowing an alternative to the high stakes and epic quality of some of the classic animated features of the Disney Renaissance. Compare this movie to, say, “The Little Mermaid”, and the differences are stark.
The story opens introducing the Emperor Kuzco, a young, self obsessed little monster of a ruler. Voiced by David Spade, his sarcasm and whiny attitude suit all the exaggerated character animations perfectly. His elderly advisor, Yzma (Eartha Kitt), is plotting to kill him and take the throne for herself. She’s accompanied by her moronic yet lovable goon, Kronk (hilariously voiced by the great Patrick Warburton), and their evil scheme goes awry when the poison is mixed up and changes the Emperor into a Llama.
Kuzco survives his assassination plot and ends up with a friendly villager named Pacha (John Goodman), whose village is planned for destruction so he can have a pool house. The two unlikely allies must then journey back to the palace and cure Kuzco of his curse.
Nothing is taken very seriously in this movie, and that applies to all aspects of the story. The villains are just as silly and over-the-top as the heroes, and there’s really nothing at stake, other than the Emperor’s appearance. Yzma taking over the kingdom is hardly a good or bad thing, since Kuzco was not exactly a kind ruler to begin with. Aside from killing the Emperor, there’s nothing diabolical about her goals. It’s not that she’s going to destroy the kingdom or turn its peasants into slaves; it’s only the goofy curse that needs to be undone. The real center point of the story comes from Kuzco learning to be less selfish and kinder towards others (at least a little). In that it works incredibly well, having a lot of fun and silly moments in almost every scene.
The animation is very flat and cartoony, making the look of the entire movie feel much like a Saturday morning affair. The jokes and their pacing match that quick style of humor as well, with nearly everything being meant as a gag. The villain lives in a crazy fun house where a rollercoaster escorts her to her science lab, a chase scene references the markings on a map which the characters then acknowledge shouldn’t be there in reality, and of course speaking to squirrels in their own language. There’s a lively sense of humor towards all things, but it doesn’t sacrifice what’s at the heart of the story, which is the friendship of Kuzco and Pacha.
The entire premise is really an excuse for a wacky buddy movie (there’s really no reason at all why this is set in South America), where two characters who initially don’t like each other become close after overcoming various trails together. It works as it is, given just enough so that it’s there and it matters, but not overdoing it in a forced injection of “heart”. The tone is set in stone, with the right amount of humor and silliness throughout.
There’s nothing ambitious about “The Emperor’s New Groove”, nothing at all. It’s just fun and comedic for the sake of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that.